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August 11, 2011

Saving the 'Gone With the Wind' Dresses


You would think the costumes from one of Old Hollywood's most iconic films would be preserved with the kind of care afforded to newborns. Yet the velvety brocade and feather embellished garments from the epic Gone With the Wind were not treated as precious, they were tortured! Well, not intentionally so, but some do look a bit nasty now as a result. Compare the Technicolor emerald green and brilliant gold of Scarlett O'Hara's curtain dress as seen above on the set to the faded mess it is today:

Scarlett's Sad Dress

Ack! Was it pulled from a swamp? How did it and other important pieces from film history wind up like this? It's a combination of factors. The dresses endured decades of traveling on display and had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They were dry-cleaned multiple times, sprayed with disinfectant - likely Sudol, similar to Lysol (that can't be good) which could have affected the rate and nature of the fading (no kidding) - and displayed in department stores. However, streaks of 'brown mustard' discolouration remain an unsightly, dijon-esque mystery.

Some pieces, such as the burgundy ball gown, have retained the depth of their colour, but Scarlett's veil is unfortunately a lost cause. Brittle, creased and too fragile to be handled, it has booked a one-way plane ticket to Miami and is learning to lawn bowl.

Associated Press was invited to observe the restoration process undertaken by the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas and gave us these photos of the costumes in their current state. It will cost $30,000 to restore five dresses which, according to the Yahoo article, are from the collection of David O. Selznick which was acquired in the 80s. The producer of Gone with the Wind died in 1965, so I'm guessing his family took possession of the collection. All of this is about getting the pieces in good shape for a 2014 exhibit to mark the film's 75th anniversary.

So how does one approach repair on garments that just can't take any more? The Ransom Center has enlisted the help of the University of Texas' textiles and apparel technology lab to analyze the fibers in the faded areas. New technology will allow the fibers to be examined without being destroyed.

Cara Vernell, an independent art conservator who specializes in Hollywood film costumes and is doing the restoration work explains, "We do not add color back. That would be me, this lone individual in the 21st century, deciding what that was going to look like 75 years ago. It's unethical. You just don't do that. We honor the history and we honor the piece."

I get it.


Photos from AP


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what a waste :( hope studios nowadays take better care of their frocks!

The dress shown on Vivien Leigh in the first picture is not the curtain dress but an elaborate dressing gown she wears in the scene when she tells Rhett she no longer wants him in her bedroom.

Thanks for the clarification, Vivian. It looks exactly like the dress they're repairing, minus the colour saturation of course. So they probably mis-identified it in the original article?


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