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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.”

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

Fans donate $30,000 to preserve "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Margaret Rine

Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’
Film Curator Steve Wilson and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, with the original curtain dress from ‘Gone With The Wind.’

Thanks to the generous donations of more than 600 supporters from around the world, the Ransom Center is delighted to announce that the fundraising goal to preserve the Gone With The Wind costumes has been reached. From Alaska to Florida, from Australia to Ireland, the response to this project has been enthusiastic and widespread. Although we knew there were legions of devoted Gone With The Wind fans, the overwhelming concern and support for these costumes provides tangible evidence of the power of movies to strike a deep and lasting chord in our collective consciousness. We deeply appreciate the many calls, letters, and emails, which further bolster our commitment to ensuring that the costumes from the David O. Selznick collection will be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

As Gone With The Wind costume designer Walter Plunkett had remarked, “I don’t think it was my best work or even the biggest thing I did… But that picture, of course, will go on forever, and that green dress, because it makes a story point, is probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures.”

To those of you who contributed to the project, thank you for helping to preserve these iconic Hollywood treasures. We look forward to seeing you at our exhibition in 2014 celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind.

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Donations sought to restore iconic costumes from ‘Gone With The Wind’

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center seeks to raise $30,000 to restore and preserve five original costumes from Gone With The Wind (1939). Donations to restore the costumes can be made online .

The Ransom Center holds the film collection of David O. Selznick, a well-known and admired producer of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s. Selznick’s production of Gone With The Wind is considered one of the quintessential films of the period, receiving 10 Academy Awards.

Among the more than 5,000 boxes of materials in the Selznick collection are five original costumes from Gone With The Wind: character Scarlett O’Hara’s Green Curtain Dress, Green Velvet Dressing Gown, Burgundy Ball Gown, Blue Velvet Peignoir and Wedding Dress. Most of the costumes, all worn by actress Vivien Leigh, are in too fragile condition to be exhibited.

“An historical garment in a museum collection is often most compelling when it is displayed on a mannequin, and yet each time a fragile costume is removed from storage, handled and placed on a dress form, that garment is at risk,” said Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects at the Ransom Center. “Conservation work and custom supports for storage and display are essential components in ensuring that the Gone With The Wind costumes can be enjoyed for years to come.”

Donations made to the Ransom Center will allow for the restoration of the original dresses and the purchase of protective housing and custom-fitted mannequins to allow for proper exhibition. The Center hopes to display the costumes in 2014 as part of an exhibition celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind and to be able to loan the dresses to museums internationally.

“Nothing evokes the human element in film quite like the costume,” said Steve Wilson, Curator of Film at the Ransom Center. “A character’s social and economic class, for example, can be represented through the style and quality of her clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. And not only must the costume support and enhance the actor and director’s interpretation of the character, but it must also allow for the actor’s movement and withstand the rigors of shooting. The appreciation of costume design can deepen our understanding of film as an art form and reflection of our culture.”

Concerning the creation of costumes for Gone With The Wind, costume designer Walter Plunkett had remarked, “I don’t think it was my best work or even the biggest thing I did… But that picture, of course, will go on forever, and that green dress, because it makes a story point, is probably the most famous costume in the history of motion pictures.”

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

Costumes reveal character revelations

By Jennifer Tisdale

As the Making Movies exhibition demonstrates, a costume can reveal much about a film character. For example, a character’s social and economic class can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing also exposes a character’s unique personality traits and self-image. Steve Wilson, the Ransom Center’s Associate Curator of Film, talks about Robert De Niro’s costume in Taxi Driver, and how it supports and enhances the interpretation of the character Travis Bickle.

No wire hangers: Costumes in Robert De Niro collection receive a set of custom padded hangers

By Elana Estrin

In a scene from the 1995 film Heat, Robert De Niro storms into Ashley Judd’s hotel room, grills her for answers, and knocks a line of wire hangers off the rack. According to Ashley Judd, detail-oriented director Michael Mann chose those particular metal hangers for just the right visual and sound effect.

The Ransom Center also carefully selected hangers specifically for the costumes of Robert De Niro, whose film archive resides at the Ransom Center. Last October, the Ransom Center’s preservation lab constructed 100 custom-made hangers for heavy coats and jackets in the De Niro collection.

“Robert De Niro had a lot of large, heavy coats. For one film, for example, he could have five full-length leather jackets. We had to have something that would be very sturdy and also very good for the textile,” says Apryl Voskamp, Preservation Housings Manager.

Before acquiring De Niro’s collection, the Ransom Center had few costumes to house and could afford the space to store the costumes in the ideal environment: lying flat and in the dark. But with thousands of costumes arriving in the De Niro collection, Helen Adair, Associate Curator for Performing Arts, and Jill Morena, Collection Assistant for Costumes and Personal Effects, inspected the costumes and deemed some costumes appropriate for hanging storage, including many of the jackets.

“It takes less space to store things hanging,” says conservator Mary Baughman. “Things like the leather jackets are pretty tough as long as they’re out of the light.”

The challenge was to find or make padded hangers appropriate for De Niro’s jackets.

“We didn’t have any hangers here that would work,” Baughman says. “Some of the De Niro costumes are pretty heavy, and the hangers we had here were too flimsy. And we couldn’t find a commercially made hanger that would work. There are a lot of archival quality hangers out there for your wedding dress, but for a big, heavy leather coat, not so much.”

The range of costumes worn by De Niro’s varied film personae created some unique circumstances for the team. For example, a large, heavy canvas coat worn by the swashbuckling, cross-dressing pirate Captain Shakespeare in Stardust (2007) was treated by the wardrobe department to look weathered and beaten by the elements. This distinctive costume “got an even more macho hanger,” according to Baughman.

Other costumes selected to hang include full-length jumpsuits worn by De Niro’s jewel thief in The Score (2001), as well as the jumpsuits worn by his stunt double. The suits bear burn holes from the blowtorch used by De Niro’s character to break open a safe.

The preservation team also decided not to hang certain jackets. For example, De Niro’s characters get shot, burned, or injured in many of his films, and Voskamp and Baughman were worried about hanging bloody jackets, many of them still sticky.

“I learned that fake blood is an industry secret,” Voskamp says. “Studios don’t want to divulge their recipe because they think it’s the best. It would be helpful to know what’s in the fake blood to know if it will damage other items, but that’s very difficult to figure out. So we decided to isolate these costumes and house them lying flat to make sure the fake blood doesn’t migrate onto other materials.”

Baughman is the mastermind behind the design. She searched for just the right hanger, eventually choosing a sturdy long-necked stainless steel hanger to serve as the main frame. The next step was to construct shoulder supports to cover the metal hanger which would prevent the metal from distorting the garment’s original shape.

“We didn’t want to have this sharp edged metal hanger up against the cloth of the garment. It would’ve left a mark in the garment. After a few years, the fibers will break along those creases,” Baughman says.

Baughman designed the shoulder supports out of lignin-free board. For decades, “lig-free” board has been used to create a variety of custom archival containers at the Ransom Center. Each piece of lignin-free board had to be cut, creased, and tied with twill tape to simulate the shape of human shoulders. The final component of the hanger was a padded cloth covering to go over the shoulder support. Each cloth covering has three parts: two cloth sides and a long cloth tube filled with polyester batting.

It took a team of seven—including Voskamp, Baughman, University of Texas work-study student Liz Phan, and four volunteers—one month to complete the project, spending the entire month exclusively making hangers. Each hanger took an hour and a half to construct for a total of 262 hours. For the Ransom Center’s preservation team, it’s worth getting hung up on the details.

 

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Costume: "Tom Sawyer" hat proves too much of a distraction

By Alicia Dietrich

Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
The choices made by a costume designer can reveal much about a film character through costume. A character’s social and economic class, for example, can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing can also expose a character’s unique personality traits and self-image.

Naturally, the costume designer works closely with the actor, director, production designer, cinematographer, and others on the production team. Not only must the costume support and enhance the actor’s and director’s interpretation of the character, but it must also allow the actor’s movement and withstand the rigors of shooting. Furthermore, costume design must be coordinated across all the film’s characters, while color and texture must integrate into the overall design.

Costume designer Walter Plunkett’s rationale for his costume decisions are in keeping with the classical Hollywood tradition and show why he is now regarded as one of the great designers from Hollywood’s golden age.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
In this memo to David O. Selznick about the film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Plunkett shares his philosophy that costumes shouldn’t be a distraction but should blend in with the character and scene: “I feel Tom’s costume would be all right if it were not for the hat. If he didn’t wear that, I feel he would blend nicely with the costume scheme of the sequence, and would be as un-noticeable as are the rest of the costumes. I hope you agree with me that the un-noticeable costumes are correct in this picture.”

In an advance publicity still, published in an unidentified fan magazine, Tom Sawyer is wearing the hat that Plunkett objected to. This portion of the final scene was cut from the film before the original release.

These are just two items from the “Costume Design” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.