Walter Plunkett

Becoming a Professional Fashion Designer

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Birthplace: Oakland, California

Awards: Academy Award, Costume Design: An American in Paris (1951)

Academy Award Nominations, Costume Design: The Magnificent Yankee (1950), Kind Lady (1951), The Actress (1953), Young Bess (1953), Raintree County (1957), Some Came Running (1958), Pocket Full of Miracles (1961), How the West Was Won (1963)

Walter Plunkett gave up the study of law at University of California, Berkeley, to become an actor and became one of the greatest costume designers in movie history. He was known for the elaborate wardrobes he created for Hollywood's most glorious period films. His best known, most influential costumes, in terms of impact on the fashion industry, began with Cimarron (1931), in which his dresses for Irene Dunne helped popularize the broad-shouldered silhouette. His success continued with such classics as Little Women (1933) and Mary of Scotland (1936). For Little Women, Plunkett scoured publications from the 1860s, rediscovering and reintrod-ucing ginghams and calicos which were promptly copied for the retail market. Plunkett's designs for Mary of Scotland, starring Katherine Hepburn, began several fashion trends, from red satin slippers and velvet berets to suede gloves and gold medallions.

Probably the most attention ever paid to costumes in any film was the result of Plunkett's wardrobe for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's epic Gone with the Wind (1939). According to fashion historians, Scarlett's green and white "barbecue dress" was the most copied, most coveted dress in movie history. It was produced in dozens of fabrics and price ranges, as was her wedding gown with its huge petticoats and cinched waist.

Plunkett's career started in 1926 when he began working at RKO Studios as an assistant. In 1935 he joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he worked until his retirement in 1965. He designed garments for as many as 250 films, and his influence on fashions created by both New York and Paris designers is legendary. His dedication to authenticity and accuracy in his interpretations of historic costume kept audiences entranced and the fashion industry delighted when he created pieces that could be adapted for modern wardrobes. Among his later work was the costuming of Haley Mills in Walt Disney's Pollyanna (1960), which inspired drop-waisted dresses with sailor collars, pleated skirts, and ribbon sashes along with dark stockings or tights, impacting children's clothing producers and retailers as well.

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