Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Exactly How Many Ruby Slippers Have You Got, Dorothy?

Perhaps the most enduring appeal of “The Wizard of Oz” is its visual element. The costumes have become iconic with copies of Dorothy’s blue pinafore dress and ruby slippers popping up at fancy dress parties, drag shows, Pride parades, and just about everywhere else. The actual costumes from the film fetch thousands of pounds at auction.

The famous ruby slippers don’t appear in the book from which the film was based. Dorothy wore silver shoes and the ruby ones were created to give a more visual impact on the colour film. The decision to change them is credited to one of the film’s screenwriters, Noel Langley. The slippers themselves, and their rediscovery were the work of two gay men – costume designer Adrian (1903-1959) and costume collector Kent Warner (1943-1984).

Because of their special iconic status the ruby slippers are well covered on the internet with hundreds of websites, blogs and videos dedicated to them alone. It would be pointless for me to compete with them and write a definitive article. So here’s a brief look at Adrian and Kent Warner.

Adrian (full name Adrian Adolph Greenberg) was chief costume designer at MGM studios. He had been a prolific designer since the days of silent film in 1925. Over 200 films have Adrian’s name attached to them. Apart from “The Wizard of Oz” his most famous films include “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) and Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948). The list of stars for whom Adrian designed dresses and gowns reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood greats – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and many others.

When commissioned for the Oz film Adrian designed hundreds of individual costumes (over 100 for the Munchkins alone), though he did “borrow” old costumes from previous projects. The gown worn by Glinda, for instance, was originally created for Jeanette MacDonald in the film “San Francisco” (1936).

Adrian’s original design for the ruby slippers resembled Arabian shoes with curled up toes. These were rejected because they looked too exotic on the feet of an ordinary girl from Kansas. The red sequins, however, were kept for the subsequent slippers (of which at least 5 different pairs are known to exist). One alteration, made by the gay director George Cukor on his few days as director, was the addition of red bows.

I’ve just made a throw-away remark about the number of ruby slippers that exist. As in modern films and tv several identical costumes are made, some for stunt/body doubles, others reserved in case of damage to the original. No-one knows for sure how many ruby slippers were made, but if it wasn’t for Kent Warner only one pair would exist today.

There may be more value in having only one existing pair, but they have exerted such an influence over costume collectors’ imaginations that they can still fetch thousands of dollars at auction (the most recent pair went for over $666,000).

Two events occurred at about the same time that meant the slippers gained a new significance.

The first was the untimely death of Judy Garland in 1969. As with all famous stars her death saw an increase in interest in everything about her. This was most notably so within the gay community who had regarded Judy as one of their champions for years, and her death is inextricably linked to the Stonewall Riots that occurred the night after her death.

The second event was the sale of MGM studios in 1970. Everything in storage was to be auctioned off – sets, furniture, props and costumes. After the production of each film everything was saved for future use in other films. In fact, only the mundane objects were reused. Elaborate costumes and props hardly ever were used again unless a sequel was made. The fantastic costumes of Oz were destined to remain in storage, gathering dust and moths, until they disintegrated. In 1970 a huge auction sale was arranged for all the items that were still in good shape, the rest was junked. The man chosen to trawl through the costume stores and catalogue everything for sale was Kent Warner.

Kent Warner has been a fan of Adrian’s work since childhood and entered the film industry himself as a costume designer. He had worked for MGM and other studios. He was also an avid collector of film memorabilia, particularly costumes, for both his own enjoyment and for profit. To this end he and his boyfriend Ron Wind often “took” costumes that had been placed in storage for years (and in all probability never to be used again). He also searched through rubbish bins and skips for items that had been thrown away.

Over the years Kent amassed a collection of many costumes from famous films. Knowing his keen interest in historic film costumes the new MGM owners asked him to go through their warehouses and stores. It must have been an Aladdin’s cave for him.

It is known that Kent discovered at least 5 pairs of ruby slippers, including the Arabian pair (one pair had been given as a competition prize in 1940 and was, until then, the only pair known to exist). Kent kept a pair of slippers for himself and sold several others. Only one pair was to be placed in the 1970 auction. With Judy Garland’s death barely a year beforehand these slippers acquired a special status – they didn’t even need to be labelled at the pre-auction viewing.

Whether there was a deliberate attempt by the new MGM owners to bump up the value of the slippers by only offering one pair for sale (as is likely) the anonymous buyer certainly thought they were the only pair that existed.

You can find out the fate of each pair of the existing ruby slippers by going online. Just google “ruby slippers”.

Perhaps the world can just about cope with 6 existing pairs of ruby slippers. Any more and their value would lessen. In this year when we commemorate the 75th anniversary of “The Wizard of Oz”, the 55th anniversary of the death of Adrian, the 45th anniversary of the death of Judy Garland, and the 30th anniversary of the death of Kent Warner, the ruby slippers are still glowing with their own special magic.

1 comment:

  1. I knew Ron, dated him for a time between '80 and '82. I found out about the "costume capers" from the horse's mouth, so to speak. After that, I didn't see him much.