Scarlett’s Gowns: Gone With The Wind Costume Restoration
Everything about Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film Gone With The Wind is iconic. Walter Plunkett’s costumes for Vivien Leigh’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, are no exception. In 2010, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin embarked on a remarkable campaign to restore and conserve the costumes from the film in preparation for their 75th Anniversary Exhibition in the Fall of 2014. They received more than $30,000 from people in 44 states and from 13 countries during their fundraising efforts. From the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2012, they worked on five of Leigh’s costumes: the Burgundy Ball gown, the Green Curtain dress, the Green Velvet Dressing gown, Blue Velvet peignoir, and the Wedding Dress Veil.
In 1938, when production for the film was being planned, costume designer Walter Plunkett asked for and was given the task of designing the more than 5,000 costume and wardrobe items for the film. Leigh’s costumes directly portray her characters motivations in every scene, giving the audience a deeper sense of appreciation for her and for the costumes. Prior to arriving at the HRC, as part of the David O. Selznick Archive, the collection of costumes had been on extensive promotional tours and exhibitions. The costumes had begun to show signs of wear and were in a delicate state. The restoration process was led by independent conservator Cara Varnell, who specializes in Hollywood costume restoration, and oversaw more than 180 hours of work to stabilize the costumes.
Two of the five costumes, the Blue Velvet Peignoir and the Wedding Dress Veil, that will be part of the anniversary exhibition are too delicate and fragile to be moved, and so reproductions will be displayed. The tulle of the veil has become very brittle, as the fibers are starting to break down, thus disintegrating upon touch. The decision was made not to treat the veil, but to stabilize and preserve it. A sound decision, keeping in mind that the goal of conservation is to maintain the integrity of the artifact.
The Green Curtain Dress might just be the most iconic costume in Hollywood history. This gown symbolizes Scarlett’s need to survive, even through the means of ruthless family maneuvering. In the film, the dress is a lush green, but today the colour has turned to a more woodsy green. Considering that the fibers are still in excellent condition, this left Varnell and her team baffled. They think the explanation for this might be that the dress was at some point sprayed with Sudol, a disinfectant much like Lysol. The dress might have been sprayed prior to entering foreign countries during some of the promotional tours and a note saying it was sprayed was stitched into the dress.
Plunkett, who was know for his meticulous research and detail regarding his period costumes, had a little bit of fun in designing some of Leigh’s more extravagant outfits. The Green Velvet Dressing Gown is such a case. This gorgeous gown of green silk velvet, heavy with embellishments and embroidery, with its floor length sleeves is more in the style of medieval aristocrats rather than late 19th century. Due to the weight of the gown, four of the silk seams were starting to fray, and Varnell restored these by giving them additional support. At this point the gown is still intact, but over time the gown will slowly start to come apart, due to the aging fibers.
Varnell and her team faced many challenges in returning the Burgundy Ball gown back to Plunkett’s original vision. At some point in time, Leigh’s most lush gown of the film was given additional ostrich feathers around the shoulder area, but unfortunately these were fake feathers. The gown is of silk velvet, with jeweled and glass beads throughout the gown and real feathers. Varnell had the painstaking job of identifying and removing the fake feathers. Another issue with the gown was the dress weights in the train. These weights were necessary for the train to trail properly, but over time their weight caused damage to the hem. It was decided to remove the weights, but being an archival artifact, their exact placement and location in the dress was catalogued, while the weights themselves were stored in archival envelopes and placed in an archival box that is stored with the gown. Due to the success of the meticulous restoration work, the Burgundy Ball Gown and the Green Curtain Dress were on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum during their “Hollywood Costume” exhibit which ran from October 2012 to January 2013.