Preserving what’s left of Scarlett O’Hara dress

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Preserving what’s left of Scarlett O’Hara dress


Cara Varnell, an art conservator who specializes in Hollywood film costumes, works with the green velvet gown from “Gone With the Wind” on July 19 in Austin, Texas. [AP/YONHAP]

Efforts to preserve and restore several iconic dresses from the Oscar-winning Civil War movie “Gone with the Wind’’ have uncovered what might be painful for die-hard fans: Some of them simply can’t be made to look like they did on screen.

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 Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas announced a $30,000 effort last year to preserve five of the dresses acquired with the collection of producer David O. Selznick in the 1980s. The goal is to have them ready for a 2014 exhibit to mark the film’s 75th anniversary.

Ransom Center officials this week gave The Associated Press a look at the work being done to bring them back to the best shape possible.

The costumes are among the most famous in Hollywood history and played a key role in one of the most popular films ever. The Ransom Center holds five dresses it wanted to restore for display: Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress, her green velvet gown, a burgundy ball gown, a blue velvet night gown and her wedding dress.

“They 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.

Varnell knew the dresses would be in rough shape. They had been put through their paces well before they came to the Ransom Center.

Selznick, realizing he had a “gold mine on his hands,’’ put the dresses on tour with the film, said Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson. They went through decades of traveling displays and had been on loan to the Met in New York. They were also dry-cleaned multiple times, sprayed with disinfectant and displayed in department stores.

A conservation assessment done when they first arrived at the Ransom Center in the 1980s deemed them too fragile to display. Varnell said the Ransom Center has since then properly kept them in temperature-controlled storage.

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

Yet 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 recreate their precise look on the silver screen.

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