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!

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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!