By 1936 Walter Plunkett was known in Hollywood as the foremost authority on period costumes. Katharine Hepburn, with whom Plunkett had worked on several pictures and who was interested in the role of Scarlett, recommended the book to Plunkett. He read it and immediately had his agents, Lichtig and Englander, write Selznick to suggest he be hired as costume designer. Selznick was well aware of Plunkett's abilities, mostly from his costume work on Selznick's production of "Little Women," which was also set in the 1860's.
Plunkett was hired on the spot though at first on a non-exclusive basis: four months research and design without compensation $600 per week for eight weeks of preproduction and $750 per week during production.
Selznick was making a costume epic and he was making it in color, still a new process at that time. Plunkett's meticulous research and careful design process were fine for the smaller roles and for the hundreds of extras, but he was not producing the "sensational" costumes Selznick wanted for Scarlett. Throughout 1937 and 1938 Selznick looked at sketches from other costume designers. The short list of designers he considered included Gladys Calthrop, Mabel Downs, Helene Ponds, Czettel, and Adrian. At the top of the list was Muriel King whose sketches Mitchell saw during Cukor's research trip to Atlanta.
King gave one of her sketches to Mitchell: a sketch of Scarlett on Miss Pittypat's front porch. Mitchell responded enthusiastically, writing to King, "I have seen many sketches of Scarlett and of war scenes, and none have appealed to me as much as yours." Several months later, Selznick wrote to Kay Brown:
Miss Kathering Brown
COSTUME DESIGNERS -- "GONE WITH THE WIND"
February 17, 1938
No objections to getting sketches from Hambleton on spec. However, at the
moment the only reason we are considering changing from Plunkett is because
of Miss Mitchell's enthusiasm for Miss King's work. It will, nevertheless,
be interesting to see Hambleton's work because if we don't have Miss King
it is our feeling that we will need somebody to give us perhaps half a
dozen sensational costumes that will need to be original creations in
addition to the Plunkett job - if it is Plunkett - which will be based
largely on research.
King wanted screen credit and $750 a week and she would do only Scarlett's costumes. Other designers were asking for similar arrangements. Shooting had started with the "Burning of Atlanta" scene and Vivien Leigh had been cast as Scarlett. The production had shifted into high gear. Then Plunkett came through.
January 6, 1939
AAF TWS PAID TDS CULVER CITY CALIF
SELZNICK INTERNATIONAL PICTURES
TO KB FROM DOS
PLUNKETT HAS COME TO LIFE AND TURNED IN MAGNIFICENT SCARLETT COSTUMES
SO WE WON'T NEED ANYONE ELSE. WITH FURTHER REFERENCE TO FREDERICKS
COMMENCING TO WORRY ABOUT THE PRACTICABILITY OF THE IDEA. WOULD HE
SEND SKETCHES OR MUSLIN PATTERNS AND JUST HOW WOULD THIS WORK? WOULD
HE BE WILLING TO COME OUT FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS? THE WHOLE PRODUCTION
IS SO COMPLICATED THAT I AM TRYING TO SIMPLIFY THE STAFF AND THE WORK
SO AM ANXIOUS TO GET COMPLETE PICTURE OF THE FREDERICKS SITUATION IN
ORDER TO DECIDE WHETHER THE WHOLE IDEA IS WORTHWHILE. IF WE SHOULD
GO AHEAD WITH HIM IS THERE ANY OBLIGATION AS TO CREDIT AND IS THERE
ANY OBLIGATION AS TO USING ANY OR ALL OF HIS HATS?
SORRY TO SEEM SO CONFUSED BUT EVERYTHING IS PILING UP IN THESE LAST
SELZNICK INTERNATIONAL PICTURES
Charge Selznick Int'l. Pic.
Culver City, Calif.
New York milliner John Frederics designed Scarlett's hats. He was not paid for his work, he did it solely for the publicity the film would bring his business.
There is no mention in the Selznick archive after this telegram of anyone else being considered for costume designer.
During the production Plunkett had to contend with the difficult Selznick, changes in directors and unreasonable Technicolor advisors. He created more than 5,000 separate items of clothing for more than 50 major characters and thousands of extras as well as monitoring crowd scenes for the proportion of men to women and the number of women in mourning to reflect the ravages of war.
Plunkett began with detailed sketches. His own wardrobe team then created patterns, made the garments, did fittings and alterations, and made changes as necessary after watching filmed tests and before carefully labeling and storing the costumes.
October 23, 1939
Mr. Walter Plunkett
537 Huntley Drive
I should like at this time to congratulate and thank
you once again for your brilliant costuming job on
"Gone With The Wind." I think it is possibly the
most effective job of its kind that has ever been
done in pictures
In 1939, there was no costume design category at the Academy Awards. Selznick himself said that if there were, Plunkett would have won it for "Gone With The Wind."
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 Orry-Kelly and Irene Sharaff.
Shortly before his death, Walter Plunkett personally refurbished the original dresses in the David O. Selznick Archive. These dresses, however, were made to last for as long as it would take to shoot the film and are still extremely fragile. Reproductions of the dresses
were made in 1987 and are also housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.