From a cavernous warehouse in an undisclosed location in Southern California, the collections manager of the Natural History Museum, Beth Werling, manages a war against entropy. The warehouse's exact location must remain secret – the place is a literal treasure trove of priceless artifacts.
On this particular sunny spring day, Werling, a zaftig, self-possessed blonde, is contemplating the Scarlett O'Hara barbecue dress. The dress came into the museum's possession 10 years ago, after its sister institution, LACMA, decided to stop collecting costumes, and it has been languishing in storage ever since. As 2014 is Gone With the Wind's 75th anniversary, there is hope among staffers that the dress might be displayed.
The barbecue dress is white and green. It's not the heavy velvet one Scarlett makes out of a curtain but the light, frothy, frilly one she wears at the beginning of the movie, with a wide-brimmed straw hat and a gaggle of gentlemen at her feet.
“It just says Southern belle,” Werling declares. “It flounces. It speaks to her character.”
It's an important dress: “That particular scene where Vivien Leigh wears it runs almost half an hour. She loses Ashley and meets Rhett for the first time. Civil war is declared. A lot goes on.”
When not on display, the dress rests in a cool, dark, stable environment: temperature at 70 degrees, plus or minus two degrees; humidity at 50 percent. It is stored flat, wrapped in acid-free tissue in two acid-free boxes – skirt and belt in one, bodice in another. Left on a hanger, the weight of the fabric would rip the shoulder seams.
Werling walks now to a long table where the boxes sit, and snaps on purple nitrile gloves. The gloves prevent the acids on her skin from etching into the dress's metal clasps.
“You have to remember, it's cumulative. You have to be of the mindset that it's not just you today handling it. You have to take extra precaution so we still have this 100 years from now. Or 200 years from now.” Gently, she peels away the tissue. “Everything we do is to try to minimize contact with it.”
Even light is an enemy. Light fades colors, causing an irreversible chemical breakdown in the textile fibers. Like many museums, the Natural History Museum displays a given textile for only three to six months at a time. It keeps ambient lights moody and uses UV filter glass.
Bugs are a hazard, too. Moths won't go after silk, but beetles will. So Werling deploys sticky traps outside the facility door. “That's our first line of defense. If we see anything creepy-crawly stuck in the trap, or anything flying around, we go into a kind of triage and lock-down mode.”
If Werling had seen something she didn't “like the looks of,” the dress would have gone into a subzero freezer.
Despite these precautions, the garment is starting to deteriorate. Its silk lining is shattering. “When silk gets old, it turns brittle. If you put it on a mannequin without treatment, it will eventually turn into powder,” she explains.
It helps to lay a fine net over the silk to hold it in place, sort of like scaffolding. Or you can glue it. But glue is not reversible. “If you make a mistake or want to change it later, you can't take it back.”
Scarlett's dress already endured a round of repairs in the 1980s. Its organza overlay was in shreds; its green velvet sash was MIA. So the museum called in the film's original costume designer, Walter Plunkett. He hand-painted new fabric and made a new belt. “He tried to approximate the original color, but it's not a perfect match,” Werling notes. “It was an incredibly rare instance when the original designer was still alive and able to do the major repair work on it.” The timing was impeccable: Plunkett died shortly thereafter.
Studios are not exactly kind to their costumes. After filming, costumes have often been repurposed, especially during the early days of cinema. “Nobody cared,” Werling says. “It wasn't considered worth keeping. They would chop it up, redesign it, dye it, reuse it in some other film.” They'd lop off a sleeve, or alter a neckline for an extra to wear in the background. It's only luck that Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick happened to keep this dress.
Werling expects they cleaned the dress between shots, although she doesn't know how. She hopes it wasn't dry cleaned, which is “almost the worst thing you can do to a garment if you want it to last.” Worst of all would be to then leave it in the plastic bag, which becomes “a little toxic chamber.”
Eventually, the museum's plan is to rotate the barbecue dress into its new “Becoming Los Angeles” exhibit, but no specific date has been set yet. That's mainly because no specific funds have been identified. Conservation is expensive. Werling expects repairs to run $10,000 to $12,000. The display mannequin alone – which is cleverly designed to take the weight off portions of the costume – costs several thousand bucks.
Looking at the dress now, Werling is struck by its tiny size. Vivien Leigh couldn't match the famed 17-inch waist Scarlett boasts of in the book, but the dress's waist is still just 24.5 or 25.5 inches, depending on whether you measure from the inside or outside.
She is amazed by the craftsmanship. Lesser costumes have glued-on sequins or beads, or basted hems, temporary fixes that just have to survive a few minutes of shooting. “This one is clearly a work of art.”
Handling such objects every day, Werling admits, “You can get sort of blasé about the riches.” When Charlie Chaplin's shoes arrived, her one thought was, “Oh, great. They look almost identical to Buster Keaton's shoes. We better make sure they're both clearly marked and keep them as far apart as possible until they've been processed.”
This dress was different. Werling struggles to describe the first time she saw it – the recognition, the feeling of rightness at flipping it over and noting the tag labeled “Scarlett” and “Selznick.” Everyone in the museum that day knew it was arriving and came to pay homage.
Collections managers are trained to treat every acquisition alike. “Like a parent,” she says. “You're not supposed to have a favorite child. They all get treated equally. Doesn't matter if it's blacksmith tools. Or an instantly recognizable, one-of-a-kind piece.” But every now and then, “The power of the artifact does get to us.”
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