Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. I could hardly find a more pertinent way to start this review, for that is my general reaction towards historical costuming in the Hollywood Golden age (as I have made amply clear in reviews such as this). But, despite that general rejection towards classical historical Hollywood movies, it's undeniable that without them our modern notion of the Costume Drama would not exist. And that is, particularly, thanks to a "small" movie that you might have heard about...
Ambition, ambition, ambition... that seems like the only way to describe this 1939 "blockbuster" that, to this day (when adjusted for inflation) continues to be the highest-grossing movie of all times (see here).
Gone with the wind, clocking its runtime at almost 4 hours, is a landmark of cinema. With a scope and magnitude that overwhelmed audiences, this movie is, to this day, perhaps most notable for bringing us one of the best female characters in movie history: Scarlett O'Hara. So, today, I am going to focus, mainly, on her and her Costume Design.
But, first, let's address a few issues.
THE RACIAL CONTROVERSY
This is a less aggressive way of remarking that, in hindsight, some aspects of the movie are a bit racist. Which, is really to expect when you consider this is a 1939 movie set in a Confederate State where the Confederates are sort of the good guys...
But, yes, I cannot ignore the fact that this movie does romanticize the "Old South" quite a bit, and therefore perpetuates Civil War myths and black stereotypes. Here, Southerners are portrayed as defending traditional values, and the issue of slavery is largely ignored, instead showing the slaves as dutiful and content with their lives.
One could argue that the movie toned that down quite a bit compared to the book, which included the Ku Klux Klan as a central part of the story (most of which was cut from the movie), but still... it's problematic.
That doesn't mean you can't like the movie, just that you should keep in mind that it's a 1939 movie and that our world views have changed quite a bit since then. The key is acknowledging the problem and stop condoning it. That's all.
Whit that said, let's move on to the costumes.
THE MAN BEHIND THE COSTUME: WALTER PLUNKETT
To put it simply; he is the other reason we still talk about this movie (Scarlett O'Hara being the first reason). Walter Plunkett (1902-1982) is, to this day, one of the most prolific costume designers to have worked in Hollywood. Even more noteworthy, is the fact that, during his active years, he held the distinction of being the only working designer to confine his efforts to period costume, a fact that helped turn him in a recognized authority in this field.
Having worked in over 150 historical movies, that authority is hard to contest.
He left his mark on movies such as Little Women (both in the 1933 version and the 1949 version), The Age of Innocence (1934), The Three Musketeers (both in the 1935 version and the 1948 version), Mary of Scotland (1936), King Solomon's Mines (1950), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Young Bess (1953)... and many, many, many more. Including, of course, 1939's David O'Selznick's mammoth project; Gone with the wind, creating thus the costumes which became motion picture history.
Still, despite his monstrous big body of work in Hollywood, he spent most of his career complaining against Studio Demands on the Costumes, particularly on one issue...
NOTES ON ACCURACY
Despite Plunkettt's monumental knowledge of historical costuming, as a Hollywood Costume Designer, he was constantly asked to play fast and loose with the historical accuracy (which is the very reason that I usually refuse to review movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood) blending the historically appropriate silhouette with the contemporary fashion sensibilities, something that, unfortunately, is still done on many occasions.
Gone With the Wind, is not completely exempt from that practice, and while Plunkett did manage to be able to include a great deal of historically accurate costuming in the movie, there are still a few instances where he was asked to modify the gowns to favor a 1930's silhouette.
Despite this, the 1939 epic, still stands out as one of the most historically accurate (in regards to costume) Hollywood movies of the Golden Age, which is why it has become such a staple of reference for Costume Drama lovers and the "genre" itself.
With all that out of the way, let's dive into the thick of the issue.
SCARLETT: A WOMAN'S STRENGTH
Scarlett O'Hara is a name written in all caps in film history. A character larger than life and a force to be reckoned with. A character that balances ambition, determination and strength like it's nobody's business.
Loosely based on the character of Becky Sharp from William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, she somehow managed to upstage her predecessor in fame and renown whilst still maintaining the same main character traits.
She also happens the be the center character of the movie. So, basically, this over-ambitious four-hour epic rides on her lithe shoulders. So it's really unavoidable to focus on her when talking about the movie. Even more so when talking about the movie's Costume Design.
Is that because she is such a style icon? In part, but that's not the main reason. The fact is that her wardrobe is not only iconic, it also manages to tell, through visuals, her whole character arc through the movie. And that's what I am going to be focusing on.
Let's analyze how Walter Plunkett told the story of this amazing character only through costume, leaving us with a masterful lesson on Narrative Design that would be referenced by many designers to come.
PART I: SPOILED INNOCENCE
When we first meet Scarlett, she is but a child. A spoiled little girl that has always enjoyed all the comforts and privileges of her status, but still a child. And, accordingly, she is introduced in a big ruffled dress. A big white dress, more specifically.
This is what I call a statement dress; both the color and the ruffles highlight her youth and innocence whilst also conveying her wealth and pampered existence and pointing at her coquettish personality. And, through the very clever inclusion of red details (on her hair and her belt) on the design, it also manages to hint at her temper; her fierceness and strength that will become a staple of her character.
Her next outfit, the one she wears during the fateful Twelve Oaks barbecue, uses a similar technique to highlight Scarlett's most negative trait: envy.
The dress, once again, combines white and ruffles to create a childlike air about it and create the idea that she's a little girl playing at being a grown-up. Whilst also adding green elements to it to hint at her poisonous envy and ambition that comes into play, for the first time, during the picnic as she tries (and fails) to wrestle Ashley Wilkes away from Melanie.
Also, the additional gigantic hat cements her coquettish nature. She might be a girl, but she knows (and is willing) to use her charms.
But not even all her determination and charm can get her Ashley. And out of spite, she decides to marry Melanie's fool of a brother. And so, her next outfit is her wedding outfit.
Notice how it has taken a slight departure from the previous white tonality of her dresses. This one is ivory, not white. Or in less fancy terms; broken white.
By marrying Hamilton out of spite, she has broken her innocence. That subtle change in coloration helps underline her first subtle misstep as she abandons the innocence of childhood. She's not so innocent anymore.
Thus she abandons the idyllic nature of her childhood at the same time that the South goes to war.
All we've got is cotton, and slaves, and... arrogance.
PART II: THE MOST PECULIAR WIDOW
After the breakout of the American Civil War and the death of Hamilton, we meet her as the world's less grieving widow. And her complete dislike of the restrictions of widowhood is wonderfully presented to us through the use of a rather lively fuchsia hat.
See how much you can visually explain with only one single piece of dress? Much in the same way, it feels just as telling when Rhett Butler decides to give her a green bonnet as a present.
It becomes quite clear that he wants her to drop the mourning period because, as he points out, she is quite the fake mourner.
And indeed she is; constantly muttering about the constraints and boredom of wearing black and the nuisance that it is to be unable to attend to balls and social calls.
That's why it is so much fun to see her with her mourning clothes (beautifully designed, by the way); because it goes against her very nature. She is a natural peacock, and mourning rules literally force her to castrate that natural instinct.
She is not made for wearing black; she's more fitted to vivid and bright colors, particularly red and green, as it has been established up to this point. Actually, one of the most interesting aspects of the costume design for this movie is how Plunkett uses those two colors as cues for the audience to know what's going through Scarlett's mind.
For instance, notice the Christmas frock that she wears after finally dropping the mourning.
It is not a coincidence that she's wearing this piece as she's forced to see Ashley return home, but finds herself unable to do a thing to drag him away from Melanie. Up to this point, green has been narratively tied to Scarlett's envy and desire for Ashley pretty strongly.
Much the same way, the color red has been tied to her temper, her passion and her determination. Therefore, it's also logical that she's dressed in a red and white dress when she decides to try and confront Ashley once again about their "love".
This frock is also quite girlish, thus reminding the audience that she is still a young girl, barely eighteen. It's a last desperate attempt to cling to the hope, love and the world in which she grew up.
We shall need all our prayers, for now the end is coming. The end of the war, and the end of our world.
PART III: THE RELUCTANT CARETAKER
As the Yankee assault on Atlanta continues, Scarlett is thrusted into working as a nurse at the military hospital, even though there's never been a less ill-suited human being for the job, as her face plainly indicates.
Much the same way that she didn't want to be a widow, she doesn't want to be a nurse either. But life and circumstances force her into this very much undesired position. What's so great about this character is the force and strength with which she opposes it.
But despite her spirit and will, her whole world is crumbling beneath her feet. And, accordingly, she starts to dress in simpler clothes, in darker colors and more muted tonalities.
The bright, vivid colors and lush dresses of her Tara days are gone, much the same way that the balls and elegance of the Old South are being trampled over by the Yankees.
And, as she finds herself locked in a house alone with a pregnant woman under her care, her wardrobe reduces to one single frock.
She literally has been stripped of everything she held dear; the land, the luxury, Ashley, her frocks, security... everything. And it's clearly shown by the fact that she's been stripped down to one single, humble, muted dress.
Nevertheless, she persists with her usual fierceness. And it's far from a coincidence that at the height of that brave persistence (when she decides to go fetch Melanie's doctor in the middle of a Yankee attack), she is seen wearing the Pamela with the green ribbon (the one she wore at the fateful barbecue).
The design aims to make a striking contrast between her dirty and ragged dress and the pretty Pamela; a small reminder of the world that's crumbling around her. It's all that it's left of her life as she knew it; the faint memory of an afternoon sipping tea at Twelve Oaks.
During the escape from Atlanta and the journey home, through which she continues to wear that same old dress, she comes to realize how harsh life can really be and what strength and determination really mean, prompting the arch-famous speech as she arrives back to a devastated Tara:
As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me! I'm going to live through this, and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again - no, nor any of my folks! If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.
It's at that very moment, as she claws at the earth in a ragged dress, that the real Scarlett is born, turning from a little spoiled brat from a hardened woman.
PART IV: THE FIGHTER
Scarlet O'Hara is, above all, a woman who fights for what she wants. When she sets her eyes on the price, she claws her way through obstacles relentlessly. And now, as head of the house in Tara, all she wants is to keep her land.
That means doing manual labor, giving up her dresses and parties... and she does it without complaint.
That steel determination is visually highlighted through costume design by the fact that, throughout all this portion of the movie, she is pictured wearing the exact same dress with which she arrived at Tara, almost as a constant reminder of what she has lost.
That dress is all she has left, and she wears it proudly and with her head high.
You? Helpless? Heaven help the yankees if they capture you!
PART V: THE BUSINESSWOMAN
Heaven help them indeed... Scarlett's fierceness and determination are the main force behind her idea of going to visit Rhett in Jail to get money to save Tara. It's that same force of hers that drives her to go there draped in a dress made out of her old curtains.
The "curtain dress" is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic outfits of the movie. And for a good reason; this dress isn't only a perfect match to Scarlett's personality, but an incredible statement as to where she is in the movie and where she's planning to go.
The dress is, once again, green; a color that has thoroughly been established as a visual representation of her more dubious and scheming side. And that's what this dress reflects; it's a mask, a fancy dress. She's putting an up an act in order to get what she wants.
And constitutes, in a way, a key change in her character. Before, she used to dress and act coquettish because she thought that that was what women did. Now she does it exclusively to get what she wants. She does it because she has too. She exploits men's idiocy in order to survive.
And so, she goes to that jail dressed like a lady because she knows that is the only way Rhett will pay any attention to her.
And that's why this dress is so iconic; because it brilliantly manages to get across her ability to make the most out of whatever circumstance she finds herself into. What if she doesn't have money to buy a dress? She'll make one out of curtains. What if she can't get the money from Rhett? She'll marry the first wealthy old man she finds, even if said man is engaged to her sister...
Speaking of which...This is, in all fairness, the shadiest thing Scarlett does throughout the movie. And she knows it. It's only fitting then, that as she comes home to tell her sister, she presents herself in a "falsely" modest red dress.
Why "falsely" modest? Because it would pass for a modest dress if it weren't by the fact that it's made of bright, bold red velvet and silk.
Let's just say that bold red isn't exactly a color that screams "I'm sorry I stole your husband". She's trying to look sorry for her sister's sake, but she's also covertly flaunting the fact that she's not as poor anymore and her future suddenly looks a lot brighter.
What I find so brilliant about this design is just how contradictory it manages to look. It's structured like a dress you would wear at church; with the nice round neck and the full-length sleeves... but at the same time it's almost obscene in how not-modest the materials and the color are.
And that is a perfect way to describe this new phase in her life. She's a businesswoman now, and she's trying to make herself fit in a preeminently male world. In order to do that, she'll need to play that double game between appearing modest (as any woman in her time should be) and radiating status and leadership (two traits that were generally frowned upon when detected on a woman).
Accordingly, most of her dresses try to balance those two concepts as well. I particularly like the beige dress (the one on the left side of the picture above) and how it mixes a very modest neckline and color scheme with the sternness of the military-inspired details.
But, as time passes, she starts to be less discreet in flaunting her fortune, which gains her a lot of criticism amongst the townsfolk. The blue dress she wears during her attack at planky town is probably the best example of this new, less discreet, trend of hers.
This more extravagant side of her is very cleverly reflected through the details, not the whole of the design. For instance, the neckline is more daring, and the color combination (blue and yellow) is bolder than anything we've seen her in before.
It's actually very clever that, the same way that she gets attacked the day that she gets to daring in her independence (deciding to go alone from work to home), is also the day that she's wearing a dress that is also a little too daring.
That excess comes at a high cost for her (her husband gets killed trying to get revenge on her attack) but, to the rest of the town, it comes as a much-needed reprimand on her behavior, after all, as Ashley tells her;
A woman shouldn't run a business
PART VI: A WIDOW OF QUESTIONABLE REPUTE
Her husband's death and the town's mistrust of her leave her in a very delicate position. That, coupled with the fact that she's experiencing regret for the first time in her life, translates to the screen with the most somber and sober look of the whole movie: a simple and modest black dress with not a spot of color in it.
This time around, instead of wishing that she could not be a widow, Scarlett wallows around the house dabbing into sporadic alcoholism. She feels pity for herself and for all she wanted in life that didn't turn out the way she had expected.
But, in the end, it's Rhett, during his unusual proposal, that describes it best:
You're like the thief who isn't the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he's going to jail.
PART VII: A RICH WOMAN AT LAST
Scarlett's marriage to Rhett is the greatest changing point in her story after the start of the Civil War and with good reason. Marrying Rhett allows her to achieve what she wanted from the very beginning; being unapologetically rich. That sudden rush of unending available money skyrockets her eccentricities and extravagances both in behavior and look.
Note the shoulder decoration, the exaggerated neckline, the over-the-top hat... her previous false modesty gets totally discarded and thrown out of the window in favor of an all-out extravagance and ostentation.
Also, note that she's also back in white for the first time since before the war. Some people might call it coincidence, but it's hardly that. Especially when it becomes a staple of this new phase in her life.
It's no coincidence that the dress she wears on her return to Tara is white. Not only is it white again, it's clearly trying to be reminiscent of the Twelve Oaks dress through the addition of the green details.
Why this? Well, to Scarlett, it seems as if she's finally where she wanted to be before the war broke out. And, therefore, she's trying to continue her life as if all her hardships had never existed. She's trying, completely subconsciously, to erase a part of her life that she never really liked. So she goes back to her old sense of self-image.
But that, in its turn, poses another problem. If she's already married, and rich (as she had always wanted), what now? What comes next? Happiness?
It's there where her problem lies; she has it all, but she's not really happy. In fact, the more time goes on, the less happy she feels. And, progressively, she starts to get lost in her own emotional misery.
That descent into emotional instability is beautifully reflected in the costumes through a dramatic change in color scheme and overall style. And, whilst the change in style is disguised through the real change in silhouette between the 1860s and 1870s, the change in color scheme is undeniable.
Not only white becomes more prevalent, but she also starts to wear darker colors and blacks (willingly) and blues.
Narratively, it feels as if she's wavering; going from Rhett to Ashley and back to Rhett without knowing how to be content. And that's very well reflected in the suddenly eclectic set of dresses she gets to wear during this section of the film.
But no matter how much she tries, she is never going to be content and happy. Why? Because she wants something she can't have: she wants to go back to her life before the war. She wants to get the splendor days back. She wants a world that doesn't exist anymore.
That's why she decorates her house with big, almost gigantic, tinted glasses depicting knights and castle. She longs for a fantasy.
That longing is translated into the costumes through this gorgeously-dramatic red velvet gown.
Both through the color and the sheer scope of the design it manages to bring us back to what Scarlett sees as "the happy days". And, just like back then, the vibrant red is the perfect visual stand-in for her willfulness and temper, and, in this case, also her pride and delusion (which come hand in hand with her other personality traits).
All of these circumstances in her life lead her to try to win back Ashley once again, which gains her not only the disgust of the whole town but Rhett's anger as well. Which, in turn, leads to him forcing her to dress up "as what she is" and attend alone Melanie's party.
And so she appears dressed in all red and a rather scandalous neckline. And for once, she feels naked. Everyone can see her shame through that dress. She is being slut-shamed; paraded for everyone to witness her crimes.
Her marriage is crumbling, her friends are repudiating her (except sweet Melanie) and she's spiraling out of control. The last blow that will make her crumble will be the death of her only child and the almost immediate death of Melanie.
After this, she swaps, once again, all her lush dresses for the sober black of mourning. I particularly like the inclusion of the high neck, which visually underlines the idea that she's chocking in her own life.
It's in that moment of absolute misery that she realizes that she never should have pursued Ashley and that she loved Rhett all along. And thus she runs back home only to find Rhett about to leave her. She tries to convince him, but he's had enough, leaving her alone in her crumbling world.
The first time I saw the movie I didn't quite like that ending, for it seemed to me that the movie was being excessively punishing towards Scarlett. But then, on a second (and third, and fourth...) viewing, I suddenly grasped the true importance of her last line in the movie. What could have easily been a punishing ending for her drive, temper and wild ways, gets upturned by that very last line.
Rhett might have abandoned her. But she's not going to stay knocked down. She'll survive, after all, she always does. She'll find a way to get back on track. Because, even after having lost her family, her world, her love... there's still Tara.
And so we end, with this beautiful and poetic image, that seems to confirm that very reading. She is Tara, and Tara is her. You can ravage them, burn them to the ground,... but they will always survive.
Tara. Home... I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day
THE BIRTH OF COSTUME DRAMA
Gone with the Wind is a landmark of cinema for many and uncountable reasons. There is no doubting that. From the scope of the production to the technical excellence of the cinematography, the state of the art special effects and stunt teams... And, of course, through the inclusion of a strong and charismatic woman at the helm.
Scarlett is an incredibly well-rounded character. Her motivations, her desires, her worries... all help to make sense of a character that should be unpleasant and mean, but it's too human for you to hate. She's definitely one of the best female characters ever written.
But the movie is also remembered for setting the canons of what a Costume Drama should be; from the sheer number of costumes on-screen, to the incredible narrative detail behind the designs themselves. It sets the bar really high, and for many years, no other Costume Drama surpassed it. And one might even question if it has been surpassed...
In the end, these designs are remembered because they are incredibly memorable. And are memorable because they managed to capture the spirit of Scarlett O'Hara whilst also capturing the tone and scale of the movie and the overarching arc of her story. And that's what makes a costume design great and everlasting. That, and having the great creative talent of Walter Plunkett sure helps!
I hope you enjoyed this article, it's been crafted will all my love. Once again, excuse me for the incredible delay, this has been a very complicated month for me.
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