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Celebrating 80 Years of History’s Most Iconic Shoe

Updated: Sep 2, 2019

The iconic ruby slippers, on Judy Garland’s size-6 feet in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

Eighty years ago this week, the most famous shoes in film history (and perhaps all history?) made their debut when The Wizard of Oz premiered, first previewing in test markets that included the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, on August 12th, 1939, before the film’s Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 15th, 1939.

The journey of Dorothy’s ruby slippers remains among the most enigmatic and most-discussed bits of folklore in cinema history. We have costume designer Adrian, rather than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, to thank for their creation. In his iconic 1900 book, Baum conjured slippers that were silver for Dorothy, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, spending upwards of $2.7 million on his first Technicolor film, decreed that he wasn’t dropping all that cash for audiences to look at silver slippers. And thus sometime in 1938, the word “silver” was scratched out of someone’s working script, and the word “ruby” was written in its place.

Various stories over the years have reported that anywhere from five to seven pairs were made for Judy Garland to wear, all by the Innes Shoe Company, which resided at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Wilcox Avenue, and of course it’s no longer there (a coffee shop called Rise & Grind stands in its place). The pumps with their “baby Louis” heels were crafted of leather-lined white silk, then dyed red and covered with a deep ruby-toned organza embellished with roughly 2,300 sequins for each shoe — bugle beads originally had been used to better simulate rubies, but they were deemed too heavy, and lighter silver-backed red sequins were substituted (the silver backing allowed them to glisten more on camera). The chosen hue was a bit deeper than a typical ruby shade, which might look more orange than red onscreen. Adrian also conjured the butterfly bow that adorns each shoe, as that likewise isn’t mentioned in the book as part of the slippers’ design.

Five pairs of ruby slippers can be easily traced today — for the most part. The easiest place to currently view a pair of ruby slippers is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which received a donation of one pair in 1979. They were pulled from display in 2016 to be refurbished — more than $350,000 was raised in a Kickstarter campaign for the project — and in October 2018 returned for exhibit. They remain among the museum’s most popular artifacts, in a display case custom-designed for their preservation.

Soon enough you won’t have to trek to Washington, D.C., to view a pair of ruby slippers: In 2012 a consortium that included Leonardo DiCaprio and Steven Spielberg purchased another pair — believed to be the pair in best condition and used for close-ups — for an undisclosed sum as they were headed to the auction block (they carried an auction estimate of $2 to $3 million). This pair will be on permanent display at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — its opening, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles — has been delayed a few times and is now anticipated for early 2020.

A third pair residing at the Judy Garland Museum, located in the star’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, were stolen in 2005, but in 2018 they were recovered and returned for display. The fourth pair was reportedly purchased by a Hollywood collector, who has yet to display them, while the fifth pair — a test pair far more elaborate in design than the slippers ultimately approved — were purchased by Debbie Reynolds for $300 when she was amassing her memorabilia collection; she sold them to a private buyer in 2011 for $690,000.

Fathom Events put The Wizard of Oz on the big screen earlier this year in late January/early February to celebrate the film’s 80th anniversary. It’s a shame the screening wasn’t planned for August to coincide with the official 80th anniversary, also because kids would be on summer vacation, a perfect time to introduce them to an iconic film on the big screen. Of course, Dorothy’s ruby slippers continue to fascinate so many generations, even if they’re just viewing them on TV, proving there’s nothing like the power of this particular red shoe.


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