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Conservation work begins on "Gone With The Wind" dresses with study of stitching and construction

By Elana Estrin

“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”

Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.

Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.

“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”

Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.

“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”

All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.

“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”

On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.

“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.

In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.

“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”

In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.

“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”

Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.

As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.

“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”

Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.

“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”

Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.

“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”

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Holiday hours at the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

While the Ransom Center will be closed for Thanksgiving Day, the galleries will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 26, and from noon to 5 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Vistors can see the current exhibition, Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, as well as The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible, which are on permanent display.

Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

The Reading Room will be closed on Friday, November 26, and Saturday, November 27, but will reopen on Monday, November 29.

Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ransom Center curators Steve Wilson (far left) and Jill Morena (second from right) discuss future collaboration with the University’s School of Human Ecology to analyze fiber content and the construction history of the green curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ University colleagues from Human Ecology include from left, Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel; Dr. Kay Jay, Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection; Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Director of the school; and Nicole Villarreal, Human Ecology graduate student. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center curators Steve Wilson (far left) and Jill Morena (second from right) discuss future collaboration with the University’s School of Human Ecology to analyze fiber content and the construction history of the green curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’ University colleagues from Human Ecology include from left, Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel; Dr. Kay Jay, Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection; Dr. Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Director of the school; and Nicole Villarreal, Human Ecology graduate student. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ransom Center photographer Anthony Maddaloni photographs the boxes of the final page proofs for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for an upcoming newsletter feature. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center photographer Anthony Maddaloni photographs the boxes of the final page proofs for James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for an upcoming newsletter feature. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair examines an original costume design by William Nicholson for the title role in ‘Peter Pan,’ first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1904. The drawing, located in the records of the London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co., was pulled for ‘Design Skills: Costume,’ a class in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Adair examines an original costume design by William Nicholson for the title role in ‘Peter Pan,’ first performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1904. The drawing, located in the records of the London costumier B. J. Simmons & Co., was pulled for ‘Design Skills: Costume,’ a class in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fellow Jeffrey McCarthy discusses collections that he is researching for “Green Modernism.” McCarthy, recipient of a fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, was one of five fellows that shared their research during an informal lunchtime discussion. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Fellow Jeffrey McCarthy discusses collections that he is researching for “Green Modernism.” McCarthy, recipient of a fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, was one of five fellows that shared their research during an informal lunchtime discussion. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Additional Bernard Malamud letters, typescripts acquired by Ransom Center

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center recently acquired additional collection material for its Bernard Malamud collection, including 285 letters and 10 typescript stories from Malamud to his literary agent. This new collection complements the Center’s existing collection of Malamud papers.

Malamud (1914–1986) was a novelist and short story writer, probably best known for his 1952 novel The Natural, which was adapted into a film in 1984 that starred Robert Redford.

In the new collection, the bulk of Malamud’s letters are addressed to his literary agent at Russell & Volkening, Diarmuid Russell. There are also three letters each to Henry Volkening and to Russell’s assistant, Connie Cunningham. In many of the letters, Malamud wrote his response on the bottom of the originals from contacts at Russell & Volkening and then returned them to the sender. Throughout his correspondence, Malamud discusses contracts, foreign editions, potential movie deals, money-matters, arranging meetings or visits, and sharing general updates about himself and his family. Various business documents are also included in the additional material.

In earlier letters, Malamud is more gregarious and “chatty,” divulging more about his work. In one letter from 1950, Malamud writes that he is hard at work on a new novel: “I’m writing a novel about a baseball player (not a baseball novel). It will deal with a man, an American hero, who does not understand what it means to be a hero […] I call the book THE NATURAL” (June 30, 1950). Though, by 1957, Malamud’s letters take on a more formal tone, shorter and more businesslike.

The collection also contains typescripts corrected in Malamud’s hand, including 23 pages of Zora’s Noise, which Malamud emended with pencil and ink and white-out, correcting grammatical errors. Three pages of a photocopied first draft of a biographical piece are also found in the collection.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

The Sweet Smell of Provenance

By Jennifer Tisdale

This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
Some books in the Ransom Center’s collections tell a story just by their smells. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram and literary scholar Edward L. Bishop explain how a copy of Ulysses, which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book’s history and its handlers. Learn more.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Ben Ruggiero sensitizes paper in preparation to create a photogenic drawing as part of 'The Colorful Print: Photography before 1843' workshop at the Ransom Center. Taught by artist-educators and historians Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman, participants made their own prints using 19th-century chemistry and techniques. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson (far left) led a tour of restricted-access areas of the building, including collection storage and the cataloging, technology, and conservation departments, for Ransom Center members at the Guild level and above. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.