Recycled Costumes: Little Women (1949) and Tall Target (1951)

Movie studios would often get as much wear out of their costumes as they could. Taking off a frill here, putting on a patch there, re-dying if necessary and using it again in another film. In the following case, MGM Studios takes a lead character's Walter Plunkett dress and uses it (or a copy) for a supporting role years later.

It's a mid-19th century dress, crimson top with black, tan and crimson stripes on the bodice and cuffs, voluminous skirt and coordinating pocket belt. This costume is the perfect functional dress of a woman who - especially when wearing a hoop skirt underneath - does not do backbreaking labor or factory work, is not exactly wearing haute couture but is kempt. There's an air of wealth yet not complete extravagance lended to the wearer.

In Little Women (1949), Jo March (June Allyson) is the 2nd eldest daughter in a formerly wealthy family. This dress is likely one of many hand-me-downs. Jo first wears this dress with a crimson hoop skirt while talking to Laurie (Peter Lawford) about wanting to go to Europe. She accidentally burns the skirt during that conversation.

Allyson with pocket belt and crimson hoop skirt that's just about to be lit on fire

Allyson with dark skirt, without pocket belt
Jo wears the dress again when she's on her own in New York City. Her aunt and sister visit her on their way to Europe.

This time she wears it without the pocket belt and with a dark skirt- no doubt the penurious lady patched and dyed it or attached the bodice to another skirt. It's also used to remind the audience that the last time we saw her in this dress she was dreaming of going to Europe herself one day, and that dream seems dashed.
Ruby Dee without hoops, with pocket belt

In Tall Target (1951), Rachel, the slave, (Ruby Dee) wears this dress (or a copy of it) with the dark skirt. She doesn't seem to be wearing hoops, which might be a social status thing, or just practical since most of the film takes place in the narrow passageways of a train. I could find no designer credited with any of the costumes in this film; apparently this dress wasn't the only apparel that was snatched from other films. No original designs in this film, it seems.

Still, in this taut thriller about an assassination attempt on President-Elect Lincoln, no one is worried about costumes (as long as they are not noticeably anachronistic).

Ruby Dee as Rachel
  • The costume sold in June this year in Debbie Reynolds' auction.

  • June Allyson and Dick Powell (the star of Tall Target) were married to each other at the time of both films.


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