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The Ruby Slippers Return to the Museum of American History

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For nearly 70 years the motion picture The Wizard of Oz has given faithful service to its evergreen fashion philosophy: there is nothing more important than owning the right pair of shoes.

Indeed, the ruby slippers were absolutely my "must-see" whenever I visited the Smithsonian. After a two-year vacation at the Air and Space Museum, I was among the first to see the shoes find their way home today, newly installed in the recently renovated Museum of American History, set to reopen November 21.

There they are, and there they'll stay.

For the two people left in the world that do not know the story, Dorothy is transported to the Land of Oz by a cyclone and tries to get back home to Kansas with the help of three newfound friends and the magical powers of a pair of silver shoes.

The idea to change Dorothy’s footwear from silver to ruby for the 1939 movie came from Noel Langley, one of the three contributors to the film’s screenplay. This was most likely because red would look more striking against a yellow brick road than silver.

Adrian, head of MGM’s wardrobe department, developed several designs for the ruby slippers. The shoes were made in in the beading department, comprised of burgundy sequins (red sequins would register orange on film) applied on chiffon that was then affixed to a satin pump. After filming was completed, the shoes went into storage, lost among thousands of other costumes.

It was not until early 1970 that a pair of Garland’s ruby slippers was discovered. They were found wrapped in a towel and left in a bin in the basement of MGM’s Wardrobe Department. After some sorely needed cleaning, the shoes, used by Garland during dancing sequences, were auctioned in May of that year. They sold for $15,000 to a still-anonymous buyer who donated the shoes to the Smithsonian in 1979.

Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers says the shoes are a standout favorite for visitors because they represent fond memories of childhood and symbolize the basic mantra of Oz. “It’s the idea," he says, "‘There’s no place like home’ and there is a warm place to cling to even if it’s a shared memory.”

Want to pump up your knowledge on these world-famous pumps? More after the jump! Sadly, the shoes are not in toe-tapping top-form. The current plan is to have them on display during peak tourist season. However, as has been the case when our shoes have (figuratively) hit the road to be used in other exhibitions, a private collector graciously allows us to use his pair (which, in the film, can be seen on the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet poking out from underneath Dorothy’s farmhouse.)

So, how many pairs of shoes are there? Five are currently known to exist. A pair used in costume tests—but were ultimately discarded because they were deemed too elaborate—are owned by Debbie Reynolds and are a part of her Hollywood Motion Picture Museum, set to open in Spring 2009. A pair in a size 6B—Garland wore a size 5C, so these were most likely worn by her stunt double, Bobbie Koshay—were auctioned in 1988 at Christie’s East for $165,000. The last pair of ruby slippers to grace the auction block was in 2000 at Christie’s East where they fetched $666,000. Other pairs—one from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota and possible others from the MGM wardrobe department—have been stolen.

Geez, if the Wicked Witch of the West had enough sense to rummage through the bargain bin—or took out a second mortgage on her castle—she could have saved herself a lot of trouble.

For me, The Wizard of Oz has always been a major part of my life. This was helped by the fact that there was a ton of Oz stuff floating around when I was growing up. I read all the Baum stories. I drove my poor mother up the wall with daily viewings of the 1939 film, lovingly bootlegged from television. (And, if I really wanted to rot my brain, I’d watch it back to back with the sorely underrated Return to Oz.) There was an endearing L. Frank Baum biopic with John Ritter, also taped off the television and subsequently worn out. There was a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon, snowglobes and even a video game for the Super Nintendo where birds fly over the rainbow and attempt to kill you. And, in middle school, it was by way of Oz that I got hooked on Pink Floyd. (And Floyd will always be way cooler than Meco's frighteningly cheesy discotheque take on the classic movie score). So, even at age 23, having those shoes a fifteen-minute walk away makes DC feel a little homier.

If you'd like to learn more about the Oz mythos, I heartily recommend the Library of Congress companion website to their 2000 exhibition The Wizard of Oz: An American Classic. Oz fan Eric Gjovaag maintains a wonderful Wizard of Oz website and blog.

(Image Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

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About Jesse Rhodes

Jesse Rhodes is an editorial assistant for Smithsonian magazine. Before he became an editorial assistant, Jesse worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office, where he was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.

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