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A Costume Design Icon: Part 2

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

As one of the most famous costume designers in film history, Brother Walter Plunkett's work has been seen by millions.

Brother Walter Plunkett finalizes costume elements with Olivia de Havilland on the set of Gone with the Wind.

b. 1902 - d. 1982

Costume Designer Brother Walter Plunkett: A Look at His Life and Work. Part 2 of 3.

FBO Pictures attempted to poach Greer from Paramount to organize and run its wardrobe department in the late 1920s. FBO was ultimately unable to compete with Greer’s Paramount salary, and so Greer recommended Plunkett for a position in the FBO wardrobe department. Taking Greer’s recommendation FBO offered Walter a position despite his limited costuming experience. Plunkett would later note about his early work at FBO, “I worked on silent films trying to learn how to design costumes.” FBO became RKO in 1928, and in the interim Plunkett created an efficient, functioning wardrobe department based on Greer’s model at Paramount.

His departmental efficency paid off as Plunkett worked on Queen Kelly (1929), designing for Seena Owen, who played opposite Gloria Swanson. After Plunkett's contract was assumed by RKO, he was introduced to Katharine Hepburn.“Right from the beginning, we seemed to click,” Plunkett said. By the early 1930s RKO had moved away from the serials and Westerns for which FBO had been known, and Plunkett found himself designing gowns for leading ladies like Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn.

Plunkett became more than a designer to Hepburn. He recalled helping her avidly research her character Jo for Little Women (1933). “She came to me and asked me for whatever information I could give her about the period,” Plunkett would recall. “We read Godey's magazines together. She wanted to know what kind of poetry a girl at that period would read, what kind of recipes, what food would she eat, what would amuse and entertain her.”

As his costuming career began to take off Brother Plunkett did not abandon his fraternity. In 1935 he would give an informal lecture to recent University of Southern California (USC) (California Beta) alumni. The SigEp Journal noted that the lecture was so well received the “discussion of Hollywood and its stars … carried over to a prolonged bull session after the meeting was adjourned.” Later that year, Plunkett left RKO. The studio had refused to give him a contract with guaranteed screen credit, and he went to New York to design a ready-to-wear collection on Seventh Avenue. But he would not be gone from Los Angeles for long. Katharine Hepburn insisted that Plunkett design for her for Mary of Scotland (1936).

The Costume Department

Along with set decoration, the most obvious and undisguised gay ghetto in Hollywood was the wardrobe department. By the mid-1930s, every studio had its prima donna designer backed up by two or three junior designers and dozens of sketch artists, fitters, and seamstresses.

While nearly all the major players were gay, few were as comfortable in their skins as Walter Plunkett. “I'd say Walter Plunkett was very at ease with who he was,” said Don Bachardy, friend and partner of Plunkett’s neighbor Christopher Isherwood.

In this, he didn't so much resemble designers Adrian or Travis Banton, but Howard Greer, with whom he was friends. “They were very much alike, Walter and Howard,” said their mutual friend Satch LaValley. “They never pretended—not for one minute.” Echoing Plunkett’s friends, a report commissioned for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning “to provide a broad historical overview on the growth of gay and lesbian identities, communities, and politics in Los Angeles” remarked on the surprising honesty of Plunkett’s 1940 U.S. Census responses where he identified the other member of his household, Hal Richardson, as his “partner.”

Plunkett ended up staying in Los Angeles and worked on several films, including A Woman Rebels (1936) and Quality Street (1937), both with Hepburn. He worked on dresses for Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937), as well as costumes for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Plunkett began work on Gone with the Wind in 1937 and when principal photography finally began, the production was still searching for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara. With no actress yet cast for the role, Plunkett had to design costumes with no particular actress in mind, only relying on the descriptions Margaret Mitchell had given in her novel.

Continued in Part 3

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