Scarlett’s Green Curtain Dress

il_fullxfull.307931387Walter Plunkett leans over his drafting table, carefully scanning Chapter XXXII of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. He envisions that first afternoon when Scarlett laid hands on those moss-green portieres. He wonders how they must have felt in that oppressive Georgia heat. Wait – Mitchell tells him: prickly, soft, heavy.[1] But what’s this? …Its winter? So much for that heat.

Plunkett flips to Chapter XXXIV. Scarlett is in Atlanta now – gone to beseech her star-crossed lover Rhett Butler for the $300 to pay the tax on Tara. Plunkett impatiently flips to the next page; where’s that damn curtain dress?

A few months back, Loew’s purchased the rights to Mitchell’s book. Gone With the Wind had gone to Hollywood, and Plunkett was crafting the costumes.

He stops scanning. Finally something he can use!

Page 537:The cock feathers gave her a dashing air and the dull-green velvet of the bonnetAnd the dress was incomparable, so rich and handsome looking and yet so dignified!

Ugh, that’s not enough, Margaret! He needs more!

But descriptors slodesignwly start to emerge:

Black broadcloth cloak. Lace trimmed pantalets. Seal muffs.

… okay, getting there…

There!

Scarlett, you look like the Rue de la Paix[2]

Smiling, Walter Plunkett extends pencil to sketchbook

BIRTH #2

[DRAWING ROOM of the rundown TARA PLANTATION – DAY]

SCARLETT:

(Sullenly enters the room)

Oh, Mammy… Mammy…

(She slowly walks to the window and longingly looks outside)

MAMMY:

 (Walking to Scarlett and laying a consoling hand on her shoulder) 

You been brave so long, Miss Scarlett. You jus’ gotta go on bein’ brave. Think ’bout yo’ Pa like he usetta be.

SCARLETT:

I can’t think about Pa. I can’t think about anything but that three hundred dollars!

MAMMY:

Ain’t no good thinkin’ ’bout dat, Miss Scarlett. Ain’t nobody got dat much money…

SCARLETT:

(Turns away and mutters to herself)

Three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars…

MAMMY: 

…Nobody but Yankees and Scalawags got dat much money now.

Right before  tearing down the dressSCARLETT:

(Stopping in her tracks)

Rhett.

MAMMY:

Who dat? A Yankee?

SCARLETT:

(Hurriedly goes to the mirror and runs her hands over her frail figure)

 I’m so thin and so pale, Mammy. And I haven’t got any clothes!

 (Suddenly, in the mirror, she glimpses the green portieres by the window. She spins and briskly walks to them)

 SCARLETT:

(Excitingly grabbing the velvet curtains)

Scoot up to the attic, Mammy, and get Ma’s old box of dress patterns!

MAMMY: Tearing down the curtains 2

Whut you up to wid Miss Ellen’s po’teers?

SCARLETT:

You’re going to make me a new dress!

MAMMY:

Not outta Miss Ellen’s po’teers! Not while I got breth in ma body!

SCARLETT:

(Jerking down the portieres and draping the material over her shoulder)

Great balls of fire! They’re MY portieres now! I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen!

FAUX

One dress; two stories of creation. Which one ultimately defines the green curtain dress? On the one hand, it is a costume crafted in Hollywood that has lived its long life in a closet, on the other, it is a romantic symbol of perseverance and self-determination, representative of a bygone era. Its materiality undercuts its symbolism and its symbolism denies its materiality. This green curtain dress is a paradox; an object caught oscillating between its two existences.

So how do we get to know Scarlett’s green dress? It certainly is no easy task, for the green curtain dress is woven out of lies. At every level of its existence, the real, the genuine, and the true are passed over for the fake, the false, and the faux.  Don’t worry; this is a good thing. In order to make any sense of the dress, we need to pretend it’Vivian_Leigh_in_Gon_178393ts something it is not.

As such, the faux is a fundamental characteristic of the green curtain dress.

Pull the thread and see what unravels:

As a plot device, the green curtain dress embodies deception. Crafted by a hungry, broke, and distressed Southern belle from the last vestige of refinement at her plantation, the dress feigns Southern respectability. Scarlett masquerades curtains as a dress to mask her own desperation.

Although it made famous by the 1939 film, the green curtain dress first enacted this deceitful ploy in Mitchell’s 1936 novel. Stitched together word by word between Chapters XXXII and XXXIV, this first incarnation of the dress resided solely in fiction (read: the faux). The dress is not a real object, and never held to the expectations of the true. With each new descriptive passage ingested by the reader, their imagination forges new forms for the dress. Limited only by creativity, this curtain dress exists within the fantasy of individual interpretation. The green curtain dress embodies faux as fantasy.

But Walter Plunkett initiated it fall from freedom of imagination when he torn the dress from the text.  Consuming Mitchell’s description of the green curtain dress as he sketched the dress, Plunkett designed the dress built in his imagination.It was the movie, however, that made Plunkett’s design the official representation, and as such, split the dress from fiction. The green curtain dress now physically existed.

Plunkett’s green curtain costume played the part of Scarlett’s green curtain dress. Made in the 1930s, his vestment is faux to Scarlett’s dress. It is not an authentic Reconstruction-era garment; it is not made of curtains; nor completely of velvet. It is an imposter: ordinary materials fashioned to look like dress made from curtains. But now the faux is also turned on us. Just as Scarlett intends for the curtains to fool Rhett, Plunkett intends his costume to mislead us. When watching Gone with the Wind, just as we do not see Scarlett O’Hara as Vivien Leigh, Scarlett’s curtain dress is not Plunkett’s costume. We are supposed to believe it IS the curtain dress. Its split identity is complete – it now speaks from two positions: real costume and fictive symbol.

 FANTASY

Too often thought of in purely negative terms, the faux actually fosters fantasy and imagination – it is the bridge between materiality and symbolism. While everyone “knows” Plunkett’s costume was not really a dress made of curtains, the faux allows us overlook, interpret, and envision it however we want.

The green curtain dress has invaded every aspect of our culture. You can find costumes and replicas all over the internet. It has adorned Barbie, and held dinner. You can laugh at it with Carol Burnett. It can even decorate your Christmas tree.  But in these example, it is not Plunkett’s costume that is celebrated, it is Scarlett’s green curtain dress. Believing in the fantasy of Gone With the Wind requires one to willingly overlook the falsities (and realities) of Plunkett’s dress and deny its very purpose as costume.Ornament7-L

And this is exactly the point – the faux allows us to look past material limits. Consider this: by appealing to fantasy, Plunkett transformed a modern Hollywood costume into a timeless symbol of the Old South. He achieves this not because he offers THE green curtain dress, but because his design matches our expectations mental image of the green curtain dress.

Nothing has really changed since Chapter XXXII when the dress only existed in black text and personal imagination. Now the dress exists as part of our collective culture, as part of a social imaginary. The “true” dress still resides in the faux. Plunkett has simply produced its most recognizable embodiment. Now, any object (so long as it matches Mitchell’s basic description – a green, flowing gown; feathers; gold tassels; a bonnet) can transform into the green curtain dress and garner  symbolic resonance with the world of Gone With the Wind. Its meaning has surpassed the constituent parts.

tumblr_lh9i2kWMWv1qanmyho1_500 copyThe power of this symbolism lies in the green curtain dress perceived associations with the historic South. The large hoop dresses, gentlemanly codes of plantation life, hardships of the Reconstruction-era South hold mythic status in the American imagine. While clearly fiction, the green curtain dress holds enough of the ties to serve as a ready placeholder for escapist fantasy. With some help from the faux and imagination, a green curtain dress is vehicle to define, picture, and momentarily relive the Old South.

It is within this tension between reality and fantasy that we ultimately experience the green curtain dress. But this tension is ultimately freeing. That is the faux’s gift to us: it enables us to explore, experience, and escape without the pressures of reality. In the faux, the green curtain dress is unproblematic; it never purports to be anything real. For really, the green curtain dress can never be real. And in this unreality, the green curtain dress is realized. The faux solves the paradox of its existence: it secures a fleeting symbolism so that it is never gone with the wind.

Stephen Mandravelis


[1] Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. New York: Warner Books Inc., 1964. Pg. 535.

[2] Mitchell, Pg. 564.