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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.

Holiday hours at the Ransom Center

By Marlene Renz

The Ransom Center will be closed on Christmas Eve Day (Wednesday, December 24) and Christmas Day (Thursday, December 25). However, the Ransom Center Galleries will be open the rest of winter break on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Additional member-only hours will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sunday.

 

Visitors can view the current exhibitions The Making of Gone With The Wind as well as Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and HummingbirdThe Making of Gone With The Wind will be open through January 4. The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Please also be aware that the Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office will be closed during the University holidays from Saturday, December 20, through Thursday, January 1.

 

Free docent-led gallery tours occur daily at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on the closed days of Wednesday, December 24 or Thursday, December 25.) The public tours meet in the south atrium, and no reservations are required. On weekends, a selection of screentests from Gone With The Wind will be shown in the Ransom Center’s first-floor theater at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

 

Admission is free. Your donation will support the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

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Image: Scene concept for “Christmas at Aunt Pittypat’s in Atlanta” in Gone With The Wind.

Thanksgiving weekend hours at the Ransom Center

By Marlene Renz

Please be aware that the Ransom Center will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.  However, the Ransom Center Galleries will be open on Friday, November 28, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 29, and Sunday, November 30. Additional member-only hours will be available from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sunday.

 

Visitors can view the current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind as well as Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Free docent-led gallery tours will occur daily at noon and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The public tours meet in the south atrium, and no reservations are required.  A selection of screentests from Gone With The Wind will be shown in the Ransom Center’s first-floor theater on weekends at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.

 

Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

The Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office will be closed on Thursday, November 27, and Friday, November 28, and will reopen on Monday, December 1.

 

Share your love of film, literature, and photography this year by giving a gift membership to the Ransom Center. Purchase online or at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk.

 

Image: Norman Bel Geddes draws a concept for a  Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float, ca. 1926. Unidentified photographer.

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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