The Remarkable, Rare Rubies

by Jackson Rettig

Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, makes her first appearance in the opening moments of Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, and nothing seems different from any other movie. The standard black and white film technique of the 30s guides the screenplay until the terrible twister transplants Dorothy, Toto, and her Kansas farmhouse into an unknown land.  But when Dorothy opens the door to Munchkinland, the world changes—for Dorothy and the audience alike. The MGM camera pans nearly 360 degrees, and first-time viewers from 1939 and 2013 alike become enamored by the colorful and mystical Land of Oz and the mystery it holds. The sparkling plants, deep blue river, and yellow brick road all contribute to this effect, but nothing single handedly adds to this fascination more than the ruby slippers.

Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, welcomes Dorothy to Munchkinland, but soon reveals to Dorothy that her house has landed on and killed the Wicked Witch of the East. Glinda points her wand toward the house, the camera pans to the legs and feet of the Wicked Witch of the East, for the first time, exposes the audience to the ruby slippers, which shimmer brilliantly through studio lighting. While the Munchkins celebrate their newly found freedom, the Wicked Witch of the West arrives to avenge the death of her sister and retrieve the ruby slippers. At that moment, Glinda magically places the shoes on Dorothy’s feet. Dorothy learns of their magic, but does not understand their specific power until the end of the film.

How did these slippers come to be? Rachelle Bergstein, author of Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us, devotes ample time in her book to Dorothy’s shoes. She notes that L. Frank Baum’s original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, “described Dorothy’s shoes as silver” but screenwriter Noel Langley, “aware that the studio would be filming in Technicolor [(a revolutionary process of color cinematography)], … crossed out the word ‘silver’ recasting the shoes as ruby” (Bergstein 27). Technicolor brought color to film, enhancing basically every facet of a movie. In Smithsonian article, “The Technicolor World of Oz,” Ryan Lintelman reminds us that, “Contrary to a common misconception, Oz was not the first film made in color, but it was one of the first to prove that color could add fantasy and draw audiences to theaters, despite its release during the Great Depression.” The ruby color would look better on screen in contrast to the Yellow Brick Road and would give the shoes a sense of preciousness.

These weren’t just fancy slippers, though. Bergstein notes that the along with the ruby color we have all come to know, Oz’s costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, used “a standard round-toed pump with a low, French heel, similar to popular comfort styles advertised in women’s magazines at the time for six or seven dollars a pair” (30). Then, after dyeing the shoes, they were covered in a red sequined overlay to elevate the shoes to a whole new level before being finished off with a similarly sequined ruby bow.

Within this process of creating the ruby slippers, two key points stand out: that the shoes used were similar to popular comfort styles and that the costume designers finished the shoes off with a ruby bow. One important factor to The Wizard of Oz’s effectiveness is how relatable Dorothy is to the everyday person. Bergstein’s argues that the popular shoe style from the late 1930s is significant. Surely it helped people believe that Dorothy could be their neighbor and freed their minds to travel alongside Dorothy to a new world of opulence and wealth where shoes of their culture could appear as precious as a gem, glittering with thousands of ruby sequins. The attainable style of shoes with an unattainable appearance creates an alluring paradox. Secondly, the perfect bow on top adds to their importance. Added at the last minute by the costume designers, these heels needed something to bring back the playful youthfulness of 16-year-old Judy Garland. The producers, says Bergstein, “realized that preserving the innocence of the story – its sense of wonder and majesty – was vital to the film’s success” (31). The bows did just that.

The Ruby Slippers not only brought wonder to the 1939 movie-going audiences through their stunning color and mysterious magical powers, but also allow today’s viewers to connect to Dorothy’s story . “In the years following the Great Depression, … Hollywood started moving away from movies that celebrated slinky sexuality and glamour, and instead turned out pictures … that focused on the home” (Bergstein 31). The Wizard of Oz perfectly executed this Hollywood trend with the innocent Garland. However, it was a difficult journey getting there.

The abuse of Judy Garland is legendary, even for Hollywood standards. Any biography of Garland notes the abuse. Hired at the age of 13 by MGM Studios, Garland had awaited her big break for three years. “Unfortunately, she wasn’t sensual like a starlet, though her body wasn’t childlike either, and her weight consistently rankled the MGM brass,” writes Bergstein. “It was challenging to sell her as a romantic lead” (25). Garland had the voice but not the body. Judy Garland got the part only by default.

Bergstein asserts that the movie producers changed the ruby slippers not only because the color red would “pop” better on the Technicolor screen, but also because they wanted to divert their attention away from Garland’s body. It didn’t stop there, says Bergstein. The producers were relentless. They used starvation diets, diet pills, amphetamines, and barbiturates to change Garland into the actress of their dreams. MGM couldn’t get past their “perfect image,” suggests Bergstein, even though Hollywood’s image was changing. When the movie was released, no one really cared about the body of Garland but rather the message of the story. None of MGM’s tactics mattered except for the change to the ruby slippers. Although the studio allegedly used them to grab attention away from Garland’s physique, their most important use made viewers think about what mattered to them in such a turbulent time in their lives: home.

With a combination of the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the threat of World War II, and the terrible circumstances of the Great Depression, the home became a place of comfort for most Americans, suggests Alissa Burger, author of The Wizard of Oz as American Myth: A Critical Study of Six Versions of the Story, 1900-2007. Therefore, it wasn’t just that the ruby slippers’ beauty sparkled on screen, but that the message connected deeply with The Wizard of Oz’s audience. Like Dorothy, who wanted to be back home in un-glamorous Kansas, most Americans wanted to go back to their lives before the Great Depression.

Once Dorothy disposed of the Wicked Witch of the West, she learned about the magical power of the shoes. “Close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home’” (Wizard of Oz). For the first time, the magic of the ruby slippers is paired with Dorothy’s “journey of self-discovery.” Burger argues that, “the magic of the shoes … is contingent upon [her] realizing that ‘there’s no place like home’ and embracing her position within the domestic space and the familial unit” (168). By the end of the film, Burger asserts, Dorothy is able to appreciate what she had only after she lost it, a revelation many Americans of the Depression age were feeling. Viewers were able to grasp hold of the image of these opulent shoes and home, something they knew they could never own or have.

Although written for the people of 1939, The Wizard of Oz has persisted through generation after generation, bringing the story full circle. The ruby slippers, both in their luxury and underlying value, drew audiences to theaters by providing hope and wonder. Today, as society faces similar challenges as the people of 1939 did, the slippers deliver the same, constant message to all viewers: there’s no place like home.


Works Cited

Bergstein, Rachelle. Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and             How They Define Us. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

Burger, Alissa. The Wizard of Oz as American Myth: A Critical Study of Six             Versions of the Story, 1900-2007. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2012.             Print.

Lintelman, Ryan. “The Technicolor World of Oz.” O Say Can You See?             Smithsonian, 7 June 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939. Film.