Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in classic Hollywood film Gone With The Wind was legendary. In Helen Beaumont’s opinion, the costume designs created for Scarlett O’Hara helped Leigh turn this heroine into a timeless character, who is still beloved by viewers across the world today.
Gone With The Wind
Released in 1939, Gone With The Wind tells the story of manipulative Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara, as she carried out a turbulent affair with a blockade runner during the American Civil War. The film’s cast were widely praised when it was released, with Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett winning particular acclaim. It won ten Oscars, including a ‘Best Actress Award’ for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.
When the movie begins, she is vain, self-centred and spoiled by her wealthy parents, having grown up on a plantation in Georgia. However, she also perfectly displays traditional Southern charm and virtues in public. As Scarlett’s situation worsens, she hardens, becoming more money-conscious and materialistic, but retains her vanity. How do you dress a character who throughout the course of Gone With The Wind undergoes such fundamental change, but never seems to learn her lessons?
Enter costume designer
The costume designer on Gone With The Wind was Walter Plunkett, who also worked on Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris. Throughout his career, Walter Plunkett became an expert in period costume design, previously dressing Katherine Hepburn in several historical productions.
Walter Plunkett showed himself as a true professional on Gone With The Wind. Showing the importance of conducting extensive period costume research before joining a historical production, he travelled the US South for a year before Gone With The Wind started filming. On these journeys, Plunkett studied authentic southern sources data from the Civil War period to inform his designs.
So Plunkett prioritised authenticity with every costume he designed, especially Scarlett O’Hara’s. The film’s heroine epitomised the vain, yet polite Southern Belle, wearing everything from a blue velvet peignoir to a burgundy ball gown, as she charmed people. But her most famous costume was the green curtain dress, a more subtle piece which symbolised Scarlett’s growing will to survive.
Plunkett faced two challenges. It has to be suit Leigh’s eyes and conform to technicolour specifications, showing the importance of colour in costume. It also had to look as though it was made from the draperies at the plantation. Plunkett’s creation was composed of a chartreuse velvet underskirt, a sleeveless green cotton bodice) and green velvet overskirts. Its bodice came with long, fitted sleeves and a capelet on the left shoulder, while the outfit was completed by a tassled, drapery chord belt.
With the green curtain dress, Plunkett more than rose to the occasion. The green and chartreuse shades he used perfectly complemented Leigh’s blue eyes, while looking fantastic in technicolour. The belt alone helped viewers believe that this dress was in fact created from draperies. Meanwhile, Plunkett has the dress’ fabric treated to look as if it was faded by sunlight, as curtains would be.
Attention to detail
While designing costumes for Scarlett O’Hara, Walter Plunkett paid attention to detail. He technically didn’t even need to have the green curtain dress’ fabric treated, as it didn’t show up in technicolour but he did anyway, helping Vivien Leigh get into character and take viewers away on a historical journey. Consequently, together the pair developed a character for the ages in Scarlett O’Hara.
About Helen Beaumont
Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera. She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.