Saving Dorothy’s ruby slippers

ruby slippers
ruby slippers
Dorothy’s ruby slippers need some TLC, photo from / Courtesy of Fran Monks: Smithsonian National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian is called America’s attic for good reason. According to their website, they are responsible for 156,000,000 individual artifacts, art and specimens. Can you imagine the magnitude of that job? The Smithsonian is in charge of pandas, art masterpieces and the First Lady’s gowns. Can you imagine the number of specialists needed to keep that attic in order? I don’t know about you, but I have trouble maintaining order in my own attic, and there are no pandas up there.

The cost of maintaining the Smithsonian and it’s collections must be astronomical. Approximately 70 cents  of each dollar needed comes from government grants. The rest comes from the giving hands of foundations and individual citizens. But what do you do when one of the most special of the special treasures in America’s attic needs special care? 

If you’re the Smithsonian, you start up the project like anyone with a great idea does these days. You start it up with a Kickstarter Campaign. Which is exactly what they’ve done to fund the conservation and restoration of Dorothy’s ruby slippers as well as build them a state-of-the-art display case.

The story of how the Smithsonian came to own one of the multiple pairs of ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz has the makings of a movie. You can read this all the delicious details on the Smithsonian magazine website, but here’s a synopsis: Back in 1970, MGM costume department worker Kent Warner disobeyed orders to save one good pair of the ruby slippers for an auction and toss out the rest. Except he didn’t. For good measure, he spent many more years saving/stashing/rescuing many more treasures from the dumpsters.

The ruby slippers the Smithsonian proudly displays are the pair Kent Warner chose and provided to the auction. The anonymous buyer gifted them to all of us by way of giving them to the Smithsonian. They do belong to all of us, so the idea of fundraising via Kickstarter is kind of brilliant. 

Here are some interesting facts you might not know about those iconic power-giving slippers:

  • Ruby slippers are covered with about 2,400 cellulose nitrate sequins, each hand sewn. No glue guns here! Of course, that may be because cellulose nitrate, or celluloid as we called it here in the US, is highly flammable. Oh, and as it deteriorates, it has the power to deteriorate materials around it. (So says an excellent costume journal article on the conservation of sequins.)
  • The slippers at the Smithsonian are a mismatched pair, a half size different.
  • Unlike the bright red slippers you see with Dorothy costumes, the actual ruby slippers are a soft shade of red.

There is some kind of cinematic nod and wink in the Smithsonian turning to all of us with their Conserve Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers Kickstarter campaign. They know as well as we do, we’ve always had the power.

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  1. Yay for Kent Warner and not following directions. Wizard of Oz is my very favorite movie. Those ruby slippers are iconic.

  2. Dorothy’s ruby slippers don’t quite look like they’ve been through a tornado, but they sure look in need of repair. It’s been over 50 years since I’ve seen the Wizard of Oz. I wonder if the Wicked Witch of the West would still scare me. :o)

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