Of course, the ruby slippers are one of the most identifiable film objects in existence. So much has been written about their history and how they continue to fascinate fans and collectors a like. Most recently, the Profiles in History auction rehashed some of this interest with their vast press campaign to promote their sale of the ruby slippers. The photos released by the auction house show the slippers as a deep, beautiful red—close to what one remembers when recalling the film.
However, many other recent images of the slippers show a markedly different perspective. The sequins are, in fact, not a bold red but faded to a near-pink with what appears to be a “flaking” of the metallic finish. This appearance is not limited to the pair sold by Profiles. For instance, the Smithsonian recently reported that the slippers will be displayed beneath red lighting to enhance the color.
Admittedly, one would expect the nearly 75-year-old pair to show signs of age but, having a science background and immense curiosity, I wanted to know more about how the sequins have aged. It’s also an interesting point of contention among ruby slipper replicators whether the sequins were translucent or metallic. Some argue that the sequins were simply gelatin dyed to a deep red. Others believe that there was some combination of metallic finish and dye that gave the ruby slippers their finish with the metallic component flaking off over the decades. The Smithsonian has tested the sequins to determine their composition to be gelatin but has not publicly remarked as to whether or not they have a metallic finish.
To perform my little experiment, I hunted down 5mm, deep red, gelatin sequins that were made in the 1930’s in Belgium. The catch-all claim to describe the process of aging is “oxidation.” So, I simply prepared a solution of .12% household bleach—a powerful oxidant—in deionized water and submerged these gelatin sequins in standardized time intervals.
Before I extrapolate, the limitations I encountered were that the original ruby slipper sequins are not being submerged as I have in this test. Also, oxidation alone does not describe all of the potential factors that may have impacted the slippers such as UV light damage, mold, humidity, acidity, etc. Nonetheless, it does demonstrate a gelatin base, layer of silver and then a red dye. Thus, it is likely not the metallic finish flaking off but rather fading to the red dye allowing a glimpse of the silver beneath. This is seen in the image above where, over the time intervals, the red dye fades away, revealing a silver, and then a translucent gelatin base.
It’s sad to think of what “could happen” to the slippers as they continue to age but a great deal of work is being undertaken by the Smithsonian to conserve these highly treasured pieces of history. The work can be appreciated in this magnificent video, The Secret Behind the Sparkle.
Thinking tonight of Miss Judy Garland. “Across four decades she was perhaps the most dazzling star of all. Who else knew what music is for?”
In the second installment, I thought I’d write about the process of conserving the costume, some of the materials involved and how I found someone capable of such work.
In the beginning, what I knew about textile conservation came from two sources. The first was the archival supply companies which, if associated with the right company, can actually be very useful. The second was what I had picked up from other collectors. It’s amazing how much you can learn about the ideal handling of these objects by simply observing how other collectors work. This project, however, exhausted the ability of either sources to find a solution. The first thing I did was what my grandfather would have recommended: contact the state historic society. In principle, that is a very good idea however it didn’t quite pan out as I had expected. As it turns out, Missouri isn’t all too interested in preserving film history. The next step was to contact a local textile museum. It was the curator of this museum who directed me to Zoe Perkins, a textile conservator for the St. Louis Art Museum.
Zoe and I arranged to meet for me deliver Manuela to her. At the time, Manuela was in a 60 x 24 x 12” acid free box, delicately stuffed to life form with dozens of sheets of acid free tissue paper. If this sounds a bit like a coffin, that’s precisely how it looked. Once unpacked at Zoe’s, it was a true thrill to watch her evaluate the materials and construction. She pointed out that the silk draping across the bodice and along the skirt is not finished along the edges. While this is not required with this fabric and the way it was cut, it is good form to tack the edges to prevent fray. This was in contrast to the craftsmanship of the petticoat with its multiple layers all edged in different types of lace. We found remnants of burns in the gown at the level where torches were placed on the stage floor for set decoration.
Soon after I left, Zoe sent me a conservation report outlining the work required and estimating the time involved. Once we agree upon the conditions, she set to work. The garment was wet washed and dried after appropriate testing was performed to determine what chemicals would be safe. After cleaning, the tears that existed were mended as was a crudely repaired seam along the inner arm. Inside, the garment is lined with a salmon-colored silk that, in some places, was flaking to the touch. With careful consideration, it was decided to simply cover the silk with a netting to hold in what existed. Another option would have been to remove the silk all together and replace it with a new piece. In my mind, I felt that the inner lining wasn’t really part of the design of the costume, was invisible from the exterior and I prefer to be as true to the original as possible.
To prepare the costume for mounting, an ethafoam dress form was tailored to precisely match the dimensions of the costume. Zoe felt that the waistband of the petticoat may not be structurally sound enough to bear the weight. So, once the petticoat was placed on the form, a band of fabric was utilized around the circumference to reinforce it. Finally, the dress was placed on the form and pins were utilized to support specific sites of the fabric.
A strip of fabric was pinned along the wast to support the fabric. Sorry for the quality.
The final component of the project involved modifying the box to better suit my needs. Frankly, I am rather clumsy when it comes to dressing and undressing the forms and always fear that I will damage the garment. Additionally, as noted before, there was no good way to store the costume in a box without crushing something. So, Zoe devised a method of suspending the dressed form in the box (that she had expanded). This way, the costume is easily displayed and is also safely stored either laying flat or standing up.
In all, I am very impressed with work Zoe did on this project. I simply cannot believe such talent exists. I was able to put the design to the test earlier this month when I displayed at Oz-Stravaganza. My next post will focus on that experience. For now, here is a photo of my mock-up for the display.
For my first post, as I promised, I want to chronicle the conservation work done on a costume I recently acquired. It’s been a very interesting process and I have learned a great deal about textiles in general. I can’t cover the entire story in one blog so this first one will describe the gown itself and then the issues I encountered in attempting to store and display the piece. The next post will describe how I found a conservator and the brilliant work she was able to perform to meet the needs of the costume.
To begin, the gown is one that Judy wore in The Pirate (MGM, 1948) during the “Love of My Life” number. The gown is constructed from velvet upon which a silk trim has been draped across the bodice and then gathered along the skirt. Coinciding with the silk trim are bunches of ostrich plumes that have been dyed in shades of white, red and pink. Beneath the gown is a separate petticoat consisting of approximately 8 layers of various materials and machine-made laces. The gown closes in the back with hook and eyes and along the sleeves with small metal snaps. Inside, metal boning is found along the full diameter of the bodice which is also partially lined with a dyed satin. Tags indicating the garment is from The Pirate and for Judy Garland are located at both the back enclosure and along the waist band of the petticoat.
Above: Judy Garland Sings “Love of My Life” to Gene Kelly
I acquired the piece from another collector who had been incredibly vigilant in storing and protecting the garment. Unfortunately, the owner prior to him, who obtained the gown directly from MGM, was not so interested in conservation as he displayed the gown in a store window eliciting a great deal of ultraviolet (UV) damage. UV light is so detrimental because it contains a lot of energy. This energy is sufficient to break the chemical bonds within the dyes of the fabric. The result is an often characteristic fading based upon how the artifact was exposed to light. Imagine being on a beach without sunscreen. At the end of the day, the sun above you will cast down burning your shoulders the greatest. A similar thing happens to dyed objects dependent upon the placement of the light source.
Today, the difference that is first noted by most people is the color of the gown. In the film, it is a coral-pink color but today has faded to a yellow-orange. This has been explained to me as a natural deterioration of the vegetable dye used to color the fabric. The use of vegetable (or natural) dyes over synthetics as well as their historical context is something I’d love to know more about. Nonetheless, it is a change that is irreversible unless the garment is re-dyed—something I would never really consider.
As can be seen in the photos, the combination of the velvet and feathers made storage tricky. There was no way to lay the gown in a box without crushing something. Also, being able to display the gown was is very important to me—why else have it? However, the fragile condition of the garment itself made dressing and undressing quite a challenge. Finally, the form I acquired was “archival quality” but it was not shaped to properly fill out the costume. Judy was short (~4’11”) and differently proportioned compared to the “stock” figure rendering the need for a custom mannequin. Thus, my goals for the conservator were as follows:
- Clean untreated fabrics.
- Repair tears and unstable hems.
- Create a storage method to prevent any further crushing or compression of the garment.
- Mount garment, with appropriate stability, to ensure ease of display and prevent damage associated with dressing and undressing.