The cultural impact of Gone With the Wind may not be fading, but the costumes used in the 1939 film are a different story. Some of the most famous outfits from the classic movie are sagging, becoming brittle and coming apart at the seams — normal deterioration for film costumes, but tragic for those interested in Hollywood history.
That’s why the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas’ humanities research library and museum, has embarked on an intensive restoration of five of the dresses worn by Vivien Leigh in the classic film: The dressing gown, ball gown, curtain dress, wedding dress and blue velvet peignoir.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has embarked on an intensive restoration of five of the dresses worn by Vivien Leigh in the classic film: The dressing gown, ball gown, curtain dress, wedding dress and blue velvet peignoir.
According to collection assistant for costumes and personal effects Jill Morena, "Most costumes are not constructed to last beyond the production of the film, nor are they finished in the same way as a ready-to-wear garment. We've taken steps to prevent further damage, but we want to be able to safely display and share the dresses."
The dresses were frequently displayed following the film’s debut, causing wear and tear, and have been a part of the Ransom Center’s collection since the 1980s. They were donated as part of the David O. Selznick archive, a collection of 5,000 boxes of Hollywood memorabilia. The archive is the Ransom Center’s largest collection.
For the restoration, the Ransom Center hired independent art conservator Cara Varnell, who specializes in textiles, historic clothing and performance costumes. Although Varnell has not been able to fix all signs of deterioration of the dresses, her goal has been to stabilize the costumes to prevent further deterioration. Conservation efforts have included cleaning using a low-suction vacuum and brushes, looking for stitches that have snapped or may do so soon, and adding bits of fabric for support.
Varnell has focused on conserving the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown and the green velvet dressing gown. In some instances, such as for the silk wedding veil, whose fibers were damaged and brittle due to age, attempts at conservation would only have worsened the items’ condition, so they were left without treatment.
The Ransom Center is also working with UT’s Division of Textiles and Apparel to determine why parts of the green curtain dress have faded. It is believed that the fading was not caused by light exposure, so the Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab will analyze the fabric to determine the cause, possibly exposure to chemicals during exhibitions.
The restoration is funded by $30,000 in donations raised by the Harry Ransom Center last year. That money has gone toward the restoration itself as well as toward a protective housing and custom-fitted mannequins that will prevent further damage to the dresses, as much as possible, when they go on display.
Currently, the dresses are not displayed at the Ransom Center, though they are available for viewing by researchers upon request. They’re stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled boxes lined with acid-free tissue paper, which are optimal conditions for preserving fabrics. However, the dresses will be displayed, both at the Ransom Center and other institutions, in 2014 as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations for Gone With the Wind.