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.
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.
The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.
Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).
For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.
Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.
Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.
The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.
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 will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.
Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.
Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.
The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.
“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”
A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.
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.
Gone With The Wind is full of lessons about love, life, and loss. Almost 75 years later, Scarlett’s silk wedding veil has one more lesson.
“At the end of our life, it is the end of our life. We are all organic material. When a costume has come to the end of its life, it is no different than we are,” says Cara Varnell, a specialist in Hollywood film costumes and the conservator working on the Ransom Center’s five Gone With The Wind dresses.
Scarlett’s silk wedding veil arrived at the Ransom Center in the early 1980s brittle and lined with permanent creases, indicating that the fibers were damaged and deteriorating. Because of its fragility, the veil is a prime example of an item conservators may decide not to conserve.
Varnell explains that the conservation team could conceivably decide to support the veil with replacement tulle netting. The problem is that they wouldn’t be able to stitch the tulle to the cap because the cap is friable, meaning it will turn to dust if handled too much.
“It becomes this trade-off,” Varnell said. “If we try to conserve it, what will happen? I wouldn’t achieve anything by way of support, and it would require so much handling I might end up with nothing. If we leave it alone, what will happen? We’ll pack it properly, it shouldn’t be shown, and it will be an object to be studied, not one to be displayed.”
Since conservation will probably deteriorate the veil even further, Varnell and the conservation team have decided to keep an eye on the veil and regularly monitor its condition.
“My fundamental philosophy is just because I can do it, doesn’t mean I should do it,” Varnell says.
The veil teaches another lesson: sometimes conservators should not wear gloves.
“You can’t tell the condition of this silk tulle just by looking at it. And if you wear gloves, not only are you causing potential damage, you get no sense of the condition of the fibers. As soon as you touch it without gloves, you realize it’s very crunchy, which means that the fibers are damaged,” Varnell says.
Although the veil is deteriorating, the conservation team can still tell that the cap is “incredibly well made,” Varnell says. The team also found that the veil tulle is diamond shaped, whereas the tulle that makes up the cap is square. All of this evidence suggests that, if not studio-made, the cap may have been an original Southern woman’s cap from the mid-nineteenth century.
“Walter Plunkett spent several weeks traveling the South researching costumes from the period and meeting with women introduced to him by Margaret Mitchell,” says Jill Morena, Ransom Center collection assistant for costumes and personal effects. “Some of the women gave Plunkett swatches from period garments. I wouldn’t be surprised if a woman in the South gave him this cap.”
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.