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A Costume Design Icon: Part 3

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 presenting his sketch for the green curtain dress in Gone with the Wind.

b. 1902 - d. 1982


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


Plunkett initially believed that the audience would want to see the clothes on-screen as Margaret Mitchell had described them in t novel. But Plunkett's design instincts led him to abandon a strictly dogmatic approach. “Mitchell had said that when Scarlett went to Melanie's party, Rhett told her to wear her bright green dress,” Plunkett recalled. "David [Selznick, the film’s director] had said, ‘Don't change a thing from what Margaret Mitchell has written. It must be that way.’ I said, ‘She's been in green in almost every important sequence. This scene calls for a red dress and not a green one. It just cannot be green again.’ So he said, ‘Well, not without Margaret Mitchell's permission.’ So we had to phone Margaret, and she said she didn't know that she'd always said she was in green.She said, ‘My God, of course red would be better than that.’



Brother Walter Plunkett's sketches for Gone with the Wind. The film was released by MGM on December 15, 1939

Ironically, the design restrictions imposed on Plunkett by the historical austerity of the Civil War resulted in one of the most famous dresses in film history — the green dress that Scarlett fashions from her mother's drapes. That dress was “not the best costume of motion pictures, not by a long shot,” Plunkett once said, “but I am very happy to think it is the most famous costume. There's hardly a day goes by that you don't hear somebody talking about pulling down the curtains to make a dress or something of that nature. So I'm proud that it was mine.”


In 1939, the year before the release of Gone with the Wind, Brother Plunkett would serve on the Executive Committee for the 19th Grand Chapter Conclave at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. The “Conclave of the Golden West” was held from September 4th through 7th in 1940.

Following Conclave in the early 1940s, Mae West contacted Plunkett to design for The Heat's On (1943). The diminutive star (barely five feet tall) had been one of the highest-paid actresses of the 1930s. Most other fans did not know that she had short legs and always wore eight-inch platform shoes that created what Plunkett called the ‘Mae West walk.’ When he arrived for his first meeting, West's maid asked Plunkett to wait, as West was not quite ready. "Pretty soon the maid came in again and said Miss West was ready to see me," Plunket recalled. West entered the room wearing long eyelashes, her trademark long blonde wig, her platform shoes ... and nothing else! “I thought you'd like to see the lovely body you're going to have the opportunity of dressing,” West told the stunned Plunkett.



Executive Committee of the 19th Grand Chapter Conclave in Los Angeles California.

Brother Walter Plunkett would ultimately design costumes for 269 films. His work would bring him ten Academy Award nominations (The Magnificent Yankee 1950; That Forsyte Woman, 1950; Kind Lady 1951; An American in Paris 1951; The Actress 1953; Young Bess 1953; Raintree County 1957; Some Came Running 1958; Pocketful of Miracles 1961; How the West Was Won 1963) and he would share the Oscar for best costume design with Irene Sharaff and Orry-Kelly for An American in Paris (1951).


It should be noted, that for much of Plunkett’s career, including the release of Gone with the Wind, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not award an Oscar for best costume design. The first awards in the category would only come at the 21st Academy Awards in 1949.

As gay activism in the United States ebbed and flowed across the post-war period and into the Red Scare, Plunkett’s friends in Los Angeles would recall his legendary kindness. Walter would often go to the courthouse and put-up bail for gay men arrested for cruising Pershing Square or Griffith Park. “That's true,” insisted his friend Satch LaValley. “He'd often post bail for boys who were arrested. He didn't even have to know them. That was just part of his nature. He'd hear of some boy's story and go down and try to help."

 

Walter Plunkett, Sigma Phi Epsilon brother and vanguard of the Chicago Society, died of on March 8, 1982, in Beverly Hills California at 79 years of age. He was survived by his partner Lee.


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