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Saving movie costumes as 'Gone With the Wind' novel turns 75

August 18, 2011 |  1:42 pm

Cara Varnell works with the green velvet gown from GWTW 
It's been 75 years since the publication of "Gone With the Wind," and it still captures the public's imagination. The novel and subsequent movie keep generating controversy for their portrayal of slavery and keep generating headlines, thanks to fans who want to read and re-read the book, collect the paraphernalia and dress up like Scarlett O'Hara.

Earlier this year, we noted some of the many events inspired by the novel's 75th anniversary.  Now the Associated Press reports on efforts by the University of Texas to repair five of the dresses by 2014 -- in time for the film's 75th anniversary.

Buttons on the green velvet gown from GWTW Which dresses? Scarlett's green curtain dress, her green velvet gown, a burgundy ball gown, blue velvet night gown and her wedding dress.

But the restoration of iconic movie costumes that have gone through decades of traveling displays and been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presents a series of challenges: "Stitching and holes can be repaired, and extra feathers added years ago can be removed, but the dresses are old, badly faded in spots and, in one case, just too fragile to handle," the Associated Press reports.

The dresses "are culturally important,' said Cara Varnell, an independent art conservator who specializes in Hollywood film costumes and is doing the restoration work.

"Varnell has meticulously studied the dresses worn by actress Vivien Leigh and has tried to decode alterations done over several generations. The waistline of the green curtain dress has been altered several times. Extra feathers had been sewn onto the burgundy ball gown."

The AP continues:

One of the most vexing questions is figuring out what caused curtain dress to develop long faded streaks that have turned sections of the fabric a color best described as a brown mustard.

Varnell is convinced they are not caused by light damage because the fabric in those places does not appear to be dried out or fragile in ways that would be typical of light exposure.

Records show that the dress was likely sprayed with Sudol, a disinfectant similar to Lysol, which may have affected the rate and nature of the discoloration.

The Ransom Center [at UT] 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, Varnell said.

There will be no attempt to try to restore the curtain dress to its original shade of green, Varnell said. Her job is to keep the dresses sturdy enough to endure in as close to their original form as possible, not to try to re-create their precise look on the silver screen.

The wear and tear on each dress is "part of its history," according to Varnell. Color will not be added back.  "This is part of its history," she told the AP. "We honor the history and we honor the piece."

Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson hopes members of the public will send old photos or share stories (if they saw the dresses on display) that will help "complete the record of all that the dresses have been through.

Frankly, my dear, someone out there gives a damn.


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-- Alice Short 

Photos: Cara Varnell and the green velvet gown from "Gone With the Wind." Credit: Eric Gay / Associated Press