Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Walter Plunkett - Fashion Historian

Originally published on the Coletterie blog.

Walter Plunkett (1902-1982) American

Gold lame costume, Christopher Strong, 1933.

Walter Plunkett was born in California. However, when he decided he wanted to be an actor, he first moved to New York and only after making that attempt did he return to California to try his hand at Hollywood. After a few bit parts, he accepted a job in the wardrobe department at FBO Studios (later RKO) which at the time specialized in Westerns. Even though he had no formal training, he was soon promoted to costume designer and he was chief designer for RKO Pictures from 1926-1939.

Lana Turner in Green Dolphin Street, 1947.
Walter Plunkett became known in Hollywood as the foremost authority on period costumes. He once said that he loved working on period films because the directors were rarely knowledgeable enough about the period-era fashions in order to argue with him.

Gone With the Wind costume sketches.
Katharine Hepburn, whom Plunkett had dressed in over seven films, was originally interested in the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. She recommended the book to Plunkett and after he read it he had his agents write David Selznick to suggest him as the costume designer. Producer Selznick was well aware of his abilities, as Plunkett had designed the costumes for Selznick’s production of Little Women, which had also been set in the 1860s.

Plunkett with Leigh in the "Barbecue dress."

Velvet dressing gown, Gone With The Wind.

For Gone with the Wind, he was responsible for one of the most famous movie costumes ever made; the moss green velvet dress, made from the family drapes, that Scarlet O’Hara wears to entice Rhett Butler to marry her. Plunkett contrasted the changes in Scarlet’s life circumstances by dressing her in light organdy, tulle, and cotton in the first half of the film. In the second half, in order to show her new level of affluence after her marriages, he dressed her in silks and numerous velvet garments of various jewel colors.

Silk evening gown, Adam's Rib, 1949.
After resigning in 1935, Plunkett continued to work in Hollywood as a free-lance designer and was credited with over 260 films.

Katherine Hepburn in A Woman Rebels, 1936.
His Films: Little Women (1933) Alice Adams (1935), A Woman Rebels (1936), Gone With the Wind (1939), Summer Stock (1950), Flying Down to Rio (1933), An American in Paris (1950), Singing In The Rain (1952), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Two Weeks In Another Town (1962).

His style, innovations, and lasting influence on fashion:

Scarlett O'Hara silk satin wedding dress.
  • For Gone With The Wind, Plunkett created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than fifty major characters.
  • Walter Plunkett would be nominated for the Academy Award ten times. In 1951, he was finally recognized by the Academy for An American in Paris. He shared the award with fellow designers Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.
Sources: Gone With the Wind Exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin; In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design (1980) W. Robert La Vine; Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label (2008) Christian Esquevin.

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