There’s No Place Like Conservation Lab: The Wizard of Oz Ruby Slippers Scheduled for Maintenance

Smithsonian Institution Ruby Slippers
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

American popular culture’s most recognizable pair of shoes were removed from display and went into the Smithsonian’s conservation lab for some much-needed repairs on February 23. The famed ruby slippers, worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz, will return to the Smithsonian Museum of American History display cases on April 5, where they have been featured on a nearly continuous basis since being anonymously donated to the museum in 1979. The shoes will be a part of a new exhibition entitled, “American Stories.”

Originally, the shoes were not supposed to be kept for posterity nor be the iridescent red color for which they are famous. In fact, the shoes designed by the film’s costume designer Gilbert Adrian, were intended to be used solely for the movie. Most film fashion props are just used for the short duration of a shoot, and not showcased for several decades afterward. During an earlier conservation treatment, it was discovered through tests that the shoes’ famous red sequins were made of gelatin, an organic material that would be damaged if cleaned with most cleaning solvents. Smithsonian conservators decided that their best course of action would be to use cotton dipped in ice water to complete the tedious process of cleaning each sequin individually.

PortaScope Digital Microscope In both L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, from which the film was adapted, and early variations of Noel Langley’s screenplay, the shoes were originally intended to be silver. However, with the advent of technicolor film, the shoes’ hue was changed prior to filming in an effort to catch the eyes of moviegoers. During the conservation treatment, the original silver color of the shoes was discovered after being examined with a hand-held microscope. Conservators also found a netting underneath the bright red sequins that originally allowed the film’s costume designers to stitch those sequins to the silver slippers. This netting was added to the shoes in an effort to make the process of stitching the sequins to the shoes easier.

Similar conservation projects could be accomplished with the following tools and equipment from University Products: precision miniature fiber-tipped applicators, stainless steel conservation work trays, and PortaScope digital microscopes.