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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.

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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?

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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!