Six hundred Gone With the Wind fans from around the world donated more than $30,000 over three weeks in August 2010 to restore five dresses worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in the iconic movie. After nearly a year of preliminary study, conservation began in July of 2011 and continued through spring of this year. The famous green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown Scarlett wore to Ashley’s birthday party were stabilized enough to be sent across the ocean so they could be displayed for the first time in 30 years at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Conservators from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin spent 180 hours painstakingly reinforcing weakened areas and correcting previous attempts at restoration on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown and the green velvet dressing gown. The fabrics used by costume designer Walter Plunkett are heavy and the construction was not intended to last. Neither were they authentically period, but rather streamlined versions in keeping with 1930s glamour, which means some of the techniques used are unique and not the sort of thing conservators had encountered before restoring period clothing.
For example, the bustle at the back of the burgundy ball gown was gathered and stitched into place. Over the years that the dress was on display before it was donated to the Ransom Center along with the rest of producer David O. Selznick’s collection in the 1980s, the bustle had been repaired repeatedly. Old stitches were removed and new ones put in, which means many new holes poked through the fabric. Over decades, even the tiny holes left by needles add up, so by the time the Ransom Center got the dress, the area on the waist where the bustle was attached was weak and unable to support the weight of the velvet gathered there.
In order to stabilize the garment, conservators first had to determine the original shape and draping of the bustle. Then they had to remove as few of the repair stitches as necessary to return the dress to the shape Plunkett had created. The pierced and weakened areas of the fabric were reinforced with Japanese tissue (a thin but strong paper made from plant fibers) and other stabilization techniques. This accomplished both goals of the conservation: stabilization with as little interference as possible, and the restoration of the original look of the gown.
The ostrich feathers on the burgundy dress were another major headache. At some point, new feathers had been added, but they weren’t stitched in the same way as the originals so they didn’t have the elegant curl Plunkett’s original feathers had. Some feathers fell out, but it seems over time the fabric stretched so it looked like more feathers were missing than had actually been lost. Half-assed replacements that were neither the right color nor the right shape were added, making it look more Old West saloon girl than Scarlett O’Hara vixen. See this video for details on the ostrich feather conservation:
The green curtain dress also had problems with sagging and weak points along the waistline. The heavy pleated velvet of the skirt had been sewn to a slim cotton bodice to ensure there was no extra bulk whatsoever at Vivien Leigh’s waist. At first conservators planned to remove repair stitches and reset the pleats to their original depth and location, but they were unable to determine the exact original locations and stitches of the pleats. Instead they decided to go with the conservative option and stabilize the pleats as they were. You can see some of the work on the curtain dress in this video:
The green velvet dressing gown, which at first glance appeared to be one of the better preserved dresses in the collection, turned out to have significant damage. There were stress tears in the skirt and sleeves, splits, holes, loose threads and loose sequins.
Although the conservation team was able to mitigate some of these problems, the gown is in no shape for a transoceanic voyage. It will remain at the Ransom Center in a carefully climate- and moisture-controlled environment.
The Victoria and Albert exhibition runs from October 20, 2012 through January 27, 2013. After that, the burgundy and curtain dresses will return to Austin in preparation for the 75th anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014. The dressing gown is planned to be on display in that exhibition since it won’t have to travel far. They already have a nice companion online exhibition on the web with details about the casting of the movie, the purchase of the book and, my favorite part, wardrobe and makeup.
Unfortunately, the blue velvet peignoir and Scarlett’s wedding dress and veil are too fragile even to conserve. They will be preserved in their current condition in storage and will not go back on display.