TBT: The Wizard of Oz


Before 2000, The Wizard of Oz was an annual TV-viewing tradition around the holidays in the U.S. The movie was shown in either edited or, increasingly, full-length form on some December weekend once a year by whichever network owned the rights (that bounced back and forth between CBS, NBC, and finally settled on Ted Turner and his cable channels). Oz was more of a box-office success in reissue than at its 1939 premiere, although some of that is probably due to the crazy high costs of making this Technicolor fantasy.

Anyway, you all know the movie, from the TV broadcasts if not from seeing it in the theater. But do you know the children’s book it’s based on? I read it once as a kid, but as a big literary nerd, it always amuses me to look at the source material when books are turned into films. So here’s a brief comparison of the visuals in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the costumes in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, which were done by the legendary Hollywood designer Adrian.

First up, Dorothy’s “Wizard of Oz” costume. The iconic blue and white gingham checked dress worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy really is a riff on what Baum wrote! But those ruby slippers? They’re silver in the book — but production designers made them red in the film to show up better in the then-new Technicolor process.

Although it’s interesting that Dorothy doesn’t start the story wearing that dress. She arrives in Oz, meets the Munchkins and the Good Witch, then changes her clothes and shoes before setting off to meet the Wizard, as described in Chapter 3 of the book:

Dorothy had only one other dress, but that happened to be clean and was hanging on a peg beside her bed. It was gingham, with checks of white and blue; and although the blue was somewhat faded with many washings, it was still a pretty frock. The girl washed herself carefully, dressed herself in the clean gingham, and tied her pink sunbonnet on her head. She took a little basket and filled it with bread from the cupboard, laying a white cloth over the top. Then she looked down at her feet and noticed how old and worn her shoes were.

“They surely will never do for a long journey, Toto,” she said. And Toto looked up into her face with his little black eyes and wagged his tail to show he knew what she meant.

At that moment Dorothy saw lying on the table the silver shoes that had belonged to the Witch of the East.

“I wonder if they will fit me,” she said to Toto. “They would be just the thing to take a long walk in, for they could not wear out.”

She took off her old leather shoes and tried on the silver ones, which fitted her as well as if they had been made for her.

Finally she picked up her basket.

“Come along, Toto,” she said. “We will go to the Emerald City and ask the Great Oz how to get back to Kansas again.”

That wouldn’t make for a terribly fascinating scene, not as much fun as munchkins singing “We Represent the Lollipop Guild,” etc. Also, notice how they ditched the pink sunbonnet? You can’t really imagine that on Garland here.

The original book illustrations by William Wallace Denslow do give Dorothy a somewhat varied wardrobe (or is that just the capriciousness of design?). These illustrations also show her as a very young girl, maybe 8 to 10 years old. Judy Garland was 16 when she played Dorothy, and while she suffered having her breasts bound flat to appear younger, Garland is no baby girl.

Contrast this with what little girls and even young women wore in the early 1900s, contemporary to the book’s first publication (as there isn’t any indication that the book takes place during another era). It all makes for some interesting possibilities as a costume designer.

By the way, Denslow’s illustrations are amazing, with a manic Art Nouveau beauty that’s utterly entrancing. The way he draws animals is particularly wonderful, anthropomorphizing them without losing their wild nature. Denslow’s Cowardly Lion is a majestic jungle beast but, yes, you can tell from his face that he wouldn’t harm a mouse. And Toto is such a feisty little pup! Pick up a book or look as some of the public-domain prints on Wikimedia.

Next, the prettiest pretty princess dress in the movie — and one of the most pretty princess dresses in all of film, IMNSHO — is Glinda the Good Witch of the North’s costume. Damn, talk about tulle! But in the book, she doesn’t have a name, and her description isn’t half so pretty. From Chapter 2, here’s Dorothy’s first impression of the Good Witch:

…the little woman’s hat was white, and she wore a white gown that hung in pleats from her shoulders. Over it were sprinkled little stars that glistened in the sun like diamonds. … The [Munchkin] men Dorothy thought, were about as old as Uncle Henry, for two of them had beards. But the little woman was doubtless much older. Her face was covered with wrinkles, her hair was nearly white, and she walked rather stiffly.

At least the movie seemed to take the glistening stars idea and run with that, giving Billie Burke (and a fair number of drag queens) a dress to remember. The book illustration is straightforward, almost mannish. Thank goodness for the film witch. And according to our friends at Recycled Movie Costumes, Adrian took a gown he’d made for the move San Francisco three years earlier and refashioned it to use as Glinda’s fabulous pink dress. Yep, even the ones we think of as so tied to one character might just be a happy makeover.

The film is, of course, filled with hundreds more amazing costumes, and the book and original illustrations show many, many more characters. There are true tales of the makeup making actors sick, and the elaborate costumes putting them in danger due to fire, heat stroke, and inability to eat on the set. And the film deviates from the book in significant ways (such as the framing story that makes the trip to Oz ‘only’ a dream), but in many ways, the 1939 movie is more true to the book than any other filmed adaption.

These days, with cable channels, DVDs, and streaming, we forget how special it was to watch The Wizard of Oz once a year around your winter holiday of choice. It was a feel-good movie with a wistful side, not too saccharine sweet, just the right balance for kids and all but the most jaded adults. Give the book a read before you watch it the next time, and maybe that will put the movie into a new light.



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

One Response

  1. katfairy

    Glinda was in the book, but not until the end. The movie conflated her character with the one-scene-wonder Good Witch of the North.