Hollywood Fashion: Scarlett's Dresses
inApril 30, 2011 - 11:06pm
I'm simply fascinated with Hollywood's Golden Age. I think most of us were introduced to fashion through the movies and no other medium can boast their impact on how we've dressed since the 1920s. We all have our favorite movie we can watch over and over and the one that tops my list is 1939's Gone With The Wind.
We owe the film's costuming to Walter Plunkett, the best period piece designer of his day. While most designers opted to overlook accuracy, Plunkett meticulously researched his designs. He learned of GWTW through Katherine Hepburn who was eager to play Scarlett O'Hara. After reading the book, he had his agent contact producer David O. Selznick. Plunkett already had established a name for himself having worked on films such as Little Women and The Gay Divorcee and was hired, but only on a non-exclusive basis to design costumes for the lesser roles and extras.
Selznick continued to look at numerous design sketches and Margaret Mitchell, author of the book, heartily approved of a sketch of Scarlett drawn by Muriel King. It was believed King would design all Scarlett's dresses but Plunkett was determined and on January 6, 1939, Selznick received the following cable, "PLUNKETT HAS COME TO LIFE AND TURNED IN MAGNIFICENT SCARLETT COSTUMES SO WE WON'T NEED ANYONE ELSE." Ultimately, he created more than 5000 garments for over 50 major characters and thousands of extras. The first film shot in color, he faced the challenges of presenting costumes in colors that worked on film and still met the demands of Selznick. The Drapery Dress not only had to meet Technicolor's specs, it also had to match Leigh's eyes! Scarlett's hats were created by NY milliner John Frederics who wisely chose publicity over payment.
So let's take a closer look at some of Scarlett's glorious creations starting with my favorite, the burgundy ball gown shown. This is the dress Rhett forces her to wear and go unescorted to Ashley Wilkes' birthday party after she had been seen embracing Ashley at the mill earlier that day. Rhett throws it at her shouting, "Wear that! Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion." Just to give you an idea, 16 yards of French silk velvet was needed to recreate it.
I'm not sure who made the Drapery Dress more famous, Leigh or Carol Burnett with that hysterical spoof on her comedy show in 1976. The velvet had to be faded to make it look more like the sun worn draperies at Tara. The dress had a parting underskirt with a moss green velvet overskirt and a partial cape on the left shoulder. And who can forget that drapery cord belt? Worn in three scenes, it's most memorable when Scarlett needs $300 to pay the taxes on Tara and decides to ask Rhett for the money. Having nothing to wear, she rips down the curtains and demands Mammy make her a dress declaring, "I'm going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars and I've got to go looking like a queen." It's replica required 16 yards of Italian cotton velveteen.
The green sprigged muslin picnic dress in the porch scene was beautiful as was Scarlett's wedding dress which was recreated with 31 yards of French silk satin, 160 silk leaves and 20 lace leaves. Plunkett actually fitted the dress on actress Barbara O'Neil's dress form (Scarlett's mother). Since Scarlett rushed into her marriage to Charles Hamilton, she would have worn her mother's wedding dress so he lengthened the dress and added leg o' mutton sleeves, fashionable in 1834 when her mother was married.
Scarlett's dressing gowns were equally stunning like her blue velvet wrap trimmed with fox fur and the green velvet and gold dressing gown worn in one the funniest scenes of the film. After the birth of her daughter, her stays are being laced up by Mammy who measures her and says, "Twenty inches." Aghast, Scarlett replies, "I've grown as big as Aunt Pitty! You've simply got to make it eighteen and a half again!"
The costumes were placed in the David O. Selznick Archive and eventually five of Scarlett's dresses were given to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. Thankfully, before his death in 1982, Plunkett himself restored the original dresses but even so they remained in fragile condition as they were really only made to last the length of production. Reproduced in 1987, these dresses are on display at the center but the originals are in too delicate a state and the Center is currently raising funds to restore them for display in 2014, GWTW's 75th anniversary. (Please see the link below for more information.)
Gone With The Wind received 10 Academy Awards and at the time was the longest American sound film made at almost 4 hours including intermission. Plunkett was just getting started and during his career, from 1927-66, he would work on more than 150 films including classics like the The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Singin' in the Rain, Father of the Bride, Showboat, Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In 1951, Plunkett shared an Oscar with Orry-Kelly and Irene for An American in Paris.
In closing, I'd like to thank Scarlett and Rhett for lessons on procrastination. Quotes I use almost daily are "I just can't think about this right now, I'll think about it tomorrow.", "After all, tomorrow is another day." and of course, my personal favorite, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."