The Restoration of Dorothy's Ruby Slippers: Background information when reading Finding Dorothy

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Finding Dorothy

by Elizabeth Letts

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts X
Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 368 pages
    Dec 2019, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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The Restoration of Dorothy's Ruby Slippers

This article relates to Finding Dorothy

Print Review

Dorothy's ruby slippers on display at the SmithsonianFinding Dorothy is the fictionalized story of Maud Gage Baum, the wife of L. Frank Baum of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fame. Through dual narratives, Elizabeth Letts explores the lives of the Baums and the inspirations that led Frank to pen his famous novel, while also featuring Maud's fight to see her husband's work honored as it was adapted for the silver screen in The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939. The movie became a hit, winning two Oscars, and has frequently been ranked one of the best films of the past 100 years.

Although the film's characters, songs and fantastical settings are well-recognized by many, perhaps the most iconic piece of memorabilia from the film are Dorothy's ruby slippers. In the original text, the shoes are silver rather than red, but Gilbert Adrian, the head costume designer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, changed the color of the slippers so that they would appear more brilliant in the new Technicolor technology used in the film. Taking a simple pair of white pumps, Adrian covered the shoes in red fabric and row after row of sequins, before finally painting the soles a ruby red and attaching a small cotton bow covered in beads and rhinestones to the toe. Although up to 10 pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film, only 5 pairs exist today, one of which is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This pair was sold at an auction in 1970 and anonymously donated to the museum in 1979, where they were on display to the public, slowly growing older and distinctly less ruby, until 2016.

In October of that year, the Smithsonian began a Kickstarter campaign to conserve Dorothy's ruby slippers, hoping to raise $300,000 to clean up the shoes and design a way to display them that would minimize further deterioration. More than 6,000 backers came together to fund the project, and in April 2017, the shoes were removed from display to begin the conservation process. The goal of this project, as stated by conservator Dawn Wallace, was to address the structural stability of the shoes, not to restore them. Wallace pointed out that, although some of the worn spots, missing sequins and broken beads are due to age, much of the damage occurred during their use in the film, and repairing those flaws would be erasing that history. Instead, Wallace spent more than 200 hours meticulously working to clean and make small repairs to the shoes that would help them maintain their integrity. Using a small brush and a pipette attached to a handheld vacuum, Wallace removed years of dirt and dust from more than 4,000 sequins before testing the strength of the strings holding the sequins to the shoes; weak strings were reinforced with adhesive and fine hair silk to ensure they would remain properly attached. Wallace also used Teflon tape-coated tweezers to gently realign the sequins so that their reflective surface was displayed, restoring the shoes' sleek appearance.

Once the work on the shoes themselves was done, it was time to determine how best to further preserve the iconic ruby color. A small piece of sequin was removed to help determine the color of dye originally used, as well as the composition of the sequins. Conservators discovered that the dye was Rhodamine B, which is usually bright pink in color. The unique composition of the sequins, however—a layer of gelatin coated by a nitrocellulose lacquer—absorbs the dye differently, causing the coloring to clump and produce a rich ruby color. Knowing the type of dye used in the sequins allowed the conservators to test different types of lighting to determine which would best complement the slippers without causing further light damage. These conservators also worked to create a display case that would help reduce the shoes' exposure to humidity, which could cause the sequins to crack, as well as to other air pollutants that could further degrade the materials.

In the fall of 2018, the conservation of Dorothy's shoes was completed, and the slippers were returned to the Smithsonian in their new case. Although the shoes will never fully regain their brilliant ruby color, the work performed by Dawn Wallace and the Smithsonian conservation lab, and supported by so many everyday individuals, helped the slippers shine just a little more brightly and ensured that fans of the beloved tales of Oz would be able to enjoy Dorothy's slippers for many years to come.

See also The Washington Post, April 30, 2019: The Case of the Stolen Ruby Slippers: How a big crime in a small town produced a whodunit as gripping and colorful as The Wizard of Oz itself.

Dorothy's ruby slippers on display, courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Jordan Lynch

This "beyond the book article" relates to Finding Dorothy. It originally ran in March 2019 and has been updated for the December 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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