To Save Dorothy’s Red Slippers, It May Take a Wizard | Conservation Lab

With three clicks and $300,000, the Smithsonian hopes to #KeepThemRuby for at least another century.
October 25, 2016, 5:40pm
Objects conservator Dawn Wallace. All photos courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Nearly 80 years have passed since Judy Garland clicked her heels three times on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and her famed ruby slippers are showing their age. Sequins have discolored, threads have come loose, and paint on the soles is cracking. To prevent the iconic shoes from losing any more of their magic, the Smithsonian launched a Kickstarter campaign last week to raise $300,000, which will fund conservation research and the necessary treatments to stabilize them for the next 100 years to come.

In just eight days, the #KeepThemRuby campaign has already surpassed its goal, with over 5,500 backers pledging $310,687 at the time of publication. The Smithsonian had every reason to be optimistic about its fundraising efforts: Last year, the institution used Kickstarter to conserve Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, and surpassed its objective by nearly 50%, raising a total of $719,779.

Still, some aren't 100% sold on this new initiative. “Are the shoes also being sent into space?” asks one commenter, balking at the price tag (but who, nonetheless, backed the project). While the emotional significance of the slippers is a matter of personal opinion, these challenges, at the very least, are a testament to how little we understand what goes on behind the closed doors of a museum conservation lab—so we asked objects conservator Dawn Wallace to better break down this complex science project for us.

“The overall project is much larger than it seems at first, because the shoes are so complicated,” begins the conservator. The base of the shoe was a white, commercially produced model from the Innes Shoe Company, a manufacturer in the Los Angeles area that often supplied the movie industry. Costume designers then added a netting, dye, sequins, beads, and other customizations, resulting in a total of 12 different materials. “We need to work alongside scientists to understand how those materials interact with each other, and how they’ve interacted for the last 80 years,” says Wallace. That will require lots of research—not just into the chemistry of the materials, but into the shoes’ life history. Establishing what prior repairs were made, for example, will help determine why some glass beads on the bow differ from others.

In terms of hands-on treatment, the conservators won't be doing any major restoration on the shoes. Wallace says they consider the wear and tear part of the life of the objects, so the point is not to return them to their original state. They will, nevertheless, stabilize paint losses, tuck in loose threads back into the original stitches, and glue back the outer sole in areas where it’s pulling away from the upper—essentially repairing the shoes as much as is ethically possible, without replacing any parts.

Close-up of the cracks in the sequins’ coating

The real challenge, however, is figuring out how to freeze the objects in their current state, and prevent further decay. Stabilizing the sequins is a particularly complicated matter. “Most of the research that we have found on sequins involves earlier ones that are gelatin or metal, or later sequins—in the 40s they turned to cellulose acetate, then later, vinyl and other plastics,” explains Wallace. “These have a gelatin core with a cellulose nitrate coating. This creates a unique problem, because those two materials react to treatments and environments very differently.” The coating is similar to lacquer, and is what gives the shoes their hallmark red hue. So if conservators want to keep the shoes ruby, keeping those sequins from further deterioration is of primordial importance.

They already know that part of the problem is light damage, so optimal lighting conditions will need to be researched. Additionally, conservators plan to build a specialized case with controlled humidity, temperature, and oxygen levels—once they establish what the proper settings are. “We want this project to be one of the last times we need to intervene with the slippers,” Wallace tells us.

Detail of the top bow

All this research will translate to other objects as well. Of the 10 or so pairs that were produced for the movie, four are still in existence (fun fact: the Smithsonian’s pair is mismatched; one shoe reads “#1 Judy Garland,” the other “#6 Judy Garland”). One was recently purchased for the forthcoming Academy Museum in Los Angeles, and presumably they will rely on the Smithsonian’s findings to build their own display. Additionally, Wallace expects the research to be helpful in the treatment of other objects in the Smithsonian’s collections—and in those of other institutions as well.

To learn more about the Ruby Slippers project, visit the Kickstarter page.


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