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Mildred Blount: “Milliner to the Stars!” and designer of hats for “Gone With The Wind”

By Jill Morena

Much behind-the-scenes work on Gone With The Wind and the people who performed that work continues to remain largely unknown outside the production sites of the 1939 film. The story of an African American milliner was recently brought to my attention through an email query—had I heard about the woman who designed Scarlett O’Hara’s hats? A link to a video on YouTube, telling the story of Mildred Blount—“Milliner to the Stars!”—was included in the message. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more.

 

John Frederics, a New York–based milliner (who later changed his professional name to John P. John, and is perhaps better known through the company, Mr. John, Inc.), was the creative side of the partnership of the company John-Fredericks. Frederics had always been credited with making Scarlett O’Hara’s hats, although he received no onscreen credit. Mildred Blount, who had been making headgear since childhood and continued honing her skills as a young woman working in various shops in New York City, applied for a job with John–Fredericks and got the position.

 

An article on Blount in Ebony magazine in 1946 described the scenario: “It took courage for her to ring the bell at John Frederics in answer to their ad for a learner, for this was the royalty of America’s hatters. They were taken aback. No Negro had ever applied before. Yes, she assured them she had talent. All she asked was a chance. P.S.—She got the job.” The article continues: “Her exhibit of hat miniatures at the N.Y. World’s Fair attracted the attention of Mrs. David Selznick, and ultimately landed John Frederics the pot-of-gold assignment of the day—milliners to the tremendous cast of Gone With The Wind. Mildred did most of the work, although the credit line went to her employers.” This begged the question, who really made the hats for Scarlett O’Hara? John Frederics or Mildred Blount?

 

Negotiations between Selznick and John Frederics began hurriedly in January 1939 and were fraught and arduous. Found in the Selznick collection are many memos and telegrams discussing the terms desired by Frederics and Selznick’s commitment to keep the arrangement to SIP’s (Selznick International Pictures) economic advantage. Selznick was adamant about refusing screen credit for John Frederics, Inc., and Frederics was concerned with being compensated fairly for his time and reaping publicity benefits. After much back-and-forth between SIP and Frederics—and a lucrative commercial tie-in deal for SIP with a manufacturer, recommended by Frederics, to make commercial copies of the hats—a contract was agreed upon and signed on January 13, 1939.

 

John Frederics had pointed out the impossibility of executing hats “satisfactorily, especially when the picture is in color, 3,000 miles away.” A train compartment was swiftly booked for John Frederics to travel to Los Angeles, and he arrived at SIP set on January 20. Frederics optimistically estimated that he could finish 15 hats in two or three days; he stayed in Los Angeles for nearly a month. By the end of his 26-day stay, he had completed 12 hats, including the curtain dress hat (“Scarlett #13″). He was brought back (following another contentious negotiation) in April to make 10 more hats for Scarlett and other characters, including Melanie Wilkes and Belle Watling.

 

While it cannot be accurate that Irene Selznick saw Blount’s miniature hats at the World’s Fair that spring or summer and recommended John Frederics to Selznick (as he was already considered for the job in December 1938), it is very likely that Mildred Blount created Scarlett’s hats for the “Honeymoon” sequences in New York. Frederics was unable to complete his work on Scarlett’s hats during his second trip to Los Angeles in April–May 1939 and agreed to make the remainder of the hats at his New York studio.

 

In addition, Blount very likely had a hand in choosing materials and working with Frederics on the designs for the first round of Scarlett’s hats in New York. In one memo, Frederics asks that sketches and fabric swatches be sent to New York in advance of his January trip to Los Angeles so that he could purchase or choose the bulk of the materials in New York, which he preferred to the Los Angeles market. Between January 13 when the contract was signed and January 19 when he arrived in Los Angeles, Frederics had to work at lightning speed to get his materials and design ideas in order, and it’s very unlikely he did this alone.

 

As the production history of Gone With The Wind makes clear, the concept of the lone genius working in isolation, be it producer, designer, or director, is a myth. The talents of many people working on the production often did not receive recognition in print. However, Blount’s design legacy shows that she remains anything but anonymous. Her talents and reputation continued to soar while creating for John Frederics, Inc.. She left John Frederics, Inc. and founded her own eponymous label in Los Angeles by the mid-1940s, designing for Hollywood actresses as well as private clients, including Gloria Vanderbilt and Marian Anderson. She continued to work until her death in 1974. Her hats can be found in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the California African American Museum.

 

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Behind-the-scenes: Customizing a mannequin, from legs to limbs, to display a World War I uniform

By Jill Morena

Presenting a costume or historical clothing on a mannequin may seem deceptively simple at first glance. Yet there is rarely an instance of a mannequin, standardized or made-to-measure, that is ready to use “out-of-the-box.” Each area of the body—shoulders, torso, arms, legs, and feet—must be customized and often requires several fittings with the garment. This is similar to the process of fitting a made-to-order garment to a human body, although in this case the process is reversed as the mannequin must be shaped and conform to the garment.

 

A World War I uniform, from the collection of the Texas Military Forces Museum and currently on display in The World at War, 1914–1918, presented us with a particular challenge. The physique of most modern, full-body mannequins is too tall, muscular, and athletic for early twentieth-century clothing and footwear. The size of the mannequin must always be smaller than the measurements of the costume to allow for supportive padding and to prevent any stress or strain on the costume when dressing or on display. We made the decision to pad up an adolescent/teenage dress form that was already in our inventory and to construct realistic-looking legs, a crucial element in presenting the ensemble successfully.

 

This was our first time to use Fosshape, a polyester polymer material often used for theater costume design or millinery. Textile conservators have recently explored and used Fosshape for museum display, and we decided to use this flexible, adaptable material to construct the legs. An approximate tapered “leg” shape was cut, sewn, and placed over the calves and ankles of a full-body mannequin to get a realistic leg shape. When steam heat is applied to the Fosshape, it reacts, shrinks, and hardens to the shape of the mold beneath.

 

Because the leg dimensions of this particular mannequin were too large to safely fit through the narrow hem of the uniform jodhpurs, we had to “take in” the legs to a smaller circumference, while still retaining an accurate calf and knee shape. Because the definition was lessened somewhat, we made “knee” and “calf” pads to help support and define the shape of these areas. Additional Fosshape pieces were created and steamed to provide more structure and interior support.

 

The legs were adjusted accordingly and covered with a smooth polyester fabric to aid with dressing, and pieces of velcro were sewn to the inside of the Fosshape legs and the exterior of the mannequin legs for easy attachment.

 

Arm patterns, taken from an excellent resource on mannequin creation and modification, A Practical Guide to Costume Mounting by Lara Flecker, were modified to fit the length and curvature of the jacket’s arms. Once sewn, the arms were filled with soft polyester batting and sewn to the mannequin’s shoulders. The chest and back were padded out where needed, and a flesh-colored finishing fabric was cut, sewn, and secured to the mannequin’s neck.

 

The final crucial details were aligning and orienting two twin silver mannequin stands so that they would reflect a natural body stance once the legs and boots were placed. Additionally, the stands were covered with a matte black fabric, so the high shine of the silver bases would not distract from the uniform. Once the stand was correctly aligned and covered, dressing the mannequin could begin.

 

Constructing, modifying, or dressing a mannequin is never a solitary endeavor. This entire process was a collaboration between the curator of costumes and personal effects and conservation and exhibitions staff. Colleagues Mary Baughman, Ken Grant, Apryl Voskamp, and John Wright were invaluable with their help and expertise.

 

Top image: World War I uniform on display in Ransom Center’s exhibition The World at War, 1914-1918. Photo by Pete Smith. Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Robert De Niro’s “Silver Linings Playbook” costume ensemble on view

By Jill Morena

Robert De Niro received his seventh Academy Award® nomination for his supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The Ransom Center holds De Niro’s collection of papers and costumes and props, which includes materials from each of his nominated roles in Cape Fear (1991), Awakenings (1990), Raging Bull (1980), The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Godfather Part II (1974). De Niro won Oscars® for his leading role in Raging Bull and his supporting role in The Godfather Part II.

One of the costume ensembles worn by De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook is on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby, alongside his character’s television remote controls and Philadelphia Eagles handkerchief. Below, Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena writes about the importance of costumes and props to actors.

One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Costumes and props aid an actor to arrive at the mental and physical place of inhabiting and expressing the character he or she is portraying. They can also help illuminate the physical aspect and embodiment of performance.

In director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro plays Pat Solitano, Sr., a passionate Philadelphia Eagles fan who is struggling to reconnect with his troubled son, Pat Jr., and support his family with a bookmaking enterprise after losing his job. Costume designer Mark Bridges chose and modified clothing that would express Pat Sr.’s lifelong love of the Eagles. He imagined and selected clothing pieces that Pat Sr. would have worn and cherished through the years, such as this classic cardigan in the team color, green, to which Bridges added a patch representing a vintage Eagles logo.

The television remote controls are Pat Sr.’s game day talismans, which he deploys with anxious precision. They must be arranged in particular configurations or held by certain “lucky” persons, with the belief that the Eagles will prevail if these actions are followed. The Eagles handkerchief is held firmly by Pat Sr. throughout the game, or placed over the remote controls. Pat Jr. overtly expresses that Pat Sr. suffers from OCD and takes game day superstitions too far. The film implies that Pat Sr.’s obsessions may have been the genesis of Pat Jr.’s own mental health struggles.

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R. Colin Tait, a PhD candidate and University Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).

What was the repair process after removing weights from the "Gone With The Wind" burgundy gown?

By Jill Morena

The Ransom Center has begun conservation work on the gowns from Gone With The Wind, and readers can follow the progress of the project on the Center’s website. Cultural Compass solicited questions from readers, and staff will answer a few of those questions in the coming weeks on this blog. Below, Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center, answers a question about the repair process after the conservation team removed weights from the burgundy ball gown.

Question: Can you explain the repair process; i.e., how did you go about re-stitching the casings for the weights?  (type of thread, hand- or machine-stitched?)  Does that type of “tampering” significantly affect the item’s value?  Or is the trade-off worth it in terms of the efforts to arrest further harm?

What kind of a background do conservators have to be competent in textile preservation such as this?

Answer: When a garment enters a museum or archive’s collection, the balance between preservation and access becomes an ongoing discussion. The garment has passed out of the private sphere and into a public institution, so questions of value shift from monetary and market value to cultural value and long-term preservation. It is the institution’s charge to preserve the garment for future generations and to make items available for public view. The institution must consider these two aims and continually make decisions that allow a garment to have a “second life.” The institution must make the preservation, condition, and longevity of the garment a top priority.

Conservator Cara Varnell’s remark, “this girl’s never dancing again,” alludes to the archival second life of the dress that Vivien Leigh once wore. It is no longer being worn or used, and yet the gown is not lifeless; it still retains traces of the former wearer in physical form on the fabric, indeed in the knowledge that Vivien Leigh, a celebrated actress, once wore the gown.

Removing original material from a museum or archival item is a choice that is not taken lightly, and it is often in the best interests of the item’s “well-being.” Weights were removed from the burgundy ball gown because the strain created by their heaviness caused small holes at the waistline and hemline. Packing and unpacking from storage containers also places strain on the garment. Removal of the weights decreases the likelihood of damage to the gown when it is handled, dressed, and displayed.

Removing the weights was a preservation-motivated task that is also reversible. Only the smallest amount of thread was removed, just enough to slip the weight out from the bottom of its cloth compartment. We kept the weights and documented exactly where and how they were removed. If for any reason in the future it is decided that the weights should be returned to their compartments, there is a clear map for doing so.

If stitches or sewing of any kind is needed for a conservation treatment on a historical garment, it is usually done by hand. Conservators learn a variety of stitches, and their choice of stitch and the type of thread depends upon the condition of the garment, its construction and fabric, and the intended goals of the treatment.

Conservators specialize in a variety of mediums, including books, paper, photographs, paintings, and textiles. Conservators must have a strong background in science and the humanities, fulfill many volunteer hours at archives or museums before they can apply to a graduate program, hold an advanced degree with courses in their area of specialization, and complete years of apprenticeship under an experienced mentor. For more information about conservators and their work, visit the website of The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the professional organization for conservators in the United States.

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