Walter Plunkett was there at the very beginning of Golden Age Hollywood. He launched the wardrobe department at RKO in 1927, designing everything from flapper outfits to western costumes. And when he designed the costumes for Singing in the Rain, he was recreating some of the looks he had designed 25 years earlier. Yet he was best known for his period costumes, especially for the classic Gone With the Wind, one of many films featuring his historic costume designs. Walter Plunkett could do it all in the field of costume design, from thrillers like King Kong, to Art Deco musicals like Gay Divorcee, to period pieces like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and How the West Was Won. And he could design for both men and for women.
Plunkett’s first big hit at RKO was Rio Rita in 1929, starring Bebe Daniels. Although she played a Mexican senorita in a western film, he designed a striking gold lamé costume for her. Although he was not yet the accomplished period designer – the costume got everybody’s attention. By 1930 he had designed a string of movies for RKO and had organized their wardrobe department. But he now felt his pay had not kept up. He left RKO and started designing for Western Costume. RKO soon lured him back with better pay and started him designing for two giants of the screen – King Kong , Katharine Hepburn. Or at least designing for King Kong’s heart-throb , Fay Wray. And for Katharine Hepburn, he designed the stunning, skin-tight, gold lamé gown complete with skull-cap and moth-like antennae in Christopher Strong. This was Hepburn’s second movie for RKO, which was otherwise costumed by a free-lancing Howard Greer. Hepburn was having a rough adjustment to Hollywood, and was known as having a sharp tongue. When Plunkett was having a fitting with her he came right out and told her, “At this rate you’ll become a worse bitch than Constance Bennett.” Hepburn laughed, and they became friends and worked together throughout his career. He designed the rest of her film costumes while he remained at RKO, including for such classic period films as Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and A Woman Rebels.
While at RKO Plunkett also designed the costumes for the start of Ginger Rogers’ career with Fred Astaire as her dance partner in Flying Down to Rio. She had previously played in some Warner Bros. musical. He had started as a youth in Vaudeville where he danced with his sister. Although they had second billing in this film, that changed after people saw them dance together. They were the stars in their next movie The Gay Divorcee. Plunkett created what would become the classic silhouette for Ginger Rogers’ dance gowns: a form-fitting bodice, tight at at the hips, flowing into a swirling skirt that accentuated all her dance moves with Fred Astaire.
Then in 1937 Katharine Hepburn gave Walter Plunkett a tip about a production coming up that he would be great for, one that she herself was seeking the lead role: David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. Both of them had already worked with Selznick at RKO, where he had been Head of Production before launching Selznick International Pictures in 1935. Plunkett contacted him and was hired, but on a non-exclusive basis, for GWTW. At this point, it was only to do studies for the movie, and thus at a lower pay. Plunkett signed on anyway, and thus found himself working on the biggest movie to hit Hollywood. Little did he know that it would take over a year before he actually began working on the costumes. With the extra time he visited Atlanta, New Orleans, and examined antique Southern fabrics. He even had time to design costumes for other Selznick films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Flynn. But when he had finished his GWTW costumes, they were magnificent. Katharine Hepburn never did get the part of Scarlett, but she too left RKO later in 1938.
Plunkett’s great success with Gone with the Wind only made it harder for him to find another job afterwards. Studios thought he would be too expensive, or that he would only do big historical movies, and most had their own period costume specialists. After returning to RKO to do one more film, the great Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Plunkett became a free-lancer. Things got worse as Europe plunged into WW II and film distribution to the lucrative European market plunged. Plunkett was now designing for the poverty row studios of Columbia and Republic.
Katharine Hepburn had returned to Broadway after Hollywood, and found success with the play “Philadelphia Story.” Her lover at the time, Howard Hughes, bought the film rights for her, and with that she went to MGM to make the film version. MGM made the movie in 1940, with Hepburn picking George Cuckor as director, Cary Grant, who she had worked with at RKO, and Jimmy Stewart as co-stars. It was a big hit. Hepburn also got a long term contract. When she was about to make her first historical film, Sea of Grass with Spencer Tracy, she asked that her friend “Plunky” be brought in to design the costumes. So Walter Plunkett started at MGM in September 1945. MGM already had a wardrobe department full of talented designers, with Irene (Lentz Gibbons) as the head (she had replaced Adrian), Helen Rose, Irene Sharaff, Karinska, and men’s designers Valles and Gile Steele.
Plunkett found his home at MGM. Although the 1930s are when MGM ruled supreme, it had many great musicals and period films ahead. And Walter Plunkett would be involved in most of them.
By 1948, Walter Plunkett had been in the movie business for so long that he was now designing costumes for re-makes of his own previously designed films. The first such film was The Three Musketeers. Plunkett had designed the previous one at RKO in 1935. Now he was designing MGM’s version in 1948 for Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson, and Angela Lansbury. But it was the same swashbuckling story on bigger sets and scenery. One of his early period films that set a fashion trend was now also being remade at MGM. Little Women. His first version in 1933 starred Katharine Hepburn, was produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. Now in 1949 Plunkett was dressing June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Margaret O’Brien, and Mary Astor. Plunkett also got to work for the first time with the red-headed beauty Greer Garson in 1949. That Forsyte Woman, based on the John Galsworthy saga. The movie starred Greer Garson, Errol Flynn, Janet Leigh and Walter Pidgeon. The Victorian style costumes he designed were full-skirted, with bustles and tight bodices. Another grea hstorical film that Plunkett designed in 1949 was the classic story of Madame Bovary, this version starring Jennifer Jones with co-stars Van Heflin and Louis Jourdan. Plunkett designed several beautiful gowns for Jones. One of his costume sketches is shown below.
With the start of the 1950s, Walter Plunket would again find himself designing musicals. It was for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat starring Ava Gardner as Julie with the role of Magnolia going to the singing actress Kathryn Grayson and that of Gaylord to Howard Keel. For the story taking place on a Mississippi riverboat, Plunkett designed both the men’s and women’s late 19th century costumes. As a set for the movie, the floating showboat Cotton Blossom was built on the MGM backlot pond. The set for the town of Natchez was also built on the MGM backlot.
In 1951 Plunkett also worked on An American in Paris.The movie had so many costumes that the design job was split between Irene Sharaff, and Orry-Kelly who was free-lancing. Walter Plunkett only designed the costumes for the wild Black and White Beaux Arts Ball scene. An American in Paris won Best Costume Design Oscars for all three designers. Plunkett must have found it ironic that he won an Academy Award – his only Oscar as it turned out – for a Ball scene after having designed Gone with the Wind, Little Women, Mary of Scotland, and Gay Divorcee. But Plunkett was not finished. The next year in 1952 he designed the costumes for the most popular musical ever made, Singing in the Rain. Here too he was re-living his early days at RKO, from the “plus-fours” men’s pants – to the flapper dresses – to the problems while recording sound caused by scratchy fabrics and thumping fans. His designs for Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and Cyd Charisse were magnificent. Cyd’s emerald green flapper outfit with the crystal decorated panels was as perfect for her dance number with Gene Kelly as was her transformative satin wedding outfit for the Broadway Ballet number.
Below is Plunkett’s costume sketch for Debbie Reynolds in the pink bubble-gum chorus girl outfit she wore when she jumped out of the cake at the party scene in Singing in the Rain.
Plunkett also designed the men’s costumes, including Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s. It’s a shock today to realize he wasn’t even nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for Singing in the Rain.
In 1952 Plunkett designed the costumes for another musical, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. It’s best remembered for Ann Miller dancing her famous “It’s Too Darn Hot” number wearing Plunkett’s hot-pink, fringed and sequined show-girl outfit.
Plunkett got to combine music and period costume in the show-stopper Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He used a clever scheme of bright color differentiation of the brother’s shirts to separate them. And he also used old quilts as material to make the bride’s skirts,
As the 1950s roled on television competed with movies for audience, and the studios were forced to sell off their movie theater ownership because of an anti-trust court case. Thus fewer movies were being produced. Walter Plunket still had a few good movies he worked on in the late 1950s. While it was not a hit, Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift had fabulous Civil War era costumes designed by Plunkett. He even said it was more challenging than designing Gone with the Wind.
As 1960 came he designed the costumes for a new face in Hollywood, Hayley Mills starring in Walt Disney’s Pollyanna.Walter Plunkett was now free lancing, long term contracts gone with the wind for costume designers, indeed for much of the studio arts and crafts personnel.
He would design one more big Hollywood movie, How the West Was Won in 1962. After that he designed a few more movies and had a long career to long back on. He especially enjoyed many celebrations of those glory days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He even recreated his old costume sketches and he also painted flowers. His legacy today lives on through those great movies.