What Does Scarlett's Outfits Say About Her?

by Mary Grace Garis

I think it's fair to say that Scarlett O'Hara's style, from flirty ruffles to jewel tone velvets, is priceless. Or NEARLY priceless, at least: recently a dress worn by the incomparable Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind just sold for $137,000 after being originally purchased for $20. The dress in question was a plain slate blue number trimmed with black, signifying the practicality needed running a mill with a low enough neck to suggest her womanly figure. And it's just one of many memorable dresses known not only because they were beautiful, but because they helped tell a story.

Ok, so Gone With the Wind is a hard modern sell, rest assured that being an intersectional feminist has clouded the politics of my problematic favorite novel. Likewise its anti-heroine is plainly put, a bitch and a half, selfishly putting her needs before everyone else, making out with other people's boyfriends, and so on. But no one can deny her absolutely incredible sense of style (courtesy of costume designer Walter Plunkett) and how her outfits reinforced her fiery rebellious nature and fierce resolve.

Maybe it's been a while since you popped in the four hour epic into your DVD player, so allow me to refresh your memory with these seven iconic looks.

1. The White Cascade of Ruffles

The film starts with Scarlett at 16, bathed in clusters of chaste white ruffles, her dress buttoned up to her neck and topped with a ladylike pin. While early on Scarlett puts on airs to appear a perfectly prim southern belle, the details betray her. Small bows and a belt screaming "Scarlett!" literally and figuratively show that she's a bit more rebellious than the average Georgia girl. Her behavior reinforces that, as she flirts wildly with the Tarleton twins, her mischievous eyes completely spilling her true nature.

2. The Twelve Oaks Barbecue Frock

This green gown breaks all the rules for the sake of fashion... and a furious bid for the heart of Ashley Wilkes. Despite Mammy's protests, Scarlett insists on this jaw-dropping, charmingly flocked dress, even if you're not supposed to show your bosom before three o'clock. This dress exemplifies Scarlett's pre-war status as the apple of every Southern gentleman's eye. Like the previous dress it's hyper feminine, but more true to Scarlett's personality: it's coquettish as it is rule-bending. The minty little frock is a weapon, one that has every male in three counties fawning over her... although not the right man, unfortunately.

3. The False Mourning Outfit

"My life is over! Nothing will ever happen to me anymore!" Scarlett sobs heavily, 17-years-old and condemned to months of ugly black clothing because her dumb husband had to go die of pneumonia. Though selfish, it's not untrue. Polite Victorian society stressed an upkeep of mourning attire, especially for women, and double that for a widow. It falls in line with the Victorian ideals of True Womanhood, that is, the idea that a woman should be pure, domesticated and judged by the people surrounding her, not valued as a singular entity. Therefore, a widow was especially urged to mourn with vigor, stay indoors, cloak herself in dark colors, and make oneself a pitied pariah unable to move on with her own life.

But Rhett sees through her facade, and urges her to "break out of that false mourning," urging her to dance at a charity banquet and gifting her with a gorgeous bottle green hat, almost aggressively garish. Scarlett wears the fashionable headpiece with pride, once again breaking conventions and insisting that she won't let society define her.

4. The Life-Is-Over Look

Mid-movie everything's legitimately terrible with that whole Civil War thing and all, and you can tell by Scarlett's (lack of) style. She's stuck wearing a dusty mauve prairie dress, looking constantly dirty and undone, like a sad American Girl doll. Her world is literally burning to the ground, so you can understand how high fashion would fall by the wayside at this time.

Still, it's intriguing to note that as Scarlett leaves the Aunt Pitty's house to call for Dr. Meade, she puts on her straw bonnet from her Twelve Oaks outfit, as if desperately clinging to the last shreds of her Southern Belle status.

5. The Unforgettable Curtain Creation

Things are a mess at Tara, but how do you pretend you're still a glamorous HBIC? Simple: curtain dress.

Yes, Scarlett creates this emerald green velvet masterpiece to conceal her financial woes and con some cash out of Rhett. It ALMOST works—her calloused hands give her away—but it speaks volume about her strengths. Thus far, deception has been a tool Scarlett uses to get what she wants, and fashion plays a big part of that. But this takes the cake, showing not only innovation, but personal good taste. Say what you will about her personality, but this moment marks how she blends Machiavellian thinking and resourcefulness in an seemingly girlish and often effective way, making her a true icon of cinema.

6. The Harlot O'Hara Gown

Scarlett and Ashley are caught in an unfortunate embrace, spreading gossip around town, hurting Rhett and making him lash out for potentially damning Bonnie's reputation. He throws Scarlett into the lion's den, forcing her to wear this feathery, ruby-encrusted, figure-hugging dress to Ashley's birthday. "Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion," he says. And put on plenty of rouge. I want you to look your part tonight." Yikes.

The ironic thing here is that though Scarlett's had her liaisons with Ashley, she's somewhat phasing out of her obsession. So although this outfit is indeed her feistiest, it, true-to-form, doesn't QUITE fit her of-the-moment persona. Either way, she accessorizes with perfect bitchface, looking every inch a glamorous supervillian.

7. The New Mourning Outfit

Scarlett's last mourning outfit (and yes, there's one in the middle, but who cares about Frank Kennedy?) signifies how much everything's changed. Though mourning is still mandatory, the almost modern lines and presence of a bustle (ha) versus a full ball gown skirt shows that the South isn't quite the way it used to be. And this time when she deals with the dual loss of Bonnie and Mellie, she feels it. It doesn't help that by this point she's finally chased Rhett away, right when she realizes she loves him.

In general the film ends on a down note, with the protagonist literally shrouded in darkness, a 28-year-old two time widow and potential divorcee who's barely managed to survive a world so clouded in death.

But knowing Scarlett, she won't let this latest tragedy smite her, and will rise from the ashes stronger, smarter... and impeccably dressed.

Images: MGM (1), Giphy (12)