Ruby Slippers conserved, reunited

The iconic Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 cinematic classic The Wizard of Oz now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) have been conserved using funds raised in a Kickstarter campaign. The fundraiser was launched on October 17th, 2016, with a goal of $300,000. More 5,300 leapt at the chance to help revive the shoes and the goal was reached in less than a week.

In the two and a half years since the Kickstarter, backers have been getting regular updates on the conservation process, glimpses into a very complex, painstaking approach to studying, cleaning and stabilizing the Ruby Slippers. The NMAH blog has posted an overview of the painstaking conservation of the shoes.

When examined under a microscope, the sequins show themselves to be more intricate than they seem at a glance. They are composed of four layers: two outer layers of red cellulose nitrate coating with a silver backing under the top layer and a gelatin interior. The silver backing is what makes the sequins sparkle in the light. The nitrate coating has flaked off some of the sequins with time and use, but the museum did not repair the loss as it is part of their history as a working costume and witnesses to their age.

Objects conservator Dawn Wallace instead cleaned every single sequin on both shoes. The loose dirt was removed with a small, soft brush. The deeper-set grime was sucked up using a tiny vacuum attached to a pipette. Every thread tying the sequins was examined for weakness and when necessary strengthened with a single strand thread of red silk. They’re invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen in extreme close-up. Wallace also flipped upside-down sequins so that the reflective side was up and realigned ones that had shifted in position.

There were several pairs of Ruby Slippers created for the movie by famed costumier Adrian. The Smithsonian’s was used for the dance sequences and skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. They have felt padding on the bottom of the soles to muffle the sound of them striking the wood set. The ones used to click the heals together for the camera close-ups had no felt.

The different materials of the shoe — the leather, the netting, the threads — even the layers of the sequins all have different preservation needs. That makes determining the proper light, temperature and humidity conditions extremely challenging. A portion of the $300,000 raised was dedicated to the design and production of a new display case with sophisticated environmental controls to preserve the shoes.

The refreshed Ruby Slippers returned to public display in their new state-of-the-art case on October 19th, 2018.

One of the happiest ancillary benefits of the years spent conserving the Smithsonian’s Ruby Slippers is that the very specific expertise developed in the process could be used to confirm the authenticity of the pair stolen from The Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2005. The Smithsonian does not authenticate artifacts, but when the FBI asked them to compare the ruby slippers recovered in 2018 to the ones in the NMAH agreed.

Investigating the materials and their condition, Wallace noticed many consistencies with the museum’s pair. But it was a clear glass bead on the bow of the left shoe that, for her, confirmed her initial reaction.   

Wallace had also spotted clear glass beads painted red while peering through a microscope during conservation work on the museum’s pair. Analysis and interviews with Hollywood costumers indicated that the painted-bead replacements were likely repairs made on-set during filming. 

“To me, the glass bead painted red was a eureka moment,” Wallace said. “That’s a piece of information that hasn’t been published anywhere and, as far as I know, isn’t widely known. It’s a unique element of these shoes, and spotting that bead was a defining moment.” 

Wallace also found that the wear, fading and flaking on the sequins of the recovered shoes matches that on the museum’s shoes, something that could not be counterfeited. 

But the most amazing discovery was the two pairs are even more closely related than anyone imagined they could be.

The museum’s pair is not identical. The heel caps, bows, width, and overall shape do not match; the shoes were brought together from two separate sets. But in examining the recovered shoes, conservators found the left to the museum’s right and the right to the museum’s left. When temporarily reunited, the four shoes created two matching pairs.

Conservators suspect the two pairs were mixed up by those nimcompoops at MGM when the studio sold off its patrimony at the 1970 auction.