TBT: Happy Birthday, Walter Plunkett!

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Today’s Throwback Thursday is the ultimate, because it’s Walter Plunkett’s birthday! Born today in 1902, Walter Plunkett was Hollywood costume design royalty. He began designing costumes in the late 1920s, and worked up through the 1960s designing for ICONIC films like… Gone With the WindSingin’ in the RainStagecoach. Yeah. The guy’s pretty much a god.

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Production still of Walter Plunkett adjusting Olivia de Havilland’s costume in Gone With the Wind. Producing Gone With the Wind

Plunkett was born in the next town over from me, Oakland, California, in 1902. He studied law and theater at UC Berkeley, then moved to New York. He got his start designing costumes for a vaudeville act in which he performed. He then got a job with RKO studios, designing for early hits like Rio Rita and Cimarron. At various points he worked with Western Costume Company (the biggest theatrical costume house on the West Coast), eventually freelancing as a costume designer.

It’s hard to name a historical costume film of the 1940s-50s that he DIDN’T design. According to a studio biography written in 1945,

Among Hollywood’s great style designers, Walter Plunkett holds the distinction of being the only one who confines his efforts to period costume, and he is the recognized authority in this field. Producing Gone With the Wind

He only won one Oscar, shared with designers Orry-Kelly and Irene, for An American in Paris (1951). However, he was also nominated for That Forsyte Woman (1949), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), Kind Lady (1951), Young Bess (1953), The Actress (1953), Raintree County (1957), Some Came Running (1958), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), and How the West Was Won (1962). In 2000, the Costume Designers Guild posthumously awarded him their Hall of Fame award.

Let’s run down some of his historical costume movie highlights. You can see his full filmography at IMDB, of course.

Little Women (1933)

The classic book by Louisa May Alcott, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo.

1933 little Women 1933 little Women2 1933 little Women3 LITTLE WOMEN, Jean Parker, Henry Stephenson, Joan Bennett, 1933

 

The Three Musketeers (1935)

The first English-language talking adaptation.

1935 Three Musketeers1 1935 Three Musketeers2 1935 Three Musketeers3

A Woman Rebels (1936)

Another film starring Katharine Hepburn, who was a big fan of Plunkett’s. Hepburn plays a scandalous woman in Victorian England.

1936 A Woman Rebels

Mary of Scotland (1936)

Plunkett had taken a break from the movie industry, when Hepburn requested him for this film (about the famous 16th century Scottish queen). Unfortunately the film was a flop!

1936 Mary of Scotland 1936 Mary of Scotland1 1936 Mary of Scotland2 1936 Mary of Scotland3 1936 Mary of Scotland4

 

Quality Street (1937)

Yet ANOTHER Katharine Hepburn vehicle, set in England in 1810.

1936 Quality Street

 

Gone With the Wind (1939)

During production, Plunkett had to contend with Selznick’s demands, changes in directors, and rigid Technicolor advisors. He designed over 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and one hundred extras. He also managed crowd scenes to reflect the realities of war by ensuring a proper proportion of men to women and an appropriate number of women in mourning. Producing Gone With the Wind

1939 Gone with the Wind 1939 Gone with the Wind1 1939 Gone with the Wind2 1939 Gone with the Wind3 1939 Gone with the Wind4 eba4cb583d1cffb7d7ed8e978ee9bab6 1939 Gone with the Wind5 gone-with-the-wind-161 **FILE** Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara are seen dancing in this scene from the movie "Gone With the Wind," in the late 1930s.  The American Civil War saga starring Clark Gable, center, and Vivien Leigh, in black dress,  is the most-watched movie in British history, according to the British Film Institute, Sunday Nov. 28, 2004.(AP Photo/New Line Cinema, File) gone-with-the-wind-27638-hd-wallpapers gone-with-the-wind-gone-with-the-wind-3046340-1024-768 Gone-With-the-Wind-gone-with-the-wind-4374320-1024-768

 

Little Women (1949)

June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor starred in yet another version of the classic book.

1949 Little Women 1949 Little Women1 1949 Little Women2

 

That Forsyte Woman (1949)

Greer Garson and Errol Flynn starred in this adaptation of The Forsyte Saga books.

1949 That Forsyte Woman1 1949 That Forsyte Woman2

 

Annie Get Your Gun (1950)

The popular Broadway musical (first staged in 1946).

1950 Annie Get Your Gun 1950 Annie Get Your Gun1

 

Show Boat (1951)

Another stage musical adaptation, starring Ava Gardner.

1951 Show Boat 1951 Show Boat1 1951 Show Boat2 1951 Show Boat3 1951 Show Boat4 1951 Show Boat5

 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The classic, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Set in 1920s Hollywood just as talking movies are being introduced, with a glorious film-within-the-film set in the 18th century (“I caaaan’t stand him”)!

1952 Singin' in the Rain 1952 Singin' in the Rain1 1952 Singin' in the Rain2 1952 Singin' in the Rain3 1952 Singin' in the Rain5 1952 Singin' in the Rain6 1952 Singin' in the Rain7

 

Young Bess (1953)

The early life of Queen Elizabeth I, starring Jean Simmons as Elizabeth and Deborah Kerr as Catherine Parr.

1953 Young Bess 1953 Young Bess2 1953 Young Bess1

 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Another musical, this one set in Oregon in 1950.

1954 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

The Glass Slipper (1955)

A musical adaptation of Cinderella starring Leslie Caron.

1955 The Glass Slipper1 1955 The Glass Slipper2

Diane (1956)

A drama about the life of Diane de Poitiers (1499 – 1566), mistress of Henri II of France, starring Lana Turner.

1956 Diane 1956 Diane1 1956 Diane2 1956 Diane3

Raintree County (1957)

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor star in this American Civil War-era film.

1957 Raintree County 1957 Raintree County1 1957 Raintree County2

What’s your favorite Walter Plunkett film, costume-wise?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

9 Responses

  1. MoHub

    I remember seeing an interview with a woman who was an extra in GWTW. She said she’d challenged Plunkett on the amount of detail on her pantaloons because they wouldn’t show, and no one would know how finely detailed they were. Plunkett told her, “But you’ll know,” and she admitted that it made a huge difference in how she carried herself in the movie.

    Reply
    • hsc

      That’s pretty much the gist of a much-repeated story about the legendary extravagance of director Erich von Stroheim: the producers were challenging his demands for finely finished silk undergarments for extras in “The Wedding March” (1928) by pointing out that they wouldn’t even be seen on film, and von Stroheim replied that it was a necessary expenditure, because it would make them feel more truly like aristocrats in the court of Franz Joseph, rather than the five-buck-a-day extras they really were.

      I also heard basically the same story about Adrian: someone questioned the amount of detailing he was putting on one of Garbo’s costumes (for “Camille”, I think), pointing out the camera would never find all the little lavish touches of embroidery he’d tucked into the undersides of lapels and turned-back cuffs. Adrian smiled back, “But she’ll know they’re there.”

      BTW, that first photo under “Show Boat” (1951) is actually Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, and Helen Morgan in James Whale’s 1936 version for Universal, costumed by Doris Zinkeisen.

      Reply
  2. Jennifer Soloway

    Brilliant, Brilliant designer. His costumes are more famous than he is b

    Reply
  3. Richard Stephens

    One of his last films – Forbidden Planet – a HUGE influence on the look of sci fi for generations – actually a very smart, fashion forward look that had “practical comfort” for long distance space travel.

    Reply
  4. brandon

    He really liked green velvet and gold embroidery alot.to bad it doesn’t seem to age well.I’ve seen the green curtain dress in person and it looked brownish mustard dirty green they said he faded it the make it look like authentic sun faded drapery but in Technicolor made it vibrant green I wonder if Technicolor just made anything one vibrant tone no matter what because the green wrapper dressing gown looked the same color as the curtain dress and the green wrapper would not of been aged if so why would they even bother with all the makeup tests in black n white because Technicolor obviously made colors so vivid.I wonder if they could, control saturation ohh the white fur what look like a 20s cocoon coat in singing in the rain is very similar design as the blue velvet peignoir worn by Scarlett when bonnie blue dies.he didn’t do true historical gowns verbatim I think because the green wrapper was almost a medieval design I guarantee you none of the actresses wore authentic underwear ever unless for camera who would wear ridiculous bloomers when all that was needed was panties it stupid to film in who knows what conditions with historic undergarments.I’m pretty sure with Vivien Leigh and her amazingly petite frame with just some good boning in a dress she would look corseted.I’m sure for some outfits she was but she was so tiny all that would be needed was boning like you can see in the green wrapper dress up close her waist was just as tiny in a dressing gown as her burgundy party dress so no I dont think with a body like Vivien a corset would be useful unless you just want the look of a corset or for scenes of her dressing I just dont believe in any post war dresses she would of wore corsets just good boning because she had so many bolero jacket type ensembles and the hoop skirts would make her look like she was an insect if she was corsetted and odd proportion onscreen plus the fabric he used form the green ivy party dress would be too thin to hide bulky undergarments maybe I’m wring I just think she wasn’t corrected that lil underbust affair she has on while napping is not cinched tight and doesn’t look like it was made for her body so no I think she would of looked best with just good old boning in the dress and the prayer dress was worn its home no need to be corsetted.the south is hot and my grandmas grandparents and parents word period dress because well it was that period and nobody wore all that junk at home in the summer they used to soak in a tub of ice in the late 1800s to say the twenties when they got electricity throughout the house not just in the formal reception areas and such when all rooms had electrical fans. they would wear a cotton dressing gown chemise and soak in an ice bath get out and lie on blankets on the floor in the foyer and reception and ballroom which was marble and take afternoon naps in wet chemises during summer .ladies would soak in ice baths before getting dressed for parties in the summer.nice assuming you lived close to an ice deliveryman and had servants to fill your bath with water and ice but I know that’s how society women and girls and I’m sure a few boys did .i would have took ice baths in a second I wouldn’t go outside to swim in dirty water atlanta is just miserable in the summer I mean just steamy misery.its why I live in san Francisco from may to September

    Reply
  5. SharonD

    Brandon, you have to remember that the costumes from GWTW are coming up on 80 years old. Of course they are going to be faded and a bit tattered by now. The costumes went on a tour around America in the early 40s, and were shown in department stores, and Woolworth’s, etc…from what I read about this, it seems they were not exactly handled with care during this time. People could walk up and handle them, and the green curtain dress was even sprayed with Lysol at one point, which discolored it in streaks. The green sprigged BBQ dress basically fell apart from rot and mishandling sometime in the 60s or 70s, By the mid 70s, the bodice was all that was left of it. The blue shanty town dress was rescued from a warehouse, found crumpled on the floor. It’s a testament to Walter Plunkett and his insistence on quality that they survived in any condition at all.
    I am so very grateful and happy that they even still exist!

    Reply
  6. ladylavinia1932

    I realize that most people would choose GWTW. Granted, some of the costumes are really lovely. However, I also noticed that a few modern styles seemed to creep into some of the costumes (well, to be frank, in just about in many of the period dramas during the Studio Age).

    I would choose a tie between “GWTW”, “That Forsyte Woman” and “Singin in the Rain”.

    Reply

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