Last fall the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin raised $30,000 in a month from fans of Gone With the Wind to restore five of Scarlett O’Hara’s most memorable dresses. The gowns and robes had been ridden hard and put away wet for decades until the massive David O. Selznick collection of movie memorabilia was donated to the Ransom Center in the 1980s.
Since the fundraiser, the conservation team has been studying the dresses, preparing reports on the most minute details of stitching, color, fabric, repair history so that the dresses can be returned to a condition as close to their appearance in the movie as possible. The aim is to have them ready for display in 2014, the 75th anniversary of Gone With the Wind when the Harry Ransom Center will put on a full exhibition of the Selznick Collection.
Conservation is now beginning. The news thus far is not all good. Firstly there is one piece that cannot be restored. Scarlett’s silk wedding veil was already creased and brittle in the 1980s. It is too fragile to be handled at all and thus will be kept in permanent temperature, climate and light controlled conditions instead of being restored and put on display.
The famous green curtain dress has also been damaged past the point of restoration to its original color. There are long streaks where the green has faded to brown, and there’s no turning back the clock on that. Textile conservator Cara Varnell notes that you can’t just dye it or color it to match how it looked in the movie; the whole idea is to keep the dress as original as possible, not to add more stuff which could have unforeseen consequences. In fact the fading may have been caused by the use of questionable products. It wasn’t exposure to light because that makes the fibers dry out but the faded areas show no sign of drying. At some point someone added a label to the dress that says it was “Sprayed with Sudol.” That turns out to be a disinfectant similar to Lysol, so perhaps it might have caused the streaking.
To pinpoint the cause of the streaks, the conservation team will be using a non-invasive technology called Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS) from the University of Texas at Austin’s Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab. FIAS will allow conservators to test the fabric thoroughly without destroying any fibers. This is a great addition to the conservator’s arsenal because usually at least a small amount of fabric is destroyed when performing in-depth fiber analysis.
The Ransom Center is keen to hear from the public to aid in the conservation effort. Conservators would like to have more information about the post-film history of the dresses, particularly any color photographs of the dresses when they were on display from the 40s to the 70s. If you happen to have any pictures of Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress, burgundy ball gown, wedding dress, blue velvet peignoir and green velvet dressing gown before 1970, or even just if you remember details or stories about the displays, please email GWTWinsight@gmail.com.