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Museum Musings - The Curtain Dress from "Gone with the Wind"

Everyone who has seen "Gone With the Wind" where Scarlett goes to meet Rhett to flirt her way into money to pay taxes on Tara, wearing a velvet gown made from draperies, complete with the tassels as a belt; or Carol Burnett's unforgettable scene of the

green curtain dress ("Went With the Wind," complete with curtain rods!) may wonder, did women of the South really turn curtains into clothing?

(Photo courtesy of Christina Stewart, "Scarlett's Gowns, Gone With the Wind Costume Restoration," Pretty Clever Films,

YouTube: Dress appearance around 12:30 mark.

Antebellum Ensemble, Fichu and Under-sleeves; 1850-1860

Prior to the War Between the States/American Civil War, upper class (or elite) women of the Antebellum South, like their sisters of the Northern states, enjoyed French and English fashions. They visited Europe and brought home new styles, fabrics, and designs from Paris and London to be created for them by seamstresses. The ensemble shown is a silk bodice and skirt (over medium hoop and crinoline), organdy under-sleeves and fichu - from the Museum collection. The appropriate hoop for this costume would have had a much larger circumference.

Part of the anger in the South that lead to a break* from the North was due to manufacturing and taxes. While cotton (and other raw products) was produced in the southern states, the textile mills that manufactured fabric were all located in northern states. The northern states taxed the southern states for the raw goods sent to the mills, but did not tax foreign imported raw goods. Then, additional taxes were levied on the manufactured textiles made from the southern cotton. Because the northern states had the mills, they controlled the financial arrangements and refused to change their practices. To charge fellow Americans taxes for raw materials and let foreign imports be untaxed angered southerners.

Early in the war, the blockade of southern ports by northern forces prevented the importation of European as well as American fabrics. There were some successful blockade runners (remember Rhett Butler?) managed to move some goods through but in limited quantities and infrequently. Thus, these Black market goods were very expensive (supply and demand). Southern ladies had to make do without new fabric for the duration of the war. Northern ladies had no such trouble with any imported goods, but did have to deal with the reduction of factories available for non-military needs.

What little fabric was available in the South was needed for uniforms for the military. Southern uniforms were not uniform and many versions existed in different colors; light gray, dark gray, light blue, and butternut brown. Southern women learned to make do, even survive, with less of everything from food to clothing. Homespun became a popular, even patriotic substitute for manufactured fabric during the war; much like the American Revolution. So, when Scarlett O’Hara uses the green drapes to make her dress; it is based on the reality of the drastic changes experienced in the Civil War South.

Just for fun...this reticule of the same period...

Reticule, silk, beads and silk gauze-like fabric; 1850's-1860.

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