Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

Ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland’s character Dorothy in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz (photo by Richard Strauss, courtesy Smithsonian)

From ages five to six, I watched The Wizard of Oz at an ungodly early hour each morning. This is not an exaggeration — I learned how to work the VCR for this purpose. I generally only made it through the first half or so — until a family member woke up — and, the next day, I’d rewind the movie to its beginning. Having watched the movie in full at least once, I skipped the tying up of plot lines to re-see the wooden clapboard house spin in the tornado and Dorothy step out from her black-and-white bedroom into the dazzling, saturated Land of Oz, where Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, gently lands in the form of a bubble and baby munchkins sleep in bird nests. Most of all, I anticipated the moment when the ruby slippers vanished from the Wicked Witch’s feet, which thereafter recoiled under the house that had crushed her, and appeared on Dorothy’s own. These were the shoes, their glimmering, delicious red shocking the eyes, that had the otherworldly potential to transport her home.

Little did I know then the resonance this movie, and particularly Dorothy’s shoes, would have for me. The year following the start of my Wizard of Oz craze, I moved to another country — the first move of five with my family. Of course, I was never literally without a home (neither did I attempt to run away, as Dorothy did), but I did sometimes feel like I was traveling an unfamiliar road with no end, hoping one day to find home or be carried to it by tenderly saying, in red lipstick, “There’s no place like home,” as I clicked my shimmering heels together. I bought a blue-and-white checkered dress and braided my hair, substituting Toto with my own stuffed animal named Puppy. On my 22nd birthday, my sister bought me the closest adult version to Dorothy shoes, which still give me the illusion that I can levitate from their radiance.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History owns a pair of Dorothy’s shoes — one, apparently, of at least seven made for Judy Garland’s part — but they appear to have lost their luster. In a Kickstarter campaign, the Smithsonian says the shoes, a petite size five, have begun to deteriorate. With “#1 Judy Garland” and “#6 Judy Garland” written on their insides, the shoes were dyed red, wrapped in sequined netting, and equipped with a layer of felt on their soles to soften the sounds of Dorothy dancing to “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” While the materials have a relatively short life span, conservators believe they could be preserved in a temperature-controlled case. For this endeavor, the museum is trying to raise the ruby-worthy sum of $300,000. And it seems I’m not the only one to be emotionally swayed by these shoes: as of today, the fourth day of the campaign, over $210,000 have been donated.

It might seem odd to be passionate about 80-year-old shoes. But through them I’m reminded of those mornings sitting on the floor in my pajamas, marveling at scenes like a sea of poppies covered in snow, and even of those awkward, yet necessary, memories of eating alone in a bathroom stall at school or approaching a group of intimating girls to befriend them, wishing I were closer to home. Like Dorothy, we all have to suffer a little before our wishes are granted, but at least those ruby slippers — as long as they’re aglow — inspire us to make them.


The author’s “Dorothy shoes” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Smithsonian Institution’s Kickstarter to conserve Dorothy’s ruby slippers continues through November 16. 

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.