By 1936 Walter Plunkett was known in Hollywood as the foremost authority on period costumes. Katharine Hepburn, with whom Plunkett had worked on several pictures and who was interested in the role of Scarlett, recommended the book to Plunkett. He read it and immediately had his agents, Lichtig and Englander, write Selznick to suggest he be hired as costume designer. Selznick was well aware of Plunkett's abilities, mostly from his costume work on Selznick's production of "Little Women," which was also set in the 1860's.
Plunkett was hired on the spot though at first on a non-exclusive basis: four months research and design without compensation $600 per week for eight weeks of preproduction and $750 per week during production. He promptly left for Georgia carrying a letter of introduction from Kay Brown to Margaret Mitchell. During this trip he wrote to Brown:
FORT SUMTER HOTEL
Charleston, S. C.
Dear Miss Brown -
Am about to leave for New Orleans. Will stop at the Roosevelt there. I landed
I was too weak with the flu to get around to Kurtz, although I find he is held
Savannah is truly beautiful - too different from Atlanta to be of any value -
Mr. Robinson and Mrs. Ravenal have been charming to me here. We have just spent
I like this Rhett child. She has the sweetest manner. What a shame she's not
Thanks so much for your letters. They've been lots of help.
Margaret Mitchell's married name was Marsh. Her nickname was Peggy.
Wilbur Kurtz was later hired by Selznick at Mitchell's suggestion as historical advisor on GWTW.
The "Rhett child" is Alicia Rhett, who was found during the Scarlett casting search in Atlanta. She played the part of India Wilkes, Ashley's sister.
Selznick was making a costume epic and he was making it in color, still a new process at that time. Plunkett's meticulous research and careful design process were fine for the smaller roles and for the hundreds of extras, but he was not producing the "sensational" costumes Selznick wanted for Scarlett. Throughout 1937 and 1938 Selznick looked at sketches from other costume designers. The short list of designers he considered included Gladys Calthrop, Mabel Downs, Helene Ponds, Czettel, and Adrian. At the top of the list was Muriel King whose sketches Mitchell saw during Cukor's research trip to Atlanta.
King gave one of her sketches to Mitchell: a sketch of Scarlett on Miss Pittypat's front porch. Mitchell responded enthusiastically, writing to King, "I have seen many sketches of Scarlett and of war scenes, and none have appealed to me as much as yours." Several months later, Selznick wrote to Kay Brown:
Miss Kathering Brown
COSTUME DESIGNERS -- "GONE WITH THE WIND"
February 17, 1938
No objections to getting sketches from Hambleton on spec. However, at the
King wanted screen credit and $750 a week and she would do only Scarlett's costumes. Other designers were asking for similar arrangements. Shooting had started with the "Burning of Atlanta" scene and Vivien Leigh had been cast as Scarlett. The production had shifted into high gear. Then Plunkett came through.
New York milliner John Frederics designed Scarlett's hats. He was not paid for his work, he did it solely for the publicity the film would bring his business.
There is no mention in the Selznick archive after this telegram of anyone else being considered for costume designer.
During the production Plunkett had to contend with the difficult Selznick, changes in directors and unreasonable Technicolor advisors. He created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and thousands of extras as well as monitoring crowd scenes for the proportion of men to women and the number of women in mourning to reflect the ravages of war.
Plunkett began with detailed sketches. His own wardrobe team then created patterns, made the garments, did fittings and alterations, and made changes as necessary after watching filmed tests and before carefully labeling and storing the costumes.
October 23, 1939
Mr. Walter Plunkett
I should like at this time to congratulate and thank
In 1939, there was no costume design category at the Academy Awards. Selznick himself said that if there were, Plunkett would have won it for "Gone With The Wind."
Walter Plunkett would be nominated for the Academy Award ten times. In 1951, he was finally recognized by the Academy for "An American in Paris." He shared the award with Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.
Shortly before his death, Walter Plunkett personally refurbished the original dresses in the David O. Selznick Archive. These dresses, however, were made to last for as long as it would take to shoot the film and are still extremely fragile. Reproductions of the dresses were made in 1987 and are also housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
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Exhibit design by Steve L. Wilson
Learn how you can save the Green Curtain Dress and other costumes from Gone With The Wind.