Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Talented Mr. Plunkett and the Costumes of Gone with the Wind

Walter Plunkett. Image from the Harry Ransom Center.
Excellent news for us Windies! Yesterday the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin announced that it had achieved its goal of raising $30,000 to preserve five of the original costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, including the iconic green drapery and red party dresses. And what better way for us to celebrate than to tip our hat in tribute to the man behind the dresses, legendary costume designer Walter Plunkett

Given that our blog's header features no less than four of his GWTW sketches, it's probably no surprise to you that we're rather fond of Mr. Plunkett and his costumes around here. After all, Gone with the Wind simply wouldn't be the movie we all know and love without Plunkett's inspired work on costumes for everyone from Scarlett and Rhett on down. So today we're pleased to give Walter Plunkett his due with an exploration of his work, his legacy and of course his instrumental role in GWTW--complete with a slideshow of 53 of his original sketches.  

An Oakland, California native born in 1902, Walter Plunkett abandoned his law studies to begin first his Broadway and then his Hollywood career as a movie extra in the mid 1920s, before making the shift to costume design. His first credited costume design role came in 1927 for Hard-Boiled Haggerty by RKO Studios, where he served as the Head of the Wardrobe Department. There, Plunkett was given a great degree of latitude in his costume design and his star quickly rose within the industry. By the mid 1930s, he was already considered to be Hollywood's leading expert on historical costume, thanks to his work on several period films starring Katharine Hepburn.  It was in fact Hepburn who encouraged Plunkett to read Gone with the Wind. The rest, as they say, is history...

Plunkett read GWTW and was so captivated by the story that he immediately called his agents to request the job of costume designer on the film.  Selznick knew of and admired Plunkett's costumes from having worked with him on Little Women, and hired the designer on the spot. 

And in Plunkett, Selznick got an employee who shared his fanatical attention to detail--because meticulous is the only true way to describe Walter Plunkett's approach to costume design on GWTW. He read the book multiple times, checked and cross-checked every passage related to fashion, and put together a notation book of 200 pages(!) with quotes about costumes. 

Then he went to Atlanta to meet Margaret Mitchell, who provided him with several books for research and introduced him to fellow Atlanta ladies in possession of 1860-70s era clothing. While in Atlanta, MM also gave Plunkett a blessing of sorts: her permission to change the color of Scarlett's dresses, as in the book the dashing Miss O'Hara's wardrobe is almost exclusively green (Margaret Mitchell's favorite color). From Atlanta, Plunkett embarked on a tour of the museums of the South to gather more research and fabric samples, with stops in Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans and the Smithsonian Institute. 

Then, at last, he started to design. But after a first round of sketches, it seemed that, though his meticulous research was perfect for garbing all the roles that made the background of the movie, Plunkett did not have what it took for the dramatic flair of Scarlett's wardrobe, as envisioned by Selznick. "We will need somebody to give us perhaps half a dozen sensational costumes that will need to be original creations in addition to the Plunkett job - if it is Plunkett - which will be based largely on research," said the producer in a memo from February 1938. The favorite for this position seemed to be New York designer Muriel King whose sketch for a Scarlett costume had gained Margaret Mitchell's enthusiastic consent. 

But by January of 1939, as a Selznick memo noted, "Plunkett has come to life and turned in magnificent Scarlett costumes so we won't need anyone else." With this, the designer was given free reign with all the costumes.  The final sum of his work when all was done? 5,500 wardrobe items for a cost of $153,818 and a laundry bill of $10,000. A staggering output by any stretch of the imagination--not to mention one that includes some of the most memorable costumes to have ever graced the silver screen.  If the category existed back in 1939, Plunkett would have definitely won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. As it was, he won the prize for An American in Paris in 1951, and was nominated 9 other times.

Today, Walter Plunkett is widely remembered as one of the legends of cinematic costume design, largely due to his work on Gone with the Wind, though his record with other productions is impressive as well. Interestingly, though, there are some, like costume designer Frances Tempest, who dispute his reputation for exacting historical accuracy:
"A film always reflects the time when it is made regardless of when the story is set. This is unconscious and only becomes apparent after, say, ten years hindsight. Even when creating a faithful, historically accurate, reproduction of a particular era, after a few years the film will obviously belong to the 1970s, 1980s or whenever it was made. So GWTW belongs to 1939 and is in the tradition of other 30s historical dramas such as Little Women. To our eyes these films look ‘very 1930s’. I am sure the film-makers thought they were accurately reproducing 19th-century society. With Europe on the brink of war GWTW creates a fantasy Deep South. Walter Plunkett has tapped into the zeitgeist, and mined a rich vein of nostalgia, to a world that never actually existed. "
--remarks by Frances Tempest, excerpted from Fashion, Media, Promotion: The New Black Magic By Jayne Sheridan
We don't deny the idea that films reflect the time period in which they are made, or that GWTW is in many ways a product of 1930s-era Hollywood glamour (it's the poster child for that, after all). However, we do take issue with the last claim that Plunkett created a vision of "a world that never actually existed." In fact, our own research has turned up just the opposite--Plunkett's costumes were incredibly grounded in period fashion, so much so that it can be quite eerie at times to find a Plunkett dress staring at you from an issue of Godey's Lady's Book

And to that end, we're taking this opportunity to announce a new series, Doppelganger Dresses, where we'll highlight real dresses from period fashion plates that bear close resemblance to the costumes of Gone with the Wind. Stay tuned... our first Doppelganger dress will be up later this week. And for now? Enjoy a lovely GWTW slideshow, of course! 

For more info on GWTW costumes, be sure to check out the invaluable Harry Ransom GWTW online costume exhibition and its Walter Plunkett page, which includes costume-related correspondence from the making of GWTW. 


  1. Fascinating information here, and thank you so much for sharing all of those sketches! There are quite a few I've never seen before.

    I always mentally add another Oscar onto GWTW's haul for the one Mr. Plunkett surely would have won, had the category existed at the time. :)

  2. Yay! Finally all the sketches collected in one place! Thank you!

  3. Furthermore, although I agree that Plunkett's approach was admirably meticulous, there are several aspects of the costumes that are inaccurate. Take Scarlett's first dress, for example. First of all, the bodice was cut on the bias, which is a very 30's method of construction, and was not used prior to the 20th century. The dress is also white. A girl living on a plantation like Scarlett would never have owned a stark white lace day dress, as it was too likely to be soiled by the Georgia clay she had to walk through daily. And the sleeves; I have never seen a day dress that had short sleeves. And the skirt, of course, is far, far too large.

    We'll give him a pass, though, because, you know, he's amazing!

  4. Another great post! I love the alternative version of the barbecue dress. It would've been great to see some of the unused costumes come into creation, there are some magnificent designs there.
    Andrew, which other costumes do you have a gripe about? I love a good gripe! I can't agree with you, however, on the skirt being too large. The crinoline had reached its peak in 1860/61 and Scarlett was quite the follower of fashion, and the bigger the skirt, the smaller the waist appeared.

  5. I'm sure I could enumerate something about each of Scarlett's dresses, but I think that's a bit too much to put in a comment. Unless you want me to, of course! ;)

    I think the skirts are too big, at least in the opening scene, because, again, Scarlett was basically living on a farm, so it wasn't practical to have a skirt that wide. However, for things like the barbecue and other social events, maybe. I've never seen skirts that size in CDV's, only in fashion plates and on women of great wealth, much greater than Scarlett.

  6. iso, this is amazing! My, what an inspiration that man had. My two favourites of the unused dresses are the green one for Ashley's party because it accentuates Scarlett’s figure as Rhett says when he picks it out plus it has wonderful details on it. The other one I like very much is the honeymoon one in gold and ivory; it has a royal feel to it. I can see Scarlett wearing this one when Rhett walks with her through the streets of New Orleans. I guess that these are the kind of dresses Rhett envisioned for her to wear when she was sporting those black crow outfits during the war.

    @Andrew: You seem to have enough knowledge of history and fashion to make any comment entertaining and informative, so please don't hold back on our accounts.
    I am sure you are aware of the reasons for this particular white dress but for those who don't here is some background information (borrowed from the world wide web) on the dress and the scene:
    'The opening scene of "Gone With The Wind," in which the Tarleton Twins are talking to Scarlett about the war, was one of the most troubled scenes of the film. It was shot a total of five times. The first time was on Thursday, January 26, 1939. Selznick was not satisfied with this take because the Twins' hair, dyed red for the film, appeared "too orange" in Technicolor. The scene was shot again on Monday, January 30, but was not used because of the lighting. When George Cukor left the production Victor Fleming took over and his first scene, shot on Wednesday, March 1, was the porch scene. As in the two Cukor versions, Scarlett wore the green sprigged muslin "barbeque" dress that she later wears to Twelve Oaks. Selznick was not happy with the Twins' performances so the take was not used. Fleming shot the scene again on Monday, June 26 with Leigh wearing the white prayer dress. Selznick felt the "barbeque" dress was being used in too much of the film and wanted more variety. This take was not used because Vivien Leigh looked "exhausted." She took a vacation before returning to shoot the scene a final time on Thursday, October 12, 1939. It was the last scene shot with Vivien Leigh and is the version that appears in the final film.'

  7. Andrew, you're welcome to gripe about each and every dress if you want. I find the iconic red one strikingly out of the time frame, but I guess it's part of its charm.

    The problem you have with the opening scene dress is one you have with Mitchell, not Plunkett, since the dress Scarlett wore that afternoon was supposed to be the green-sprigged one she wears at the picnic (and was when they first shot the scene, as you know). They changed it for a white one to make it more virginal or whatever, but there was no reason to downplay the dress, since it's clearly in tune with the original scene from the book. You could argue that Mitchell herself presents a romanticized version of rural North Georgia, and indeed people have said that.

    As for Plunkett, it's very clear that he goes for dramatic costumes even in day to day scenes, when I am sure much simpler dresses would have been worn, but it's part of what makes the movie so impressive. I am happy to look at a new colorful costume each time than see the drab dresses of other Civil War movies :)

  8. I know why they changed it, and I agree with Selznick; the Barbecue dress would have been seen too much otherwise. Although, it does make Scarlett's "this old thing" comment seem a little out of context.

    On that note, lets talk about the barbecue dress! My favorite of the film, for sure. However, the dress in the film is silk organza over silk taffeta (or maybe satin, I'm not sure). Lovely and floaty, of course, but not the muslin as described in the book, and certainly a dress of that quality would never have been worn at an outdoor barbecue (Scarlett may have been daring with wearing an afternoon dress during the day, but she was also practical). And the frills on the bodice lend themselves more to evening wear, I think.

    A great interpretation of Scarlett's dresses as described in the book can be found on Brenda Sneathen Mattox's site, Fancy Ephemera. I'm sure a lot of you have seen this already, but if you haven't, just scroll down to "Scarlett O'Hara":

  9. My goodness! I think we're all starting to run on a bit after this post, aren't we?
    Thanks for the great suggestion Andrew, I had never seen those before and was quite impressed, even though I've since had to book myself in with the optometrist. I wonder if she has them in colour?
    SJ, do you mean the evening one or the day one? I believe that the striped overdress with leaf patterned underskirt was designed to be worn on a trip to Charleston when Scarlett was first widowed (which is totally inappropriate). Either Franklin Mint or Tonner have released a doll in this outfit and it's very pretty. They also released a doll wearing the pink jacket and plaid skirt.
    Andrew, still not in complete agreeance with you re the skirt/white issue.
    Even though they lived on a plantation, it wasn't expected that women or girls go any further than the porch, really. After the war, when Suellen wants to take the horse to go calling, Scarlett says she can go on foot or not at all. Suellen isn't happy with the prospect as she had never walked more than 100 yards before. Now, I'm an Australian and I don't know what a yard is, but if we're talking something like 100 metres, Suellen, no wonder you could never get your corset tighter than twenty inches you lazy bitch! On the other hand Scarlett was an avid walker and rider, so maybe we can say that Scarlett wouldn't have chosen a white dress, but maybe Suellen would've.
    Here's a question I've wondered about, when the twins arrived, did Scarlett change into the sprigged muslin before she came down to meet them, or was she already in it? I doubt the latter, because she wouldn't be hanging around the house in her newest and best dress.
    Another question, and then I'll shut up, has anyone done the maths, or worked out any of the character's birthdates, or even birth months? God, I would love to know Scarlett's star sign!

  10. @MM- "Suellen, no wonder you could never get your corset tighter than twenty inches you lazy bitch!"

    Oh wow- That might be the funniest comment yet on the blog. LOL. :)

    Also, it's interesting that the striped overdress with the leaf underskirt was supposed to worn on Scarlett's trip to Charleston as a widow. I've never heard that before! I'm really fascinated by that costume- it's so unique and I really wish it had been used in the movie.

    @Andrew- such interesting comments as always! I think I lean more towards the MM school of thought on the white dress, although I agree with you re: the barbeque dress- that's too fancy of a dress for such a function. And it really does resemble evening wear.

    I think in general though I'm pretty agnostic on the issue of historical inaccuracies in the costumes. By there nature, movies are often glamorized versions of reality. That Plunkett might have made his costumes somewhat more extravagant than authentic 1860s garb is just to be expected, esp. given Selznick's instruction that he wanted "sensational costumes." So I don't fault Plunkett for this given the overall level of historical fidelity he embraced.

  11. MM - I think maybe Scarlett changed into the dress in the afternoon so she would look nice in case callers arrived? Mammy would probably have had to lace her tighter to get into the dress, and I don't think she would have wanted to leave the twins waiting that long for her to change, especially since she hadn't seem them in such a long time.


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