The legendary film, The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the glorious, dazzling ruby slippers worn by its heroine, Dorothy Gale, (played by Judy Garland), have long been symbols of hope – especially for the LGBT+ community.
Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, unveiled a pair of glittering red shoes from the film that had been restored at a cost of $300,000 (funded via a Kickstarter campaign).
Why restore a pair of the original shoes at such an exorbitant price? And in a more fluid age of sexuality and gender, are the shoes still relevant as gay icons?
‘An Elvis for homosexuals’
It has been said that Judy Garland is “an Elvis for homosexuals”. During her lifetime she featured in over 30 films, but it was her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz that catapulted her to star status.
Garland was a prominent Hollywood figure with whom gay people could easily identify. Her own personal struggles resonated more broadly with their own during the Cold War – a time of unparalleled persecution of gay people in the west.
Moreover, Garland’s most performed song, Over the Rainbow, is believed to be one of the sources of inspiration for the universal symbol of the LGBT+ movement – the rainbow flag – first adopted in the 1970s.
What makes a queer object?
Objects, or material culture, provide fascinating insights into the study of history. Nearly a decade after the British Museum’s landmark exhibition and complementary book by Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects, the appeal of them as a window into the human past has spawned numerous other studies, and books.
Certain objects have become queer icons. The editors of the forthcoming book Queer Objects assert that “the idea of queer exposes the instability of the status quo and challenges the power of heterosexuality as well as the marginal status of homosexuality”. And the ruby slippers have various meanings to those who cherish or fetishise them.
The slippers carry some tantalising stories. The Smithsonian reports that five known pairs were created by MGM Studios’ chief costume designer, Gilbert Adrian. Lady Gaga owns one pair . Another was stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota in 2005 (the shoes were recovered in 2018 after a 13-year disappearance.)
From their association with Garland and the rainbow, these slippers point to the glamour of torch singers and flamboyance of drag queens: symbolising the beauty and release that comes from dressing-up. As Oz fan Rufus Wainwright once recalled, as a small child, he would fantasise that he was “either the Wicked Witch or Dorothy, depending on my mood.”
They also represent transformation – of a homely farm girl into a dazzling heroine, who leaves home, finds herself and creates a raggle-taggle, quasi-family along the way (something familiar to many LGBT+ people).
Garland’s own personal journey as an actor and singer has also spoken to generations of gay men. Many identified with the struggles, humiliations and exploitation of both the child star and the fading adult star, who in her tragic final decades embodied and performed all the pain of the ultimate torch singer.
Dorothy sang of hope amid hardship, of a land that she “heard of, once in a lullaby” and Garland continued to sing these words of optimism and courage as she stood before her audience, emaciated, drug-addled, beaten down.
Still, the stereotype of the fussy, passive queen who sought and found emotional sustenance from divas such as Judy Garland, and her alter-ego, Dorothy Gale, is now sometimes regarded as antithetical to the progressive individuals who have come to represent the LGBT+ community. In an era of non-binary gender and sexual affiliation, intersectionality and identity politics, are the slippers now destined to be tossed to the back of the LGBT+ closet?
What was once valorised as iconic can, as society and its values shift, become redundant and a symbol of a community’s collective embarrassment. For the LGBT+ community, such a change in attitude is partly generational.
Garland’s story is not needed as much any more, and for this we should celebrate. In the west, young gay men now occupy a different world from their forefathers. As Michael Joseph Gross has written:
Judy Garland began losing her power over gay men because we got that message and started becoming more integrated characters than the screaming queens of yore. We no longer need a surrogate to embody the conflicts that so many of us experience, because we now have more and better resources for sorting them out for ourselves.
What, then, is to be gained from keeping the ruby red slippers on display in an institution such as the Smithsonian?
We would argue that the shoes are a significant piece of material culture that open a window to our historical memory. They convey respect for all the gay men who struggled, who were ostracised and humiliated for having the courage to keep on being their authentic selves.