UT's Harry Ransom Center restoring "Gone With the Wind" dresses

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by ANDREW CHUNG / KVUE News

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Posted on July 20, 2011 at 6:25 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 22 at 10:37 AM

AUSTIN, TX -- From the music, to the famous quotes, to those iconic dresses worn by Vivien Leigh's character, Scarlett O'Hara, “Gone With The Wind” is still a fan favorite, even after more than 70 years.

However, time has not been so kind to Scarlett's dresses. That is where the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center comes in, as workers at the research museum are trying to preserve five of the original dresses Vivien Leigh wore in the film.
 
Cara Varnell is a conservator visiting from Los Angeles, and she is in charge of restoring the dresses.
 
"This one is fairly strong; its problems have to do with color fading, so what I'm actually doing with it is minimal in terms of treatment," Varnell said referring to one of the green dresses worn by Leigh in the film. "There's a few holes; there's a hole at the waist."
 
Varnell says alterations that may have taken place during or after the film could have put a strain on the dresses. 
 
"We don't know where all of that came from...there's all of these different rows of stitching; it's loose. None of this is right," she explains.
 
Part of her restoration work is what she calls "stabilizing" the dresses. That means making sure they can hold their form should they go on tour.
 
It's a double-edged sword for Varnell. One mistake in her restoration could make things worse.
 
“My guiding principle is always, 'just because I know how to do something doesn't mean I should.' So this we leave alone until we know exactly what happened to this,” said Varnell.
 
"There was a period of time in the early ‘80s where Selznick's sons, Jeffrey and Daniel, were looking for a home for the archive, and they approached a number of different institutions and settled on the University of Texas," said Steve Wilson, curator of film at the Harry Ransom Center.
 
He is thrilled an effort is being made to preserve the dresses. 
 
"Oh, it's terrific! I mean, we feel really honored to be working on these because they're national treasures, and that's evidenced by the incredible response we got to the fundraising campaign," Wilson said.
 
The center raised more than the $30,000 needed for the dresses' restoration. In all, $34,204 was raised from 707 donors.
 
Varnell says the dresses, like human beings, have a lifespan as well.
 
At the end of the film “Gone With The Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara says, “After all, tomorrow is another day.” 
 
The hope is these dresses will live to see another day and many more.

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