Director of Publicity
Vanguard Films, Inc.
The Selznick Studio
Culver City, California
Among Hollywood's great style designers, Walter Plunkett holds the distinction of being the only one who confines his efforts to period costume, and he is the recognized authority in this field.
The reasons for this go back some years to 1935, when Mr. Plunkett, then working for R.K.O., decided that he didn't like working in pictures, and quit.
He had a number of reasons for disliking films, but they primarily he found it difficult to express his artistry in this medium. The producer, the director, the star, and the cameraman, he found, each had separate and varying notions of what the clothes in a picture should be, and how they should be designed. The designer was seldom able to overcome all these objections, whether valid or not, but nevertheless was often open to some measure of blame if the costuming of the picture was not all it should be.
He went to New York and took a job with a Seventh Avenue manufacturing concern doing a line of evening and more or less formal afternoon things for women. His designs were liked, and he was completely happy doing them. No one interfered, or questioned whether they ought not to be something else again; so he had about decided that this was to be his life work when word came from Katharine Hepburn, for whom he had previously done some designs for her picture, "Little Women," that she wanted him to return to do the costumes for "Mary of Scotland." She would, she said, have no one else.
After some salary arguments, Plunkett went again to the Coast on a 12-week leave of absence from the manufacturer. But he had no sooner finished this picture for Miss Hepburn that she embarked on another (either "Portrait of a Rebel" or "Quality Street," he doesn't remember which), and his services were again imperative.
This led to final severing of his relations with the manufacturer of women's garments in New York, and, incidentally, to his decision to confine his work to period costume.
After three or four of the Hepburn pictures, he was becoming known as an authority on period design. Directors and stars, he found, listened deferentially to his ideas; and even the cameramen acknowledged that he knew more about period design than they did. Ergo, he would be a period designer.
This decision, however, was not finally clinched until he was called, the following year, to do the designs for David O. Selznick's mammoth saga of the Civil War South, "Gone With The Wind."
He spent a year travelling through the South, studying authentic sources for his designs, and the result -- though the picture wasn't completed until a couple of years later -- was motion picture history.
Walter Plunkett was born in Oakland, California, in 1902, the third generation of Plunketts who had been in and around San Francisco since the Gold Rush.
He attended Oakland High School and the University of California at Berkeley, matriculating as a pre-legal student, but switching his major subject to English by the end of his sophomore year. This came about largely through his interest in the university little theater, which he found much more absorbing than law.
While still in school, and without a single lesson in art, he also became art editor of the "The Pelican" and "The Blue and Gold," the two foremost campus magazines.
After graduation, he spent a year as a juvenile in stock in the old Fulton Theater in Oakland, and then, as every actor tries to do sooner or later, crashed New York.
His first two Broadway shows were "Out of the Seven Seas" and the "The Man Who Ate the Popomac," neither remembered for anything but the strange word in the latter title, the meaning of which even Mr. Plunkett has forgotten now.
He did some vaudeville after that, a couple of dramatic sketches and a short musical number with some girls, dancing and singing. The singing didn't bother him, but he hasn't mastered what dancing is all about even to this day.
He did, however, improve the shining hours on these tours. He designed the costumes for the sketches, and the street wear of the girls. He also designed all the costumes for a ballet for Margaret Severn, a reigning vaudeville danseuse.
Plunkett's first successes in Hollywood were coincident with the first successes of the old F.B.O. Studios. He had known Howard Greer before he came here around 1925, and Greer sent him to this then predominantly "western" studio.
But F.B.O., in the process of time, and with the aid of former Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, became R.K.O., and began, around 1928 or 1929, to make some pictures that were to startle the movie world. These included "Street Girl," with Betty Compson, "Rio Rita," with Dolores Del Rio, and, a little later, "Cimarron."
Plunkett, as the one designer of feminine costume at the studio, prospered accordingly. He designed the costumes for such early stars of the sound film as Lilyan Tashman, Evelyn Brent, Miss Compson and Miss Del Rio, and Irene Dunn. He also designed some of the personal attire for the girls, when and if he had time. (But it is years now since he has done any of that.)
In 1930, the Western Costume Company, one of the largest costume rental places in the country, became the property of three Greenberg Brothers, with whom Plunkett had attended Oakland High School. He moved his atelier into their building and for a while made it his headquarters. The lasted only a couple of years, however, and then sold out. Plunkett moved back to R.K.O., where he began designing costumes for Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lupe Velez, Irene Dunne, Ann Harding, and for Bette Davis, who had moved over from the Warner Studio for "Of Human Bondage."
While "Gone With The Wind" was still being prepared for Selznick, he was commissioned by the same producer to do the costumes for "Tom Sawyer" and "Nothing Sacred," the latter for the late Carol Lombard.
He toured Europe in 1937, looking at designs and costumes, and returned to Hollywood to find "Gone With The Wind" still being postponed. His old studio, R.K.O., however, had three stars on its hands wanting costumes, these being Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Miriam Hopkins, so he returned to do them.
He was now the outstanding authority on period costume, and had discovered, a little to his amazement, that he really liked working for the studios.
"Gone With The Wind" kept him busy most of 1938, and when that was finished (he still considers it his magnum opus) he went in quick succession onto "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Abe Lincoln in Illinois."
In 1940, he again opened a shop of his own within the precincts and under the jurisdiction of the Western Costume Company, to do period clothes only for important productions at all studios; but he closed this after a year. It required attention on too many shows at a time. Three or four productions simultaneously, he discovered, was a physical impossibility. He returned to free-lancing.
He designed the costumes for Merle Oberon for her picture, "Lydia", and for the living actresses of Walt Disney's "Three Caballeros." He followed this with costumes for Martha Scott in "In Old Oklahoma." He received screen credit for Mae West's costumes in "The Heat is On," but he modestly disclaims the credit. Mae did her own.
Costumes for "Knickerbocker Holiday," "A Song To Remember," "Can't Help Singing," and "Along Came Jones" followed. Any spare time he has had between pictures, the last year or two, he has spent painting with oils. He hopes to give a show sometime soon.
Meantime, he has been recalled by David O. Selznick to do the costumes for this producer's mammoth western of the Texas plains of 1880, "Duel in the Sun." It is the only picture Plunkett has worked on which he thinks may rival "Gone With The Wind," and for it he made a special trip to Mexico to get cloths which are not available here during wartime.
Meantime, also, he is not unmindful that it was David O. Selznick who said, when he accepted the Academy Award for "Gone With The Wind," at the Annual Academy dinner in 1939, "It's too bad there isn't an Award for costume designing, too, because Walter Plunkett would have received it."
March 2, 1945
| Film Collection |
Exhibit design by Steve L. Wilson
Learn how you can save the Green Curtain Dress and other costumes from Gone With The Wind.