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"The Journals of Spalding Gray": An interview with editor Nell Casey

By Kelsey McKinney

Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.
Page from Spalding Gray journal, which spans from February to April 1990.

Spalding Gray was an actor, performer, and writer. He appeared on Broadway in various one-man shows and is widely accredited with the invention of the autobiographical monologue.  His archive, recently acquired by the Ransom Center, is composed of more than 100 private journals that span more than 40 years of Gray’s career. Nell Casey, editor of the book The Journals of Spalding Gray, which was released today, distilled the mass of journal entries into a portrait of the man behind the magnetic performer who ended his life in 2004. Cultural Compass spoke with Casey about her interest in Gray, the surprising notes she found in the journals, what she admires about his work, and more.

Casey’s interaction with Gray began in 1992 when, after moving to New York, she wrote one of her first magazine articles about him. After Gray’s death, Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow, created the play Leftover Stories to Tell, which told the story of Spalding Gray’s life through excerpts from his monologues and journals.  Casey interviewed Russo for The New York Times and says that the journal entries that appeared in the play were “incredibly beautiful.”

“One of the things about the play was that with other people reading [Gray’s] work you got a sense of his incredible talent as a writer,” said Casey.  “When I saw the play and the writing was taken out and away from him and other people were reading it, I realized that his writing was a talent that had been sort of overshadowed by his personality and performance.”

When Russo approached Casey to ask if she would be interested in writing a book about Gray, Casey enthusiastically agreed. She had always loved Gray’s work. Her first step was to read the journals. Initially, she was concerned that the material found in the journals would be repetitive of what Gray himself told in his monologues.  What she found was anything but.

“[The journals] are this incredible under life and sea of experience that he had not included in his monologues, and part of that experience was the struggle he had,” said Casey.

The writings are so raw and intimate that Casey says she was “caught off guard by almost every journal entry.” On paper, Gray reveals himself as a more extreme version of the person he portrays in his monologues. Casey describes him as a self-reflective narcissist with a broad sense of himself.

“He had this unbelievably broad sort of analytic and therapeutic sense of himself, so he could explore himself, even though he could not stop himself from actions that were very self-destructive and brutal,” said Casey.“The monologues are where he found perspective. The journals were where he showed himself to be completely lost.”

While Gray’s entries do correspond to his monologues, his writings are not for performance but for his life. Casey says, “There is some similarity, but you see in the journals that he just hasn’t gotten his footing yet.”

The themes present in his monologues come up in the book, but they are explored more deeply. As Casey read through the thousands of journal entries, she found that there were very specific themes: his drinking, his narcissism, his performance, his struggle with relationships, his mother’s suicide, and his fantasy life. These themes acted as a guide to help Casey winnow the mass of information into a chronological account of Spalding Gray’s private life.

Above all, Casey says that her years with Gray’s journals have led her to admire him for his writing. She admires it for “its beauty but also for the incredible, tender, searching thought that went into what he wanted to find in life.” Gray’s quest for truth was relentless.  “Honesty is really guesswork, isn’t it?” Casey questioned, quoting British editor and writer Diane Athill.

“The point being, what is truth?” Casey says. “Your own truth is just a stab in the dark, and I admire Spalding Gray for his endless attempts at trying to find his truth.”

“We have lost Gray,” Casey writes in her introduction to the journals, “but there is still more for him to tell us.”

The New York Times recently published an article containing excerpts from the journals.

Nell Casey is the editor of Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Elle, and Glamour. The Journals of Spalding Gray, edited by Nell Casey is published by Alfred A. Knopf and available for purchase October 18, 2011.

Related posts:

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

Spalding Gray’s life as told by…Spalding Gray

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Dale Rapley, of Actors From The London Stage, performs at Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Dale Rapley, of Actors From The London Stage, performs at Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center’s Audio-Visual Equipment Technician Jason MacLeod runs the audio for Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center’s Audio-Visual Equipment Technician Jason MacLeod runs the audio for Wednesday’s Poetry on the Plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate student Adriane Pudom examines Frank Shay’s bookshop door in the Center’s current exhibition 'The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925'. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate student Adriane Pudom examines Frank Shay’s bookshop door in the Center’s current exhibition 'The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925'. Photo by Pete Smith.
Afternoon sun shines through the north atrium’s etched windows. Photo by Pete Smith.
Afternoon sun shines through the north atrium’s etched windows. Photo by Pete Smith.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard’s wit

By William Demastes

Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”
Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London’s Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.”

Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent  June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.

When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.

I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.

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.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

Gown of a different feather: Conservators investigate feathers on the burgundy gown from "Gone With The Wind"

By Elana Estrin

The burgundy ball gown Scarlett wears to Ashley’s birthday party in Gone With The Wind is meant to be provocative (“not modest or matronly,” Rhett snarls) yet glamorous. But when the gown arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, something wasn’t quite right.

“It looked more like a dance-hall girl, a cartoon character, as opposed to how beautiful this dress really was,” says Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who is conserving the five Gone With The Wind dresses housed at the Ransom Center.

Varnell quickly realized that the discrepancy was due to unoriginal feathers that someone added to the dress at some point between the film’s production and the dress’s arrival at the Ransom Center. Varnell says that the film provides an essential clue verifying that someone did, in fact, add feathers: jewels decorating the feathers on Scarlett’s sleeve are visible in the film, but replacement feathers block these jewels today.

Several clues led Varnell to distinguish the original ostrich feathers from the unoriginal ostrich feathers. The biggest clue was that the original feathers curl at the ends but the replacements do not. Varnell discovered that threads attached to each feather’s shaft created a slight bend, curling the feather. A second clue was color: the original feathers are blue burgundy, whereas the replacement feathers are red burgundy. Texture was a third clue: the original feathers are thicker and fluffier than the replacements. Lastly, the sewing thread affixing the replacement feathers doesn’t match the thread used for the original feathers.

All of these unoriginal feathers raise the question: why were replacement feathers added in the first place? Since the elastic straps had stretched out over time, Varnell posits that someone added feathers because it seemed like the straps were missing more feathers than they actually were. Another possibility is that someone added feathers to cover up original feathers that weren’t “perky” anymore.

Upon examination, Varnell determined that one such feather lost its perk because it broke at the point where it was sewn to the gown. After six hours mending the feather with three layers of Japanese tissue, acrylic archival adhesive, and polyester filament, Varnell will be able to reattach the feather to the gown.

So far, Varnell has removed seven unoriginal feathers because they were damaging the gown. One of these feathers was covering a stitch placed much higher than it should have been, making the bustle almost asymmetrical. Once Varnell removed the feather, it was clear where the stitch should be placed instead to fix the bustle.

As they stabilize the gown, the conservation team is discussing future options, including the fate of the feathers.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

 

 

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" collection donated to Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Lobby poster for the Broadway production of 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.'
Lobby poster for the Broadway production of 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.'

The Harry Ransom Center  has received a donation of a collection of materials from husband-wife duo actress Carlin Glynn and writer and director Peter Masterson relating to their careers and their work on the original Broadway production and film of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The collection consists of eight document boxes of materials, half of which relate to the 1978 musical. The musical was directed by Masterson, who also co-authored the book with Larry L. King. Carol Hall wrote the lyrics for the musical. The stage musical starred Glynn as Mona Stangley, the owner of a brothel in the fictional town of Gilbert, Texas. The show ran for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway, toured extensively and was adapted to film in 1982.

“We chose the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin to house our film and theatrical works and memorabilia, as so much of it is fueled by our Texas roots,” said Glynn and Masterson. “The Ransom Center is the leading theatrical and cinematic archive and will display our work properly so that it may be of value to future generations.”

The collection tracks the musical from its genesis to its stage performance and film adaptation through multiple versions of the stage and film script, publicity photographs, correspondence and financial documents related to the premiere, documents related to the West End production and other touring productions, and correspondence related to the development of the film script.

Weights removed from red burgundy dress from "Gone With The Wind" to prevent damage

By Elana Estrin

“Wear that!” spits Rhett Butler, throwing a burgundy ball gown at Scarlett. “Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion.”

When the provocative burgundy gown from Gone With The Wind arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s, lead weights lining the back hem had torn parts of the dress. Cara Varnell, a conservator specializing in Hollywood film costumes who is currently conserving the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses, explains that the weights are an example of inherent vice: the studio costume department included the weights to make the dress hang and move properly, but over time the weights ended up tearing parts of the dress. To prevent further damage, Varnell and the conservation team decided that the weights had to go.

“This girl’s never dancing again, so the dress doesn’t need to train properly,” Varnell said. “But what we do care about is that it’s pulling on the center of the dress. Dress weights are very common, and, while I don’t approach it casually, I often remove the weights in most of the couture dresses I work with because they’re usually pulling on the fabric.”

To remove the weights, the team enlisted the help of three Costume Studies master’s degree students at New York University: Lauren Lappin, Jennifer Moss, and Laura Winslow. Before removing the weights, the students worked with Ransom Center Book Conservator Mary Baughman to create compartments for storing the weights. They used one machine to heat seal the edges of two strips of transparent polyester film, and they used an ultrasonic machine to separate the strips into individual compartments. They then labeled the compartments with each weight’s location on the gown’s hem.

Once the compartments were ready, the students took turns removing the thread from the bottom of the weight pockets. Switching between tweezers and the flat blade of small scissors, they gently lifted the thread from the fabric, removed the thread, then slid the weights out of their pockets and into their Mylar compartments. Once all the weights were in their designated compartments, Baughman and the students went back to the welding machines to seal the top.

After devising compartments, removing the weights, and placing the removed weights in their designated compartments, the conservation team helped the burgundy ball gown lose some weight.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

By Christine Lee

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as “what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

Conservation efforts begin on five "Gone With The Wind" costumes

By Elana Estrin

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Last summer, more than 600 Gone With The Wind enthusiasts from all over the world donated  $30,000 to the Ransom Center to preserve five dresses from the film.

When we last reported on this project in November 2010, Nicole Villarreal, a Textiles and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, was working on a preliminary study of the green curtain dress. Seven months later, Villarreal has completed an extensive record of the costume’s every seam, stitch, and thread. Villarreal found that the underbodice and jacket are in overall good condition, but the skirt and waistband need the most attention.

Textile conservator Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes, will use Villarreal’s report when she works on conserving the curtain dress and the four other Gone With The Wind dresses from the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection.

“We never have the luxury of working on an object to this depth,” Varnell said. “We normally get ‘em in, get ‘em out. This is the juicy fun of it.”

The conservation team has identified several mysteries they are hoping to solve about the curtain dress.

“This is like Bones and CSI. This is our own forensics investigation,” Varnell says. “Two of the mysteries are critical to answer because they’re relevant to the conservation. And there are other mysteries not critical to the conservation which we may not solve, but the speculation is the fun of it.”

One of the two critical mysteries is which threads are original and which are not. Original stitching is considered to be the work done by the studio costume department, realizing costume designer Walter Plunkett’s intent. Stitches made outside of the film’s production are not considered original. In her report, Villarreal noted the different types of stitches and thread used on every inch of the dress. Varnell, who is very familiar with the techniques and aesthetics of Hollywood studio work, will now use this information to determine which stitches are most likely original and which are not so that she knows which stitches she can and cannot remove as she tends to the dress. Varnell says this mystery is critical to solve for the curtain dress’s waistline since excess stitching is putting the waistline under stress.

“With my background in the conservation of Hollywood costumes, I’ve looked at so many costumes from the period. I can tell what’s studio finish and what’s not. There are several rows of machine stitching on the waistline that don’t make sense. There are extensive alterations and it’s not clear when or why they were done,” Varnell says, adding that she will carefully remove the rows which she determines were not original stitching. “We want to maintain the integrity of the dress as it was originally intended and to honor the piece as best as we possibly can.”

The second critical mystery is the discoloration on three of the five dresses: the green curtain dress, the green velvet dressing gown, and the blue peignoir with fox trim. Light can cause discoloration, but since light often leaves fibers brittle and there’s no difference in the fragility of the faded and unfaded fibers, light is not likely to be the sole cause of the discoloration. To solve this mystery, Villarreal plans to analyze the fabric using equipment from the Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab, including a spectrometer and a Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS) developed by Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin.

“What’s great about the Fiber Image Analysis System is that it’s non-invasive. You can test the fabric without destroying any fibers, which is huge because you usually have to destroy some small amount of fiber with this kind of in-depth analysis,” Varnell said.

A possible explanation for the discoloration, and a mystery in itself, is a label in the curtain dress that reads, “Sprayed with Sudol.” After much investigation, the conservation team determined that Sudol is a phenol disinfectant similar to Lysol, and it may have affected the rate and nature of discoloration on the velvet. But questions still remain: if Sudol caused discoloration, why is only the outside of the dresses discolored and not the inside? Since three of the five dresses are discolored, why is there a Sudol label only in the curtain dress? Why did someone spray the curtain dress with Sudol in the first place and why did he or she feel compelled to label it? One possible explanation is that when the curtain dress went on promotional tours, called “exploitation tours,” to movie theaters, department stores, and special events all over the world, the dress may have been sprayed before entering another country.

Two of the more fun, less conservation-related mysteries are a wire hoop running along the front of the curtain dress’s hem and four rows of twill tape on the dress’s interior connecting the skirt panels together. Neither seems to have been in the dress during filming, so it’s unclear when and where the hoop and twill tape were added.

“If you look at the movie stills, the skirt is bell-shaped. But if you look at the dress now, the twill tape makes it more of an A-line skirt. Also, the front hem of the dress doesn’t have an undulating wave in the movie stills, but it does now with the hoop in it.” Villarreal says.

Since the movie stills indicate that neither the wire hoop nor the twill tape are likely to be original, the conservation team may decide to remove both, though the Ransom Center will keep the wire and twill tape documented and stored at the Ransom Center as part of the dress’s history. Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center, explains that the decision to remove the wire and twill tape relates to the contextualization of the dress and the goals of the conservation effort.

“Since the dresses are part of the Selznick collection, they’re really contextualized at the Ransom Center as part of the film production. Sometimes conversations occur surrounding conservation treatments that deal with retaining elements that may not necessarily be original to the garment, like later repairs and alterations. In this case, our goal is to conserve the dress as it was used during the film’s production and reflect as close as possible Plunkett’s vision of the costume,” Morena says.

In addition to conservation techniques, the team is using the extensive Selznick collection to search for clues about the history of the five dresses and to construct a timeline of what happened to the dresses between the film’s post-production and when they arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s.

Learn more about this project, view answers to frequently asked questions, and follow the progress of conservation efforts at this website.

The team welcomes insight from the public. If someone you know worked on the production, viewed the dresses during an “exploitation tour” in the 1940s, or has color photos of the dresses before 1970, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

If you have any questions about the conservation process, please leave a comment with your question at the bottom of this post. We will choose some to answer on the Cultural Compass blog over the next few months.