A staff member at Catholic University found a long-lost staple of Hollywood history in the school’s drama department building: the iconic blue-and-white gingham dress Judy Garland wore as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
For nearly 50 years, staff and students at the Washington, D.C., university have been searching for the famed dress, which was gifted to the school’s drama department in 1973, then disappeared soon after.
Matt Ripa, a department lecturer and operations coordinator, told the Washington Post that he has been interested in finding the dress from the 1939 film since he began his tenure at the school in 2014.
But on June 7, Ripa was cleaning out the school’s Hartke building to prepare for renovations when he found the dress wrapped in a trash bag. It was tucked on top of the faculty mail slots with a note that said, ‘I found this.’
A staff member at Catholic University was going through the school’s drama department building when he found the iconic blue-and-white checked gingham dress Judy Garland wore as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz
For nearly 50 years, staff and students at the Washington university have been searching for the famed dress, which was gifted to the school’s drama department in 1973
In a statement published in the University Archives blog, Ripa said, ‘I was curious what was inside and opened the trash bag and inside was a shoebox and inside the shoebox was the dress. I couldn’t believe it.’
The note on the dress came from Thomas Donahue, a retired drama professor who discovered it in the department chair’s office and knew Ripa had been hoping to find it for years.
Ripa added in the blog post, ‘Needless to say, I have found many interesting things in Hartke during my time at Catholic University, but I think this one takes the cake!’
The building is named after the Rev. Gilbert Hartke, the drama department head to whom the dress was first given in 1973. Actress Mercedes McCambridge donated it when she was an artist-in-residence at the university, according to the school’s blog post.
Actress Mercedes McCambridge (left) donated the dress to the Rev. Gilbert Hartke, head of the drama department, (right) when she was an artist-in-residence at the university
The university wrote in a blog that no one knows how Mercedes McCambridge got the dress, but that she was a Hollywood contemporary of Judy Garland’s and that they were supposedly friends
McCambridge is known for winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the 1949 film All the King’s Men. She was nominated for the same award for the 1956 film Giant and voiced Pazuzu, the demon from the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist.
When she made the donation almost 50 years ago, the university’s independent newspaper, The Tower, wrote that it was meant to be a source of ‘hope, strength, and courage’ for students.
The piece detailed Garland’s allegations of sexual harassment on the set of the film and her struggle with eating disorders and addiction. She died of an accidental overdose just a few years before McCambridge donated the dress to Hartke.
Garland, ‘the lonely, tired entertainer, often spoke of college and how ‘it all could have been different’ if she had made it there,’ the story said, adding that McCambridge and Garland were close friends.
Still, the question remained for Ripa when he found the dress. Is it the real deal?
Maria Mazzenga, the curator of the university’s American Catholic History Collections, wrote in a University Archives blog post, ‘As archivists, we were obliged to work on gaining additional documentation for this popular culture national treasure . . . We do not yet know how Mercedes McCambridge got the dress, though we do know she was a Hollywood contemporary of Judy Garland’s and that they were supposedly friends. McCambridge was friends with many luminaries in the film and radio industry’
Mazzenga added that she reached out to experts in cultural memorabilia at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The museum has several artifacts from the set of The Wizard of Oz, including Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the Scarecrow costume worn by Ray Bolger and an original screenplay based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book.
The dress had significant verifiable components, including ‘Judy Garland’ written by hand by someone on the film’s wardrobe department
The dress is now being stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room in the University’s Special Collections
Smithsonian Curator Ryan Lintelman, and colleagues Dawn Wallace, objects conservator, and senior costume conservator Sunae Park Evans, visited Catholic University to assess the dress.
Employees at the museum are not authorized to authenticate objects like this one, but they suggested it was consistent with other objects from the film.
A Smithsonian Magazine article reported how Lintelman explained that there were many dresses said to be worn by Garland on the set of the film. Only five have been verified as most likely authentic. The one at Catholic University is mostly likely authentic, Lintelman and his colleagues determined, but they would not say definitively.
Lintelman noted that it is actually two pieces of clothing. The first layer is a thin cotton blouse with bunched sleeves and blue ric-rac tape trim at its collar. The blue and white checked gingham pinafore dress is worn over it.
The dress had significant verifiable components, including a secret pocket on the right side for Dorothy’s handkerchief and ‘Judy Garland’ written by hand by someone on the film’s wardrobe department. The dress also could be deemed authentic if it had tears in the blouse as the material was prone to ripping when Garland took it off after a long day of filming.
Lintelman added that artifacts from the film ‘held great meaning for people ever since 1939. Whether inspiring young women to pursue their dreams, galvanizing community for gay men who identified as ‘friends of Dorothy’ in the 1970s, sparking opportunities for more representative cinema with films like The Wiz, or even just seeding happy memories for so many Americans.’
The dress is now being stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room in the University’s Special Collections.