By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 25, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
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“Close your eyes, and tap your heels together three times, and think to yourself, ‘There’s no place like home…’”

The first thing that pops into your mind when you hear those words is probably the ruby slippers — the sparkling shoes that whisk Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale back home to Kansas after her fantastic adventures in The Wizard of Oz.

But the ruby slippers are so much more than a plot device in a beloved film. They’ve become practically synonymous with Hollywood itself: an emblem of the imagination, magic, and allure of entertainment and moviemaking. Eighty years on, they’ve achieved a hallowed status few costume pieces could hope to attain — a status that has been enshrined (and even heightened) by displaying a mismatched pair of the slippers at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

“The ruby slippers are among the most requested objects when visitors come to the museum,” says Ryan Lintelman, curator for entertainment at the museum. “One of the great national icons of America has become the ruby slippers.”

Everett Collection

The slippers have had an unlikely journey to icon status. Initially, they weren’t even supposed to be ruby. The original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, features silver slippers, and that detail was maintained in the earliest versions of the script. In a May 1938 draft, the change was made to ruby, reportedly to create a greater contrast with the yellow brick road and take advantage of the eye-catching properties of Technicolor.

“There was something particular about the red and the sparkles,” Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone tells EW. “That particular process made the red stand out even more. The fact that it sparkled, those sequins when she moved her feet, and the wand pointing toward her slippers — it’s just such a beautiful image [that] definitely stands out much more than silver slippers would have.”

The fact that the slippers are still around to be enjoyed by the public today is also something of a miracle. They were created during an era in Hollywood when film history was not considered something worth preserving. Costume pieces, props, and more were stripped down and reused repeatedly within the studio system. When the ruby slippers went to auction in 1970 as part of a massive MGM sale, they sold for $15,000, a price higher than expected but indicative of their relatively small value compared to the millions they’d fetch today.

The pair at the Smithsonian are one of four known surviving pairs. The others are a pair previously stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota, an early prototype design once owned by Debbie Reynolds, and a pair purchased by a group that included Leonardo DiCaprio for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“They’re the ultimate movie prop,” says Lintelman. “They are the product of this studio system that had artisans on hand to be able to transform off-the-shelf shoes into something iconic and an object of art in themselves.”

But how did they become the ultimate movie prop? There are plenty of other objects that have been preserved from this era of filmmaking — memorabilia like Scarlett’s green velvet dress from Gone With the Wind, Sam’s piano from Casablanca, and the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film of the same name. Why have the slippers superseded them all?

The Wizard of Oz is a seminal childhood film, and that’s a key part of the slippers’ appeal. Before the days of VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming, The Wizard of Oz was a television event, broadcast during the holiday season and meant to be shared by the whole family.

“1939, ’40, ’41, and ’42 [is] the best four-year run the studio system ever had,” says TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. “But those movies for the most part resonated with adults. The Wizard of Oz is the only one that connected with people as children. It was one of the first movies targeted for children. When movies are far and away the biggest form of entertainment, the idea that there were these sparkly red shoes that could get you out of whatever situation you needed to and get you home, while also looking beautiful — it’s not hard to figure out why this struck a chord with people [and] stayed with them.”

Malone echoes Mankiewicz, saying, “It’s partly because we all watch The Wizard of Oz when we’re kids, so it really does capture our imagination from an early age.” But it’s not just the fact that we first are introduced to the slippers as children, it’s also about what they stand for within the film.

“People have this unique relationship with The Wizard of Oz, and the shoes are the stand-in for the film in one way; they represent all the fantasy and glamour and adventure of that movie,” Lintelman says. “[They] really drive the action of this movie and take on this mythical status, but that helps them to stand in for a lot of things — whether that be material or some kind of adventure or some kind of special power that you want to have.”

On screen, the slippers are a coveted item: The Wicked Witch is willing to kill for them, and Dorothy has been instructed to hold onto them no matter the cost. Their power is so great that with a simple click of her heels, they’re capable of transporting Dorothy back home if she’ll only chant the words “There’s no place like home.” It’s that mantra and innate power that have further cemented their place in the public imagination.

“That is a really powerful message: You have everything you need right there at home and within yourself,” Malone says. “You don’t need to go searching and go outside for it. That’s part of the reason why they’ve become so important and iconic, is because they stand for much more than just pretty shoes.”

Mankiewicz takes it a step further, saying, “They symbolize hope. This idea that evil and danger can go away with a click of the heels, that there is something cloaking you, protecting you from the bad things in the world, [is the] part of this movie that penetrated across generations and spoke emotionally to so many young people.”

More than what they symbolize on screen, the slippers have also come to stand in as an icon for the myth of Hollywood itself. There are natural parallels between Oz and Hollywood: They’re both dreamscapes where people long to go to escape their troubles. They’re both glitzy, larger-than-life vistas where the imagination can soar. And similarly, their reality is never as fulfilling as their promise, leaving their visitors disillusioned and longing for home — a point only furthered by the tragic life of star Judy Garland and her own immortality inextricably tied to The Wizard of Oz.

The slippers can represent both sides of that coin. Partly, that’s because they’re a tangible item. Unlike script pages or production notes or Hollywood lore, they’re a physical thing you can latch onto and bestow with all the significance of the film and its role in Hollywood history. From there, it becomes cyclical: The allure of the Golden Age of Hollywood emanates from the shoes, but it also imbues them with extra meaning.

“The ruby slippers are really tied up in nostalgia, in those daydreams of Hollywood itself and the magic of moviemaking,” Malone says. It’s that nostalgia that has catapulted them to their place in our collective memories, allowing them to still be one of the most talked-about movie symbols 80 years on from their creation.

“There’s just something more ephemeral about film at that time. Films would be seen, and then they would go back into the vault,” Lintelman adds. “They are a direct connection to the past.”

Part of what contributes to their mystique is that ephemeral nature. “There is something about icons from the Golden Age of Hollywood that just seem more mysterious and more exciting,” Malone says. “Because moviemaking back then wasn’t talked about as much in the press, the way it is now with social media, there was still a sense of mystery. It helps to make these items seem even more otherworldly and more intriguing.”

Can any item ever surpass them, then? Will we be talking about Thanos’ gauntlet and the Infinity Stones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe eight decades from now? It seems unlikely. “I’m never sure anything will surpass the ruby slippers,” says Lintelman. “Them having been here [at the Smithsonian] on display for so long has really increased their power in that way. People say that’s part of a pilgrimage of coming to Washington, D.C.”

Mankiewicz agrees, and he cites our current splintered media landscape as a big reason why. “We forget the advantage these movies and these stars had,” he says. “They were the only game in town. It’s hard to imagine anything penetrating the way movies did during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The ruby slippers are going to go down as the most memorable wardrobe piece in the history of visual arts.”

So while there may be no place like home, there’s truly nothing like the ruby slippers.

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