“There’s no place like…the lab”: Conservation and Scientific Analysis of Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers

Note from the editor: This post is part of a series showcasing undergraduate student contributions that explore the technical art history of specific pieces of interest. This post was written by Allison Short, a ­senior Honors College student at West Chester University majoring in Social Work.

The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, was not the first color film released, but it is often regarded as the first because it was the first color film to become a sensation. The Technicolor process worked by using a highly specialized camera that would shoot every scene through three color-filters simultaneously, resulting in three different reels of green, blue, and red. Although Dorothy Gale’s shoes were silver slippers in the novel, the producers changed the shoes to red for the film, as red would show up more vibrantly than silver against the yellow brick road. Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers were the most notable costume piece on set, and they also have an interesting backstory.

Ruby Slippers from the National Museum of American History. Image credit: Chris Evans / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Ruby Slippers were designed by Gilbert Adrian, the chief costume designer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) from 1928 to 1941. The shoes were designed by dying a typical pump-style shoe red, and attaching netting covered in sequins to the shoe’s exterior. The last step was to glue a beaded bow onto the top of the shoe.

It is unknown exactly how many pairs of ruby slippers were created for filming. After filming “The Wizard of Oz”, at least three of the pairs were thought to have gone into storage at MGM. A costumer named Kent Warner found them in 1970, and he kept one pair for himself, sold one pair to collector Michael Shaw for $2,000, and gave a pair to MGM to auction. He found a fourth pair, which looks different and was used only in screen tests, and sold it to the late actress Debbie Reynolds, reportedly for $300. As far as the public knew, the auction pair was the only one in existence, and that pair sold for $15,000.

The pair of slippers that is held at the Smithsonian Institution has felt glued onto the bottom of the soles, which means they were most likely used during Judy Garland’s dance numbers. The felt would muffle the sound of the shoes on the wooden yellow “brick” road. The pair being held at the Smithsonian are not a matching pair, so it is believed they were used in separate scenes.

As described in their published paper, a group of scientists performed a material analysis to inform how the slippers could best be preserved. The materials analysis survey was carried out using non-invasive and minimally invasive analytical methods. Because the slippers are not a matched pair, materials from each shoe were analyzed separately when possible. Micro x-ray fluorescence (µ-XRF) was used to analyze most of the components of the slippers—the sequins, prong settings, beads and rhinestones, red paint, felt, and heel materials—because it was quick and non-invasive. Micro fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (µ-FTIR) was used to study all of the organic materials on the shoes. A polarized light microscope was used for fiber identification. The findings of the material analysis helped determine what the best steps for preservation and conservation would be.

In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the conservation of Dorothy Gale’s Ruby Slippers. Nearly 6,500 people pledged almost $350,000 to the campaign, which would be used to repair the shoes and build a temperature-controlled case.  

In terms of hands-on treatment, the conservators did not perform major restoration on the shoes. Conservators consider the wear and tear of the shoes part of the life of the objects, so restoring the shoes to their original state would damage the authenticity. Tasks they did provide were to stabilize paint losses, tuck loose threads back into the original stitches, and glue back the outer sole in areas where it was pulling away from the upper—essentially repairing the shoes as much as is ethically possible, without replacing any parts.

In the case of the ruby slippers, this meant removing surface dirt and stabilizing loose threads. They did this sequin by sequin, under a microscope. For the sequins, they used a small paintbrush and a pipette attached to a hose and vacuum. For the glass beads on the bow, they used small cotton swabs and water. The conservators had to be careful, because all of the shoe’s materials required different treatments. They also stabilized broken or fraying threads with adhesive and silk thread and realigned the sequins that had rotated or flipped.

The shoes began to darken and lose their shine as a result of light damage. Conservators had to research what optimal lighting conditions would be, so that once they repaired the shoes, they could maintain them. They built a specialized case with controlled humidity, temperature, and oxygen levels to minimize the need for future treatments.

As a result of the preventative conservation work performed to slow future degradation, the Smithsonian’s Ruby Slippers will be viewed by visitors to the National Museum of American History for generations to come.

For Further Reading:

Bowley, G. (2016, October 20). Smithsonian Seeks $300,000 to Save Ruby SlippersNew York Times166(57391), C1–C2.

Cavendish, P. (2019). The Political Imperative of Color: Stalin, Disney, and the Soviet Pursuit of Color Film, 1931–45. Russian Review, 78(4), 569–594. https://doi.org/10.1111/russ.12245

Douglas, J. G., Kavich, G., Mori, C., Wallace, D., & Barden, R. (2018). Materials characterization of the Ruby Slippers from the 1939 classic film, The Wizard of OzHeritage Science6(1), 1.

Siemens, E. (2018). The Ruby Slippers across Time, Space, and MediaImaginations Journal9(2), 15–23.

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