The Ruby Slippers and the auctioning of relics and icons…

I joined the Bata Shoe Museum in 1988 and within a couple of months of my first day, my curatorial input was requested regarding the acquisition of a pair of shoes for the permanent collection. This was a daunting task because I wasn’t yet comfortable with suggesting how the museum could spend big dollars on purchases. Also, the namesake founder of the museum and ‘holder of the cheque book’, wasn’t exactly a pop culture aficionado (on another occasion, she refused to bid on a pair of Jimi Hendrix’ boots worn at Woodstock because she had never heard of him — or Woodstock!)

The shoes in question were the ruby slippers from the film The Wizard of Oz and my plea for their acquisition included explaining why these were more than just Hollywood relics – they were symbols of possibility that carried Dorothy from her black and white world of reality into a Technicolor fantasy world of imagination. Unfortunately for the museum, others also felt their meaning was important and the $25,000 I had managed to loosen up for their purchase was quickly outbid; the final price realized for the shoes was $165,000. There was no way I could have convinced the museum to pay more and besides, I was also surprised by the final price.

It was nearly impossible to anticipate auction results in 1988 because the market was in a flux. It began in 1987 when two Van Gogh paintings surpassed record prices. By the following year, auction market values were soaring everywhere, especially on relics and icons, from Andy Warhol’s cookie jars to Elton John’s glitter glasses.

Interest in collecting and preserving film costumes dates back well before 1988. In 1970 Debbie Reynolds bought massive quantities of costumes from Hollywood back lot auctions for an intended museum of film costume. Unfortunately, her plans to create a museum never came to fruition, and next month the first of many auctions is being organized to sell off her collection, including another pair of ruby slippers.

There are conflicting stories regarding the exact number of ruby slippers in existence, ranging from five to eight pairs. A pair with upturned toes in the upcoming Debbie Reynold’s auction was not used in the movie because they didn’t look good during a screen test. The other pairs in existance were made for Judy Garland to dance in and be filmed in close-up, and included back-up pairs in case of damage. One or two pairs were given away as promotional items at the time of the film’s release.

The Fashion History Museum doesn’t collect film costumes although we do have some articles of clothing worn by celebrities and historical figures including a pair of boots worn by Ginger Rogers, a pair of shoes from the closet of Lauren Bacall, and a suit made for Evita Peron. There are, however, many collectors of film costumes including one I was recently alerted to who has an interesting blog.

I am sure these collectors will be vying heavily for the pair of ruby slippers and other film costumes coming up on June 18. It’s a shame there isn’t a museum of film costume – you would think that with all the money and power of Hollywood something could have been pulled together, but it didn’t happen so it’s up to the private collectors to keep the legacy alive.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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2 Responses to The Ruby Slippers and the auctioning of relics and icons…

  1. Lizzie says:

    Oh, I love it when you tell stories about your time at Bata!

    Jimi who? Kidding of course, but the Woodstock relics I’d love to own are Joe Cocker’s boots.

    There used to be a pair of ruby slippers at a local attraction called Land of Oz. At one point they were stolen, but later recovered, I think. I’m not sure where they are now, as the attraction is closed, but still being maintained.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I could tell MANY more Lizzie! And I will — some day…

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