Ransom Center Spruces Up ‘Gone With the Wind’ Dresses

Brow furrowed in concentration, Cara Varnell bends over a dress that lies supine like a patient on an operating table. Varnell’s white-gloved hands slowly traverse the expanse of faded green velvet, examining tiny threads sewn into the waist, until at last they come to rest on one stitch that looks a little different than the rest.

To a visitor’s untrained eyes, the difference is barely visible, but Varnell sees a glaring flaw. “Here,” she says. “These stitches aren’t original. We don’t know who added them, or when, or why.”

It’s just one of the many mysteries that Varnell, who is a professional textile conservator, and her team of experts are unraveling this week deep in the archives of UT’s Harry Ransom Center.

Five of the original dresses worn in the classic 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” were donated to the Ransom Center in the early 1980s. Too badly damaged to display, the dresses have been stored in the archives for almost 30 years. Only now, after the center raised $30,000 from fans of the film, are the dresses getting the intensive care they need.

They won’t be restored to their former glory. The team’s goal is simply to make the dresses stable enough to safely display—hopefully in 2014, to mark the film’s 75th anniversary—as well as to remove any unoriginal alterations. One gown had feathers that were added at some point along its long journey from the Hollywood studios of costume designer Walter Plunkett to the Ransom Center. After determining the feathers were unoriginal, the team removed them to make the dress more like it was in the film.

“It’s an art and a science,” Varnell says. “The art is in knowing how to stay true to the original work. The science is in analyzing the fabric to solve mysteries about how it came to be the way it is today.”

Graduate students from UT’s School of Human Ecology are using a spectrometer—sort of like an X-ray for fabric—to get a close-up view of the textile’s structure and deduce whether it was damaged by light, chemicals, or something else.

“Sometimes the best treatment is no treatment,” says curator Steve Wilson. That will likely be the case for the silk wedding veil from the film, which is in such bad shape that merely touching it can make it turn to dust.

Varnell says she keeps a detailed log of her work so that future conservators won’t have to do the guesswork she’s doing now. “I’m very conscious of the fact that these costumes don’t belong to us. They belong to history, and they’re just passing through our hands.”

Photo by Kae Wang. See an image of the same dress as worn by Vivien Leigh, playing Scarlett O’Hara, here.



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