The costumes make the film. Just ask any movie costume designer. Nowhere is that more obvious, and important, than in The Wizard of Oz. MGM’s premier designer Adrian rose to the challenge and designed what would become true film icons. This was no easy task. The Wizard of Oz is total fantasy without any historical base for the costumes, and the sets, and the props, and so on. Excepting the Kansas scenes, and even those were idealized. The Baum books provided a basic guide via the illustrations, which MGM brilliantly built upon to create a wondrous fantasy world unlike any other film. Allegedly, and for inspiration, Adrian sent word to his hometown for his copy of the book, in which as a child he sketched designs in the margins. Those designs allegedly informed his work. To make the challenge tougher, this was the studio’s first big assignment in Technicolor. The film’s cast and crew endured seemingly endless tests to get everything just right, all the way down to the right shade of yellow for The Yellow Brick Road. And even when a final version of something was decided upon, that wasn’t necessarily the final version we see on film. The fact that it all turned out so perfect is partly a miracle but mainly a reflection of the amazing talent and hard work of the folks at MGM. The best of the best in the business did their best.
For decades, the costumes and props were stashed away in the cavernous depths of the MGM wardrobe and prop buildings. Some items popped up in other films and later on television, as was standard practice at all the studios. But the individuality of most of the items meant that they were simply stored. And they stayed there, mostly forgotten.
In 1970 MGM held its now legendary and infamous auction of props, costumes and basically anything that wasn’t nailed down. The general attitude at the time was that anything that was seen as old Hollywood was automatically seen as out of date and useless. To this day the auction is seen more as a travesty than an auction. It was a tragic, sad end to the once great studio. Sure, MGM is still around, but it’s a shell of what it was – the special magic it once had is gone. The cavalier and disrespectful treatment of the treasures by the new studio heads and the auction house was shocking. That treatment extended beyond the props and costumes to include the music department records, scripts, various important papers and documents, and the glorious backlots. Movie fans and collectors at the time literally dumpster dived to retrieve discarded treasures. There was no nostalgia market like there is today. As noted, old Hollywood was passe, so most people viewed the costumes and props as oddities. However, there was a small groups of fans and collectors who saw the value in these items and they rescued as many as they could. Hollywood legend Debbie Reyonold was the most well known. She saw the value and wanted to create a museum to showcase this history of Hollywood through the costumes and props. She and those around her were ahead of their time.
The one item that garnered the most press, and anticipation, was the auction of one of the pairs of Ruby Slippers. At the time, everyone assumed it was the only pair made, not realizing that more than one pair would have been made in the first place. Duplicates of items like this were always made prior to filming. As we now know, there were several pairs. The other surviving pairs were secretly kept by the auction’s main curator, costumer Kent Warner. He then sold them on the down low to various collectors and kept the most pristine pair (now known as “The Witch’s Shoes”) for himself.
The pair that was auctioned in 1970 went for $15,000, and in just a few short years, the new nostalgia market began, then grew, then finally exploded into big business and even bigger business via the auction houses. Post-war children who grew up watching old films on “The Late Late Show” were becoming adults and wanted mementoes of their memories. By the time of the MGM auction The Wizard of Oz was already a TV institution and part of the American way of life, which is why the Ruby Slippers were the big ticket item. Four years later That’s Entertainment! became the surprise film hit of the summer, further fueling the nostalgia market. The 1980s saw the home media market happen, which brought even more respect and renewed interest in classic films as the market brought the films into every film fan’s homes, to own.
In recent years, quite a few rare costumes and props from The Wizard of Oz have been auctioned then re-auctioned – some were re-auctioned several times over. The collecting of movie costumes and props has become a kind of cottage industry of people buying the items at auction, holding onto them for a couple of years, then re-selling for a profit. The prices paid make that first $15,000 sale in 1970 look like peanuts.
It’s actually quite incredible that so many costumes and props from The Wizard of Oz survived long enough to end up in the nostalgia boom, including test costumes and some of the costumes from the early “Thorpe Era” weeks of filming.
The following are some highlights of various costumes from the film, used and unused. It’s my hope that this page gives readers an idea of the immense time and care that went into every design, from Dorothy’s hair down to the shoes of the Witch’s Winkie Guards.
Many of the images and videos here are from the various auction house catalogs and websites, thanks to the teams at Bonhams, Julien’s, Heritage Auctions, Profiles in History, and Christies; as well as the publishing house HarperCollins who shared many images with The Judy Room.
A special thanks to the many collectors who have shared their images with The Judy Room over the years.
Dorothy’s Hair, Makeup, & Dresses
Logically, the most important costume of the film was also the simplest, or so it seemed: Dorothy’s look. Judy Garland’s hair, makeup, and dress went through many changes before the final version was settled on. Twice. The first “final look” was Dorothy’s look in the Thorpe Era of filming, when she was a blonde. When filming was halted and director George Cukor changed the looks of all the main characters, a new “final look” was created. That’s what we see in the finished film and its perfect in its simplicity (various hair lengths and all).