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Behind the scenes: Conserving the “Gone With The Wind” dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

Tomorrow, the Harry Ransom Center presents a panel discussion to answer the question “How do you care for some of the most iconic costumes in film history?” at 7 p.m. in the Center’s Prothro Theater.

 

Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson leads a discussion on the preservation of Gone With The Wind costumes, including the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown, with independent textile conservator Cara Varnell, Ransom Center Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena, and independent scholar Nicole Villarreal.

 

This program is in conjunction with the current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, which features five costumes from the film and is on view through January 4.

 

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which enabled the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely on custom-fitted mannequins in the current exhibition.

 

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012. A description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available. View videos of conservation work in progress and interviews with curators and the conservator.

 

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Image: The conserved green curtain dress and hat worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Photo by Pete Smith.

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.

 

75 Days. 75 Years: Costume designer created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing

By Jennifer Tisdale

For 75 days, the Harry Ransom Center is raising funds for its 2014 exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. Opening on September 9, 2014, The Making of Gone With The Wind will reveal stories about the making of this quintessential film from Hollywood’s Golden Age and illustrate why it remains influential and controversial 75 years after it was released. Items from film producer David O. Selznick’s archive provide a behind-the-scenes look into the making of the film. Donations will help support outreach, additional exhibition tours, a published exhibition catalog, and complimentary programming and presentations.

 

Gone With The Wind (1939) costume designer Walter Plunkett was one of the first designers to work on the film. He began his work long before the parts were cast or the screenplay written, so he relied on descriptions of the characters from the novel for cues for the costume designs.

 

Plunkett began with detailed sketches. His wardrobe team then created patterns, made the garments, did fittings and alterations, and made changes as necessary after watching filmed tests.

 

During the production, Plunkett had to contend with producer David O. Selznick, changes in directors, and Technicolor advisors. Plunkett created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and thousands of extras.

 

In 1939, there was no costume design category at the Academy Awards. Selznick himself said that if there were, Plunkett would have won it for Gone With The Wind. Plunkett would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award ten times. In 1951, he was recognized by the Academy for An American in Paris. He shared the award with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.

 

The Making of Gone With The Wind will include over 300 original items from Selznick’s archive housed at the Ransom Center, including photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, and fan mail. The exhibition will also feature gowns worn by Vivien Leigh as the beautiful and ambitious Scarlett O’Hara. The newly conserved costumes will be displayed together for the first time in more than 25 years.

 

Image: Walter Plunkett’s costume design for the character India Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939.

Bloody costumes in De Niro collection present unusual challenge for conservation team

By Apryl Voskamp

Blood runs through the archive of renowned actor Robert De Niro. From bloodstained props to grisly costumes, artifacts of some of Hollywood’s most iconic thrillers are preserved at the Harry Ransom Center. Although the fake blood that marks these materials might share a similar chemical makeup, each bloody stain has its own secrets.

 

One such artifact is a shirt De Niro wore in a Cape Fear (1991) fight scene that has several gashes surrounded by fake blood. Twenty years later it is still sticky to the touch, which has posed complicated housing issues. The tackiness of the blood is what made this artifact a preservation challenge because traditional archival materials used to cushion textiles were adhering to—rather than protecting—the shirt. I learned that silicone-coated polyester film proved to be the best storage solution.

 

I learned that fake blood recipes vary depending on the specific effect a director or special effects supervisor aims for in a movie. For instance, in the film 15 Minutes (2001), the blood contained titanium oxide to give it an opacity that would photograph better. In the film Ronin (1998), the fake blood’s consistency enabled it to splatter from an explosive blood bag apparatus in the armpit of De Niro’s jacket.

 

These “bloody” artifacts have proven to be a puzzle to conservators and curators since knowing the makeup of these fake blood recipes poses issues when it comes to storing and exhibiting cinema history.

 

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Carson McCullers, Style Icon

By Jennifer Shapland

Costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center have the potential to create a unique portrait of an author or artist, and can aid in understanding the anatomy and mechanics of an actor’s performance. Graduate intern Jenn Shapland reflects on her experience of cataloging and examining objects in the Carson McCullers collection of personal effects. Complete records and images of all items in the Carson McCullers personal effects collection can be viewed online.

 

It might seem funny that an author’s fashion sense would even be a topic of discussion. What does it matter what a writer wears, so long as she writes? And yet, clothes, accessories, and everyday objects give us tangible, direct links to the past and to the people who wore them, used them, and kept them in their homes.

 

Personal style marks writers in revealing ways: it can be suggestive of time period, class, habits, or aesthetics. I think, perhaps, it distinguishes writers more than we realize. Consider Leo Tolstoy’s tunic and beard, Gertrude Stein’s long vests and cropped hair, David Foster Wallace’s bandana, Flannery O’Connor’s cat-eye glasses. Blame it on the cult of image that surrounds all contemporary celebrities, but these visual details help bring authors to life for readers. And personal style doesn’t just bring the writing to life. It makes the writer more human and more of a character all her own.

 

Carson McCullers is one writer whose personal style has had an unexpected influence on me. If you perform an image search for Carson McCullers or consult one the biographies of her that houses a set of glossy photo pages in the center, you’ll see that the woman had a unique sense of style. Often it looks like she cut her own hair, in renegade fashion. Possibly with pruning shears. She wore starched white shirts with enormous collars and cufflinks. She wore so many embroidered vests. She had a face, and a stare, and a pout to end all pouts.

 

Many readers know McCullers for her investment in the American South, but she doesn’t write about a South that might strike you as familiar. Instead, she represents the outsiders, the misfits, the kids who don’t belong. Her writing invites you into a realm where children can befriend adults but never seem to have parents—at least not parents who are paying attention. She introduces you to adolescents who find themselves at the center of complex legacies of racial and class conflict, which they navigate with remarkable insight and open-mindedness. Their world comes alive in the heat of never-ending Augusts, while McCullers’s characters swelter in endless boredom and daydream about Alaska or snowy Cincinnati. They rarely get to leave home, but they dream constantly of a life beyond or outside the small community that is all they know.

 

The personal effects formerly belonging to Carson McCullers at the Ransom Center are a curious array of objects and clothing. The objects, I like to imagine, were swept straight off her desk and into a box to be mailed to the Ransom Center’s door. They feel just as random—and just as talismanic—as that. Two cigarette lighters—one gold Zippo (engraved for Terrence McNally) and one mother-of-pearl desktop lighter that weighs at least three pounds; a curious statuette of a llama (a paperweight?); a handkerchief printed with a recipe for Irish Coffee; a torn straw hat; a pair of cream wool socks, worn on the soles.

 

It’s hard to account for these items. When I’m cataloging artifacts of everyday existence, it’s often unlikely that I’ll find any record to confirm the role these belongings played in the author’s life. Nonetheless, the objects spark my imagination. They provide a portrait of the writer that exists nowhere else. These are the things McCullers saw, perhaps daily, the things she touched, carried in her pockets. These are Carson McCullers’s pen refills. The packaging and labeling of consumer goods also tells us something about a historical moment through design, font choices, and pricing. And the objects of everyday life ground writers in the real, tangible world; these objects help stave off the common impulse to idolize authors.

 

McCullers’s clothes evoke the 1940s and 1950s more than anything else in the collection. Rich tweeds in teal and lime green; a deep burgundy shawl coat that looks Russian; unfathomable long-sleeved, collared nightgowns; elaborately embroidered jackets. There’s one piece that seems especially out of place: a gold lamé jacket with magenta lining that still has the price tags on it, from all those years ago. It looks like a gift never worn; or perhaps it belonged to McCullers’s mother, Marguerite Waters Smith. Marguerite’s passport is also part of the collection; it lists her profession as “housewife” and has no stamps in it.

 

McCullers’s fiction comes alive through objects and through clothing, which makes her collection of personal effects that much more telling. When I think of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), I think of Mick’s refusal to wear anything but shorts, even when she is expected to wear dresses. I think of Frankie in The Member of the Wedding (1946) and her adamant bowl cut. I picture the strange motor that she keeps on her dresser and switches on when she’s bored. Or the heinous-sounding bright orange dress she picks out for her brother’s fateful wedding. Details of objects, fashions, clothing, and garments ground McCullers’s fiction in a richer, more vibrant imaginary world, one replete with the textures of our own. McCullers brought the aesthetic of her work into her daily life with clothing and objects, and vice versa. Everyday things are an enormous part of a person’s identity; in many ways, if you think about it, they assemble who we are and what we do.

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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).