‘Gone With the Wind’ dresses undergo restoration at Ransom Center

Liz Farmer

In “Gone With the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara braved the Civil War in fashion, but the lavish dresses she donned haven’t retained their rich color.

UT’s Harry Ransom Center, where the costumes permanently reside, is working on conservation efforts in hopes that the dresses will be ready for display by 2014.

Last year the Ransom Center raised $30,000 of outside donations for the project.

The center received the dresses in 1981 from a collection from David O. Selznick, the film’s producer. They have not been on display at the center but have been available to scholars.

The stress of age and gravity wore on the materials, said Ransom Center media coordinator Steve Wilson.

“They were only made to last as long as they were needed for the film,” Wilson said. “I think Selznick realized he had a promotional gold mine. They were sent to various places to be exhibited.”

When the film came out in 1939, Selznick ordered that the dresses tour the country.

Wilson said travel and dry cleanings done after each stop on the tour resulted in some of the damage the center is researching and hoping to fix.

Nicole Villarreal, textiles apparel technology graduate student, mapped every stitch on O’Hara’s famous green curtain dress to leave a record of the original stitches and those added later.

“It was hard,” Villarreal said. “It’s very different from knowing how to put something together.”

The Civil War epic captured the imagination of the American people at another time of war, Villarreal said.

“It was on the brink of World War II,” Villarreal said. “I think that was part of the whole appeal. You could lose yourself in the dresses.”

Portions of the dark forest green curtain dress faded to a lighter olive color. Two of the other dresses have similar discoloration issues, but the cause of the problem is a mystery.

The Ransom Center hired Cara Varnell to tend to the dresses. She is a costume and textile conservator for a conservation studio in California.

Her main focus is to stabilize the dresses so they undergo as little damage as possible as they continue to reside in the center. The center plans to house a “Gone with the Wind” exhibit in 2014, the movie’s 75th anniversary.

The exhibit will include items from Selznick’s extensive collection, but it’s still to be determined whether the dresses will be in good enough condition to be displayed as part of the exhibit.

“We can’t really responsibly display it unless we find out why it’s fading,” Varnell said. “That’s the goal — to make them exhibitable.”