There was more than one pair of Ruby Slippers in Dorothy's closet?
The Ruby Slippers are among the most famous pairs of shoes in the world. Generations of Americans know them from Dorothy’s journey in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and millions of visitors have seen the pair on display here at the National Museum of American History since their donation in 1979.
The slippers are a physical representation of the glamour and magic of Hollywood movies, their stunning ruby sequins chosen for maximum brilliance in front of Technicolor cameras. Their size—women's size 5, although the left shoe is marked "5C" and the right shoe is marked "5BC"—reminds us of the human scale of even the most monumental entertainment; after all, Judy Garland was only 16 years old when she portrayed Dorothy. Many viewers of the film cannot help but identify with the plucky, determined heroine, who faces insurmountable challenges while trying to find a way home, learning to rely on friends as well as her own perseverance.
The Ruby Slippers are icons of American history because they remind us of all this and more. We recall cherished memories of viewing the film with friends and family, sometimes at holidays, sometimes at birthdays, or while visiting grandparents who might have recalled seeing The Wizard of Oz in the theater years before. Whether you've seen the film recently or not, it's a fair bet that you remember the thrilling moment when the slippers magically appear on Dorothy's feet in Munchkinland, sparkling more vividly than any of the other fantastic scenery in the MGM musical.
The slippers at this museum are among the most popular and most-requested objects on display at the Smithsonian, but many visitors are surprised to discover that this is not the only pair used in filming The Wizard of Oz. In fact, as many as six or even 10 pairs are believed to have been made for the production. Five pairs are known to still exist. I've enjoyed learning about the journey of each red pump because the stories highlight our love—as well as our occasional lapses of affection—for the shoes over the years and reveal the ephemeral nature of movie props and costumes.
The pair from the contest
Following the August 1939 release of the film, MGM costumers placed all but one pair of the slippers in storage, awaiting some future use or adaptation as a costume piece in a movie, as was standard procedure. But the following year, 16-year-old Memphis, Tennessee, resident Roberta Bauman placed second in a National Four Star Club "Name the Ten Best Movies of 1939" contest, and was awarded an incredible prize: a pair of Ruby Slippers used in the filming.
Bauman kept her pair of slippers—size 6B—in a box at her home until 1988, when she sold them at auction. These slippers are now in the possession of a Hollywood memorabilia collector, and they have not been displayed since the year 2000.
Kent Warner's pair
Meanwhile, by 1970, MGM was moving away from the film production business, and it hired Hollywood costumer Kent Warner to organize a now-legendary sale of many of its historic costumes. Warner discovered a number of original pairs of Ruby Slippers on the MGM lot, and prepared a single pair for the 1970 auction. (This pair was acquired by an anonymous bidder who graciously donated them to the Smithsonian in 1979.) Warner, meanwhile, appears to have kept at least two pairs of slippers himself. He sold one pair—in excellent condition, and probably used for close-up shots—to a collector in 1981, and this pair was recently acquired by a group of benefactors including Leonardo DiCaprio for donation to the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum, slated to open in 2017.
The previously missing pair
A pair of slippers came into the possession of another Hollywood costume collector, Michael Shaw, by the 1970s. These shoes made national news in 2005 when they were stolen while on loan to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Update on September 4, 2018: The stolen pair has been recovered and our conservators helped provide the FBI with information about it.
The most unique looking pair
A pair of Ruby Slippers was owned for years by actress Debbie Reynolds, and these are the most unique of all. MGM costume designer Gilbert Adrian created a whimsical, alternate pair of slippers known to Oz fans as the "Arabian test pair," with curled toes and a more ornate sequin design. These slippers were only used for test shots, as the film's director, Victor Fleming, preferred the simpler design of the other pairs of slippers. This pair was sold at Debbie Reynolds' 2011 Hollywood memorabilia collection auction.
The pair that belongs to the American public
Each of these pairs of Ruby Slippers have an interesting story to tell. And here at the National Museum of American History, we're grateful for the anonymous 1979 donation that brought our pair—your pair—of Ruby Slippers to the American people. We plan to display the Ruby Slippers in our upcoming new culture exhibition for years to come. But even in the carefully-maintained environmental conditions of the museum, time and exposure to light have taken a toll on our Ruby Slippers. Our Kickstarter campaign, Keep Them Ruby, will help us conduct the conservation work and build the new, state-of-the-art exhibition case necessary to preserve and display the Ruby Slippers for future generations. We hope you'll support us on our journey to Keep Them Ruby.
Update: Thanks to you, our Kickstarter campaign to "Keep Them Ruby" was a success and we have the support we need to conserve and display Dorothy's Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. They went off display on April 23, 2017 for a trip to the museum's conservation lab and will return to display on October 19, 2018. Sign up for our newsletter for updates on festivities surrounding their return.
Ryan Lintelman is entertainment curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts.