Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Conservation work completed on Gone With The Wind costumes

Green Curtain Dress

Conserving Costumes

These videos share some of behind-the-scenes conservation efforts:

Green Curtain Dress

Green Velvet Dressing Gown

Burgundy Ball Gown

Wedding Dress Veil

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center's David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection's arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film's production, and as a result were in fragile condition. Due to their condition, the Ransom Center had loaned only one of the original costumes, the burgundy ball gown, for an exhibition in 1984.

Most costumes are not constructed to last beyond the production of a film, and many are not finished in the same way as a ready-to-wear garment from a retail store. The dresses are made of heavy fabrics, and the mere force of gravity can cause strain on the stitching of a dress when it is displayed on a mannequin.

The Ransom Center's detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

These two costumes traveled in specially designed storage containers to stabilize them against movement or vibrations. A Ransom Center–appointed conservator and staff member oversaw the unpacking and installation of the costumes at the V&A and will return for the de-installation of the costumes in January.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

"The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin," said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. "It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching."

A description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available.

After careful examination by an independent art conservator who specializes in textiles, the amount of work and funds required to conserve two additional costumes, the blue velvet peignoir and wedding gown and veil, made it impossible to include them in the scope of work for this conservation project.

At this time, there are no plans to conduct future conservation work on the blue velvet peignoir and the wedding gown and veil. The Ransom Center will continue to appropriately house the costumes to ensure that they remain stable and sustain no further damage. Replicas of these two dresses will be on display for the Center's Gone With The Wind exhibition.

Five mannequins, or dress forms (which consist of a torso only), were ordered from Siegel-Stockman, a company based in Paris and New York that has been creating made-to-order mannequins and dress forms since the nineteenth century. Custom-made mannequins, even with measurements provided, often require one or two fittings to ensure that the costume receives the best possible support and fit. The dress forms were customized to an exact fit for each costume by conservators on the Ransom Center premises.

Primary costs for the project included the conservator's professional fees, custom mannequins, and materials for conservation and custom-made underpinnings.

Support of individuals from around the world made this conservation work possible. The exhibition of these dresses at the V&A and later at the Ransom Center would not be possible without this support. Most importantly, stabilizing these costumes ensures that they are protected for future generations.

"We wanted to minimize our contemporary influence as much as was possible on these dresses so that we respect the object, its history, and the artist's original intent," said Morena.

Below are some of the frequently asked questions relating to the work.

What is the Harry Ransom Center?
The Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, advances the study of the arts and humanities by acquiring, preserving and making accessible original cultural materials. With extensive collections of rare books, manuscripts, photography, film, art and the performing arts, the Center supports research through symposia and fellowships and provides education and enrichment for scholars, students and the public through exhibitions and programs.

How did the five dresses end up at the Ransom Center?
The dresses came to the Ransom Center in the early 1980s as part of the archive of David O. Selznick, a well-known and admired producer of Hollywood's "Golden Age" of the 1930s and 1940s. At 5,000 boxes, the Selznick archive is the largest collection at the Ransom Center, with materials ranging from film storyboards to ledgers.

Why do the dresses need repairs?
Prior to the collection coming to the Ransom Center, the costumes had been exhibited in the years after the film's production, extensively for promotional purposes during the film's first year, and as a result were in fragile condition. Most costumes are not constructed to last beyond the production of the film. They may not be finished in the same way that a ready-to-wear garment bought off-the-rack from a retail store would be. The dresses are voluminous and made of heavy fabrics, and the mere force of gravity can cause strain on the stitching of a dress when it is displayed on a mannequin. In some cases, for example, the cotton threads holding the seams together have deteriorated or loosened.

Conservator examining dress with opti-visor

Looking through an opti-visor, conservator Cara Varnell studies the green curtain dress jacket.
Photo by Pete Smith.

What conditions are the dresses kept in at the Ransom Center?
The dresses have been kept in humidity- and temperature-controlled conditions in acid-free tissue paper in archival boxes. The Ransom Center's conservation department is known for its excellence in the field, and preserving and conserving collection materials is a top priority for the institution. Furthermore, the Center's conservation department has consulted with other experts of costume conservation to ensure proper care of the dresses.

Why haven't the dresses been on display?
Most of them have not been displayed in recent years to prevent further damage to the garments, but they have been accessible to scholars through our reading room.

Why are conservation efforts occurring now?
There are two primary reasons that conservation efforts are happening now. While the Ransom Center works on varying conservation and preservation projects, conservation and curatorial staff agreed that these costumes would require the insight and knowledge of a conservator with extensive professional experience with textiles and costumes.

In August 2010, the Ransom Center launched an appeal to fans of Gone With The Wind to assist with conserving the five costumes. In three week's time, more than 600 individuals from around the world contributed funds to meet the $30,000 goal.

Who is conducting the conservation work?
Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who specializes in textiles, historic clothing and performance costumes, is the key conservator. She also leads a team of Ransom Center conservators and professors and graduate students from the Division of Textiles and Apparel in the College of Natural Sciences' School of Human Ecology at The University of Texas at Austin.

How is the Ransom Center collaborating with others at The University of Texas at Austin?
One collaboration with the university's Division of Textiles and Apparel in the College of Natural Sciences' School of Human Ecology addresses the mystery relating to discoloration on the green curtain dress. Light can cause discoloration, but since light often leaves fibers brittle and there's no difference in the fragility of the faded and unfaded fibers, light is not likely to be the sole cause of the discoloration. To solve this mystery, there are plans to analyze the fabric using equipment from the university's Textiles and Apparel Technology Lab, including a spectrometer and a microscopic Fiber Image Analysis System (FIAS). Dr. Bugao Xu, a professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, developed the FIAS.

While engaging in conservation work, do other questions arise?
Yes, conservation work and analysis often expose challenges, areas of concern and mysteries that were not known or identified prior to the beginning of the project.

How long will the conservation work take?
Conservation work is technical, tedious and time consuming. While Ransom Center staff identified treatments for each costume, Varnell's work has revealed and uncovered other areas that will need attention.

Are any of the archives being used to provide insight in the conservation process?
Yes, contents of archives have provided insight, such as memos documenting the costumes that were displayed to promote the premiere of the film in Atlanta and subsequent locations where the costumes were loaned for exhibition to tout the film. This helps conservators reconstruct a history of the life of the garment. These documents can illustrate the timeline that we're trying to create to determine when and where they traveled to get a better picture of their use and their life post-production.

What type of conservation work is occurring?
A primary objective of this conservation work is to stabilize the costumes. Some of the conservation efforts relating to the green curtain dress—which is made up of the bodice, skirt and belt—include: examination for all loose and/or broken stitches, surface cleaning with a low suction vacuum and soft brushes and supporting areas, such as small splits at the top of the wrist opening. For the skirt, one focus was to support areas of loss in the hems with a compatible fabric, which is not intended to hide or even blend this loss, but to ensure that there is sufficient support for the fabric and to mitigate any further loss around the cut edges when the dress is handled in the future.

Which costumes have received conservation treatment to date?
To date, the conservation team has focused their efforts on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown and the green velvet dressing gown. The conservation team is carefully examining the costumes to determine the best treatment. For some items, that may mean no treatment.

For example, the wedding veil, which is made from fine silk net, arrived at the Ransom Center brittle and permanently creased, indicating that the fibers were damaged and deteriorating due to age, not unusual for fine silk net of this age.

Because of its fragility, the veil is a prime example of an item conservators may decide not to conserve. Since conservation will probably deteriorate the veil even further, Varnell and the conservation team have decided to keep an eye on the veil and monitor the veil's condition.

Will the conservation work restore the costumes to their original glory?
The goal of conservation is to stabilize and preserve while maintaining the integrity of the artifact. Because we want to minimize our influence, we accept many of the losses that have happened over time as part of the dresses' history.

Do conservators always wear gloves?
Contrary to popular belief, sometimes conservators should not wear gloves. With the wedding veil, for example, one would not be able to tell the condition of this silk tulle just by looking at it.

If conservators wore gloves to examine the veil, not only are they causing potential damage, but they get no sense of the condition of the fibers. As soon as a conservator touches the veil without gloves, he/she realizes it is brittle, which means that the fibers are damaged.

How can I follow this conservation work?
The Ransom Center will be sharing updates about the conservation work at www.hrc.utexas.edu/conservedresses. Conservators seek insight from anyone who worked on the production of Gone With The Wind, viewed the dresses during an "exploitation tour" in the 1940s or has color photos of the dresses before 1970. Information can be emailed to GWTWinsight@gmail.com.

Updated October 25, 2012