Image

This past Saturday, after well over a year of anticipation, I had the pleasure to experience the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition, ‘Hollywood Costume.’ I was far from disappointed.

The exhibition, with over 130 costumes on display is, simply, a beautiful love letter to Hollywood, and the role of the costume designer in its history. The exhibition is comprised of three sections, or ‘acts.’ ‘Deconstruction,’ strives to examine the role of the designer in researching characters to know who they are, and how they should be presented, while ‘Dialogue,’ explains the collaborative process between the designer and director to bring the character to life. The third gallery, ‘Finale,’ is the culmination of these processes, exhibiting those costumes that have become, simply, part of the ether of popular culture.

Image

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in ‘Gone with the Wind.’

Walking into the exhibition, you’re confronted by a cinema screen as wide as the exhibition room itself, showing short film clips, each focusing on a costume piece in the collection, with a sweeping score seducing you into the darkened cinematic galleries. Indiana Jones, Dorothy Gale, Mildred Piece, Scarlett O’Hara (and others) appear in quick succession. As someone absolutely enamored of film costumes (none more so than a certain pair of little red shoes), I’d been excited for this day ever since an announcement of the exhibition had appeared in the auction catalog for the sale of Debbie Reynolds collection in the summer of 2011. I thought it would be an amazing day, looking at all these fantastic works of art. But, I wasn’t prepared for what they would make me feel.

Turning the first corner into the exhibition, I was confronted by Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) iconic green velvet curtain dress from Gone with the Wind, and I was instantly in tears, near sobbing. I’m, admittedly, an emotional person, but this felt like a punch to the stomach, and I surprised even myself. I expected the most memorable pieces to be in the exhibition’s final act. Seeing one of my favorite pieces right away was outright shocking. I stood there for a moment to catch my bearings, when I realized the pieces are not surrounded by glass, they are open to the viewer, which only added to all the pieces’ impact.

Queen Christina (Greta Garbo).

But, the first gallery holds many gems, Queen Christina (Greta Garbo), Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer), Queen Elizabeth (Bette Davis) in The Virgin Queen, the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) in Circus, and Lady Maria Barker (Marline Dietrich) in Angel, in a sea of more contemporary pieces.

Now, I acknowledge, every piece has a story; each is the result of a great deal of collaborative work, to discover what best suits the character, the story, and the mise-en-scène. But modern American cinema, on the whole, doesn’t speak to me in the same way Classical Hollywood does. So, I’m partial from the start.

Throughout the exhibition, rather than simply lifeless garments on forms, an effort is made to pose and display the figures in such a way to evoke the actor and character they once dressed. Also, an inventive use of screens and projections furthers the illusion of embodiment, combining the forms with theatrically-inspired lighting and an original score, giving one the sense, that you are within some of Hollywood’s most memorable films.

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) in ‘Gone with the Wind.’

In the second part of the exhibition, ‘Dialogue,’ interviews between three different directors (Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, and Alfred Hitchcock) and their costume designers (Colleen Atwood, Sandy Powell, and Edith Head) play, to demonstrate the collaborative nature of bringing the characters to life. Also featured in the same gallery is a section of costumes from Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, both of whom take a heavy hand in the creation of their respective characters. Included here were also Scarlett O’Hara’s feathered red dress, Darth Vader, Joan Crawford’s red bugle beaded gown from The Bride Wore Red, and Hedy Lamarr’s green peacock dress from DeMille’s Samson and Deliah, among several others. Included with each costume throughout the exhibition was a short explanation from the director, producer, costume designer, or actor, explaining the motivations behind each piece, offering a glimpse of its individual creation story.

Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) in ‘The Philadelphia Story and Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In the third gallery, ‘Finale,’ (being me) my eyes immediately searched the room for Dorothy, and finding her, I wanted to rush by everything else just to get there. (Regardless of the fact I just viewed another of the Oz pinafores just a few weeks ago.) But, as my partner aptly said, ‘[W]e have some old friends here to visit first,’ and that surmises how many of us see these characters. As curator Deborah Landis has said, ‘No costume designer sets out to create an icon,’ but when the characters become so beloved by the public, their costumes become iconic in their own right. Costume design, as she is at pains to demonstrate throughout the exhibition, is never about the clothes. It’s about the characters and their stories, and how those stories resonate with us. In short, it’s about the magic of the movies.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

As a child, I loved nothing more than to sit down with a Classical Hollywood film, and many I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve seen dozens of times. So, for me, they really did feel something like old friends and, to see the clothes many of those characters in my imagination wore, well, it touched me deeply. For those who love movies, we carry those characters, and their stories, with us, and, thankfully for us, we can visit them whenever we wish.

The collection Landis has put together, to her immense credit, couldn’t be much more impressive. Populating the last room were, a cavalcade of my favorite characters. Among them were, Eliza Dolittle and Professor Henry Higgins (Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison) from My Fair Lady,  Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) from The Philadelphia Story, Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) from Breakfast at Tiffany’s,Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) from Morocco,  Fanny Brice from Funny Girl and Dolly Levi from Hello Dolly! (both Barbra Streisand), Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson (Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio) from Titanic, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk from Some Like It Hot and The Girl from The Seven Year Itch (both Marilyn Monroe) and finally Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) from The Wizard of Oz.

While the lighting made details of some garments difficult to see, and the positioning of others made a clear view impossible (this was particularly the case with the Titanic pieces), the exhibition is, without a shred of doubt, an embarrassment of riches.

Dorothy Gale’s (Judy Garland) ruby slippers, on special loan from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

But, for me, nothing could ever beat the very last few pieces. Turning that last corner, there sat, Dorothy’s pinafore and, nearby, in their small case, the ruby slippers (on their first international trip). Yes, I saw one of the pinafores around two weeks ago, and another pair of the slippers just under a year ago, and having studied them for years now, I really do know just about every detail of every pair in existence. But standing in front of them all over again, pointing out the tiniest details of their construction and condition, it couldn’t matter less. For these are special; they are the slippers that took Dorothy home, and standing there with them again, I’m left with the sheer magic of the film, and my love of Hollywood, and, just maybe, the desire to be part of it.

Which, isn’t that the point of the exhibition itself, anyway?

Image

Today, a pair of the ruby slippers will be sold at auction. Not just any pair, but those worn by Judy Garland when Glinda magics them off the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet and proclaims, ‘There they are, and there they’ll stay,’ they are the most pristine, and best made, of the five pairs known to exist from the production, and the only pair to not have felt adhered to the forward foundation. They are in excellent condition but not untouched by time.

As an ardent fan of the film, Judy Garland, and the slippers themselves, I’ve revelled in the release of new photographs of the slippers in the past few months, along with the opportunity, due to the slippers’ short tour to Solange Azagury-Partridge stores in Los Angeles, London, and New York, to see the slippers for myself.

But, while I’m excited by these prospects, and immensely glad to have had the opportunity to stare at them myself for over three hours in London, the idea of the auction still leaves me feeling quite sad indeed. These shoes are iconic, in the truest sense. They have been said to be the single most valuable piece of Hollywood memorabilia in the world, and regarding sheer dollars and cents, that may well be true. But to me, they’re more.

The ruby slippers would be as valuable to me, if they had no monetary value at all, and as a pair of shoes, they very really don’t. After all, after 72 years, no human being could ever wear them again. Placing them on a human foot would very likely destroy them. Their value is in their connection; not in what they are, but in what they mean.

Entering Solange in London a few weeks ago, I was immediately struck dumb by the slippers, resting silently in a glass case, in the middle of the small boutique. Staring at them for only a moment, I had a flash of everything they mean to me, of memories of sitting in front of the television, of endless hours reading about every detail of the production, and even of (yes) running around in a glittery pair of red shoes as a child. But more than that, standing in their presence, knowing what they are, and who wore them, I felt like I was in the presence of some small part of Judy Garland’s legacy, almost as if, in some small way, she was there, and I almost began to cry.

Steve Wilson, the curator for the film collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, which holds in its collection five of the gowns originally worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, has said ‘[T]here’s nothing that captures the human aspect of film like a costume,’ and that is exactly what I experienced with the slippers. It was that moment of realization that the stories of the creation of The Wizard of Oz, Production 1060, are not just stories. This seems self-evident, of course, but I wasn’t alive then, so, for me, it only felt like a series of tales, rehashed over the years.

But rooted to that spot, staring at those shoes, I realized the filmmaking really happened, and Judy Garland really wore them. Of course, no one placed any value in the shoes then (they cost perhaps $13 at the time) and after the production they were placed in the loft of a barn on the MGM backlot, where they rested, largely forgotten, for thirty years, until costumer Kent Warner rediscovered them in 1970, and took them home. They were the pride and joy of his collection, as, like me, a fan of Judy Garland, and Classic Hollywood, until he was forced to sale them due to his own failing health.

But the slippers are not just valuable because Judy wore them; after all, her other costume pieces have sold for much less than the slippers will realize. They are valuable because they are the main plot device in perhaps the most beloved film in the world, seen by more people than any other. Their value is about us, about those of us who saw Oz as children, and still hold it close to our hearts. For others, they are nothing but a pair of gaudy shoes; for us, they hold a very real magic.

The shoes are not just, as so many have said, an abstract symbol of home, or fantasy, or family.  They are a very real symbol, of our own attachment to our own memories of Oz, of our own pasts. For me, that’s my childhood, entwined in Oz, as it were; being the Wicked Witch for Halloween, watching the film when I was recovering from heart surgery at the age of five, or receiving an Oz snow globe nearly every Christmas of my life.

The slippers are valuable to me because, in a very real way, they are part of my childhood, they are part of my life, they are part of me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment, because our popular culture becomes a very real part of our lives and our identities, which explains why they are so valuable, in so many ways, to so many people.

So, the idea that they will be sold, to the highest bidder, reduced to monetary value, breaks my heart a little. I realize we live in a capitalist society, and that’s just the way it works, but I’ve genuinely shed tears over the fact I can’t have them, save them, protect them. I want more than anything, to see the slippers in a museum. If whomever wins the slippers today should ever read this, please know, what you possess is not just a relic of Hollywood history; you own a symbol of a very real part of many people’s lives, and they want, if not deserve, to see them.

My greatest fear with the auction is not simply that they will be sold, but that, after today, they will seemingly disappear. Now, it’s not fair to say that they’ve always been on display. Kent Warner never displayed them publicly, and their most recent owner only did so intermittently, but I always knew who owned them, and had some idea where they were.  After today, like Michael Shaw’s stolen pair, they will quite possibly disappear from public consciousness for years, if not forever.

I hope I’m wrong, I hope with all my heart I’m wrong.

If you’re the lucky winner of the slippers, please prove me wrong. Display them for the public. Let them see them; let them love them. At the very least, please email me, if only so I’ll know they’re safe.

UPDATE:

After the slippers failed to meet the $2,000,000 reserve at the December 16th auction, they were privately sold, through Profiles in History, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for their forthcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Personally, I could not think of a better place for the slippers to reside, back in the hands of the people who crafted them, safely protected for generations to come!

As everyone who has followed this blog is aware, these slippers have taken well over thirteen months, and several hundred, if not thousands of hours to complete. (I won’t even attempt to do the actual math – it would be insane!) But, what you see as the end result in these slippers was not a straight forward journey from Point A to Point B; at nearly every step, things were sewn, and then stripped, and then resewn, to ensure that nearly every detail (as far as was possible) was as authentic to the look of the original shoes as I could get it. While the finished shoes hold (roughly) 4,600 sequins, it’s safe to say I sewed 10,000 – 15,000 sequins along the way, to make sure the angle and spacing of each individual sequin was exactly where I wanted it to be. Do you realize how crazy that is? No, seriously, think about it…

Based, as they are, on Tod Machin’s diagram of Roberta’s shoes, they bear a striking resemble to that pair, and I honestly couldn’t be happier, after all that work, of how they came out.  But, that said, they are currently on eBay. I had placed an auction shortly after their initial completion, which did not end with a winner. The current auction is listed at a lower opening bid (just over $300) and with no reserve.

So, if you’ve followed me on this journey, and you’d love to make these slippers your own, now is your opportunity. The auction ends this weekend, and it is open to anyone around the world, and rest assured the shoes will be shipped, fully insured, to their new home.

Genuinely, I’m sad to see them go, and if times weren’t what they are, I would happily keep the slippers, but I’m hoping the slippers can find someone else who will appreciate them and take the same care with them that I did in creating them.

This blog should provide any potential buyers a wealth of information about the slippers, but should anyone have any questions, feel free to contact me!

To go directly to the auction: click here!

Over the past week, I have ultimately remade the bow on the left shoe twice again before being satisfied with the result. Having now created several tests of the bow over the course of the past few months (three pairs?), I fully understand why every authentic bow is unique, with variations in shape and bead arrangement in each one. Even the Witch’s shoes, with their seemingly perfect bows (in comparison to all other pairs), are not identical to one another, particularly their individual bugle bead arrangements; the shoes I have crafted are no exception (but I did my best to make them as close to perfect duplicates as possible).

After finishing the bows, I gave the soles a once over, repainting them, since working on the shoes over the past year had caused spots of paint to rub off, and then added the orange felt to each of the forward foundations.

So, after nearly thirteen months of work, the replica ruby slippers are now finished. They certainly are a far cry from glitter, slip-on shoes, and construction paper, and they have been an amazingly revealing adventure! In replicating the shoes, you realize the exacting skill Adrian and his team populating the Wardrobe Department had. The studios were stockpiles of nothing more than raw talent in every department.

Gilbert Adrian

It is telling that these artisans crafted several copies of the slippers in a matter of no more than a few months (in various versions), while it took me over a year to craft a single pair! Granted, I came to this project with nothing more than the most basic sewing skills, those procured in your average home economics course. I’ve never taken a serious sewing course (although I’d genuinely love to!), so, I understandably had many moments of doubt, almost convinced the project would never be completed. That might explain why I sewed, and resewed, almost every detail of the slippers. I ultimately figured out how to sew the shoes by first making every possible mistake!

So, now, they’re finished. I had always intended to craft the slippers purely for myself for my own memorabilia collection (small as it is), but, having finished them, I would like to offer them for sale. If anyone is seriously interested in having the shoes, please feel free to contact me! I can almost guarantee they will be the only pair I will ever offer for public sale. While I am in the process of beginning a second pair, they, with little doubt, will remain with me!

Thank you to everyone who has taken this journey with me, and an even bigger thank you to the friends I’ve made along the way; it’s been longer than expected, and full of challenges, but the finished slippers have been very much worth the effort!

The (almost complete) replica ruby slippers

Anyone who remotely knows the ruby slippers is familiar with their distinctive art deco bows, and those bows, more than any other aspect of the slippers, have stressed and worried me, giving me (truly) sleepless nights. I have, in all honesty, been seriously studying the bows specifically as long as I’ve entertained the notion of replicating the slippers. They are the one aspect of the slippers which must be perfect, or the whole project turns from a wardrobe replication to a clumsily completed craft project. That would never be acceptable!

In Rhys Thomas’s Ruby Slippers of Oz, a former employee of MGM’s leather room, Eddie Fisher, who along with his ‘co-worker Nick Samson were given the job of producing bows for the ruby slippers,’ relates much about their construction.

According to Fisher, ‘Two weeks before shooting began, […] two young men from the wardrobe department came to the leather room. They opened two shoe boxes and placed on the work bench two pairs of [ruby] slippers with bows of red silk ribbons. They said Adrian had made a last minute change on the bows and showed us a sketch by Adrian of an entirely different kind of bow…

Adrian's 'entirely different' bow

‘The sketch showed a leather bow shaped somewhat like butterfly wings that lay flat on the shoes and implanted around the edges were red rhinestones. In the center were three raised red stones that glittered like jewels, and between the edges and red stones were implanted bugles.

‘At a glance one could see by the sketch this new bow, or buckle as Nick and I called it, was a great improvement over the red silk ribbon bows. We were requested to make four pairs of identical bows as shown by the sketch.’

‘We took a section of good grained 1/8-inch leather and dyed it a bright red. With our leather tools we made all those indentions of a pattern from the sketch. Next we painstakingly implanted all those rhinestones, bugle beads, and red stones in the center that were supplied by wardrobe’ (63-64).

At first glance, this passage seems immensely helpful, and yet what is suggested here is that the various jewels affixed to each bow were sewn directly to the leather bows. So, that’s where I started, taking a 1/8th inch strip of leather, painting it red, and trying my best to sew each of the beads through the leather itself. If this sounds like an impossible task that’s because, well, it is! 1/8-inch leather is just shy of 3mm thick. That’s not thin, and far too thick to stick a needle through. The needles just broke, period. After much frustration, and more than a few bloody fingers, I realized my assumptions might have been off…

I made two erroneous assumptions here, one that 1/8th inch actually means 1/8th inch. It doesn’t. Rhys Thomas himself was kind enough to enlighten me; the leather in reality would have been thinner than this, and probably pounded to make it more malleable to be worked. John Henson corrected my second assumption, pointing out the overlay wrapped around each bow. Of course, given that the sequining was sewn to the shoes via an overlay, it’s far from surprising that the bows would be the same. I personally have seen two of the original pairs in person, and yet I never realized that detail.

Over the past few months, with John’s irreplaceable assistance (In many ways, these shoes really have become a collaborative project, and they truly wouldn’t be remotely what they are without John’s help!), I have (thus far) created three finished bow overlays, which I have then attached (with varying levels of success) to the underlying leather. At present, the replica slippers sport two of the completed replica bows, but (being me) I’m not quite pleased with the bow on the left shoe, so I am currently sewing a replacement overlay which I will soon sew to the shoe before I finish the shoes off with their felt soles.

They aren’t quite finished yet, and they’re already better than I could have ever imagined!

The first bow, under construction!

I began the bows by modifying the stones I received to bring them even more in line with the originals. Like mine, the original stones are simple craft stones, made of red glass. Unlike mine, as I mentioned in a previous post, they have a gold-foil backing. Fearing that the replica stones lack of such a backing might alter the way in which light reflected through them, I felt it necessary to add the gold to the back of each stone before proceeding with the bows. To do so, I purchased a small booklet of 24-caret gold leaf, (because gold, obviously, is expensive!) and used size and lacquer, to apply it to the back of each of the stones. Whether the gold on the backs of the original stones is real, I don’t know, and I certainly doubt, but mine is!

Gold-leafed replica stones

I readily admit, I am no expert in applying gold leaf, particularly on a surface so tiny, which accounts for why the edges of the stones are not as clean as they could be, but given that none of this will be – remotely – visible on the finished bows, I’m not concerned. I honestly tried to go back and add a bit of leaf to clean up the edges, but this got some of the leaf on the sides of the stones, which I then had to meticulously clean back off and relaquer, and when this was done, some along the very edges came off as well, so I accepted the slightly shabby edges. Again, none of this will be remotely visible, and the purpose of the gold was to alter the reflection of the stones, which it does, so all is well!

Bow in Progress. (Forgive the color and focus, this image is barely two inches wide)

Once this was done, (which took longer than you would expect, but what doesn’t?) I began the bows in earnest. I have begun sewing the bows, stone by stone, beginning with the central stones, then the rhinestones around the central stones, and then the wings. (Thanks to John Henson for his guidance here, as everywhere!)

So far, I have completed the center of the first bow, along with the rhinestones of one ‘wing.’ I with proceed by sewing the rhinestones of the left wing, and then fill it in with the other central stones, and finally the bugles.

I’m aware that this doesn’t really look like much of an ‘update’ BUT, consider that the misplacement of any stone by as little as a half millimeter will result in the bows looking crooked or crammed, so most (if not all) of the stones have been sewn more than once to ensure their proper placement. (This line of thinking further explains why the sequins took me seven MONTHS of full-time work to sew!)

For now, let the sewing continue!

Replica Bow Stones

I was contacted a few days ago, that the custom cut stones for the bows are finished, and, more importantly, finally cut to the exact specifications of the originals! Ultimately, it only took them three attempts to cut them authentically, after I initially placed the order last December! But, judging from the stones once I recieved them, I honestly couldn’t be happier. The cut, this time, is exact to the originals. So, now the bows begin, right? Well… not quite.

Original Bow Stone

On the original cut red glass stones used on the ruby slippers, each stone is gold-backed. (Look closely at the lower edge of the stone in the photo above)  Mine, as you can see, are not. Initially, I thought close enough was, well, close enough. But I’m a stickler for detail, and it occured to me that without the gold backing, the stones would not reflect light in the same way as the originals (or MIGHT not, and I don’t like those odds). so, I’ve decided (after consulting with slipper expert John Henson) to add gold leaf to the back of each stone individually. Doing so will be (relatively) simple, so this afternoon I’ve ordered the gold leaf and will be applying it to the back of the stones as soon as it arrives.

So, again, we wait, but not (remotely) as long this time! In the meantime, I’ll be working on a mock-up of the bow, now that I have the stones and can size everything out! I, for one, am quite excited to be approaching the finish!