Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The Wizard of Oz: Dueling Banjo Review with Maggie from The Costumer’s Guide

Could not get licensing permission for Wizard of Oz picture, so Chachi stepped in.

Could not get licensing permission for Wizard of Oz picture, so Chachi stepped in.

Review Date: 2-15-09
Release Date: 8-25-39
Runtime: 101 min.
Period: Contemporary (1939) and fantasy
Costume Designer: Adrian

Welcome to Frocktalk’s first official “dueling banjo” review!  In this installment, Maggie, from The Costumer’s Guide to Movie Costumes, and I take apart The Wizard of Oz and look more closely at its costume components.  This is very exciting – an internet first!  First: plot summary.  Second: Maggie’s review.  Third: my review.  And in another post: our chat transcription!  Here goes:

The movie The Wizard of Oz is based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum.  The novel was originally published in 1900, and later adapted into a screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf.

Dorothy is a young (teenaged) girl who lives on a farm in Kansas with her Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, dog Toto, and three farmhands.  This is all shot in sepia-toned black and white.  After a brief disagreement with a nasty neighbor, Dorothy runs away, only to return home in the midst of an approaching tornado.  Dorothy runs for cover in the house, but is knocked unconscious by flying debris.  When she awakens, the house is in the funnel of the tornado, and all manner of strange visions pass by the window – people from her home, the nasty neighbor, an errant cow – and soon the house lands with a thud.

Dorothy opens the door into a Technicolor wonderland – her falling house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, and those she terrorized (the Munchkins) hail Dorothy as their savior.  Glinda the Good Witch (arriving by bubble) ensures that the magical ruby slippers once worn by the Wicked Witch of the East stay securely on Dorothy’s feet, even though the Wicked Witch of the East’s sister (The Wicked Witch of the West) covets them homicidally.

Dorothy’s quest is to get back home, and the only way for her to achieve that goal is to ask the Wizard of Oz for his assistance.  To find the Wizard of Oz, she must travel to the Emerald City, following the yellow brick road.  She sets off on the path, accompanied by her trusty dog, Toto.

Along the way, she picks up three partners in crime:  the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.  All three of Dorothy’s new companions have requests (for things that they lack) that the Wizard will surely grant: a brain, a heart, and courage.  Together, they make their way to the Emerald City, facing supernatural trials and tribulations, courtesy of the Wicked Witch of the West.  They reach the Emerald City, get makeovers, and go before the great Wizard of Oz to ask for his help.

The Wizard of Oz states that he will help them, under one condition: that they bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.  Now just one problem: in order to separate a witch from her broomstick, well, she would have to be dead!

The four enter the Haunted Forest, armed with a butterfly net, a gun and a large mallet, looking for the Wicked Witch.  She finds them first, and her flying monkeys carry Dorothy and Toto off to her castle.  The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion set out to rescue Dorothy.  They encounter the Witch’s soldiers, overtake them, and wear their costumes as disguises.  They enter the castle.

The Wicked Witch and her soldiers capture the trio as they try to free Dorothy.  The Witch attempts to set the Scarecrow on fire, and Dorothy throws water on him to put it out.  However, the water hits the Wicked Witch and causes her to melt.  The Wicked Witch dissolves into a column of steam, and lives no more.  They grab her broomstick and return to the Emerald City.

The four go in front of the Wizard with the broomstick.  It is soon revealed that the Wizard is an apparition, directed by a man behind a curtain.  The Wizard has no real magical powers; he’s just a man from the Midwest, like Dorothy.  He awards the three friends a brain, a heart, and courage symbolically rather than literally, and he promises to take Dorothy back to Kansas with him in his hot air balloon.

Dorothy and the Wizard are in the hot air balloon, and all of Emerald City has come to see them off.  This includes a lady and her cat, which sets Toto off in a crazed chasing frenzy.  Dorothy jumps out of the basket to get him, and the moorings of the balloon slip loose.  The balloon sets sail, and the Wizard leaves Oz without her.

Again, by bubble, Glinda the Good Witch appears.  She tells Dorothy that all she ever really needed to do to get back home was to click her ruby heels together three times, and repeat, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”

We see Dorothy’s farmhouse in the tornado tunnel again (sepia-toned), and we settle on Dorothy waking up in bed, surrounded by her Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and three very familiar-looking farmhands. It was all a dream, but, “You were there, and you were there, and you were there, too!”  Dorothy exclaims, “There’s no place like home”.   The End.


The Wizard of Oz was such a huge influence on me as a kid.  Here was a heroine that had brown hair and brown eyes like me! I read the books, I stayed up late once a year when it aired on TV, I dressed like her for Halloween.  I may have only had the slightest resemblance to Dorothy in my blue dress and patent leather shoes dusted with red glitter, but I knew I was Dorothy.  (Just in case, I had a little name tag identifying myself as such.)

Maggie as Dorothy

Maggie as Dorothy

As a teen, I didn’t dress up, but I still identified with 17-year-old Judy Garland as Dorothy.  She was an unusual choice for a heroine in some ways.  Beautiful, but still at a slightly awkward age – not grown, but not a child either.  She had curves, but wore a pinafore and was far from sexualized.  In fact, her whole family treated her as if she were an immature child. Can you imagine a 17-year-old today wearing such a juvenile dress?

More recently when I learned to sew and to costume, I did finally make my Dorothy dress. I don’t have any fabulous pictures as I only wore it for one Halloween party, but to actually make and wear a more accurate version of the Dorothy dress (and to wear ruby slippers I spent 2 weeks hand gluing sequins onto) brought back those feelings I had as a child.

Maggie as Dorothy, a few years later

Maggie as Dorothy, a few years later

Interestingly, it’s really hard to find the right color gingham – Dorothy’s dress is really a slightly darker blue checked fabric, but only pale blue or navy is readily available.  Also, another bit of lore everyone knows – in the books, Dorothy had silver slippers – but because of Technicolor, the color was changed to red so they would really show up on screen.


Dorothy’s costume shows her youthful innocence, while not being too young for her.   The fact that they made the ruby slippers heels, a more grown-up shoe, is also telling.  They originally belonged, we assume, to a grown-up witch – but when Dorothy has her black utilitarian flats traded for the very sexy red heels – it makes her seem one step closer to adult-hood.  Her hairstyle is also eventually made more grown-up; once she reaches Oz, her braids are traded in for a looser style.

Dorothy’s blue checked pinafore and sparkly red shoes are so iconic it’s almost hard to discuss them on their own merits. But it is an interesting choice for our heroine.

According to this blog:

MGM did experiment with a more glamorous Dorothy and ultimately went with a compromise. I think it worked with the themes present in the movie.

The movie is  a journey for her, as she learns a lesson many adults never learn about finding happiness.

(A side note about Dorothy I’ve always found fascinating – in the first book, she is drawn as a child with long brown braids in a gingham smock. In every other book, she is shown with a short blond bob and cute drop-waisted dresses. Very 30s.   I’m not sure why the change in hair color and style, which is held consistent for the rest of the series of books.)

There are many stories about the other costumes in this movie – apocryphal stories about the metallic and green make-ups making the actors sick, for instance.  How uncomfortable some of the costumes were.   It’s too bad because Dorothy’s companions, in particular, were very inventively costumed.

The Scarecrow is a favorite, mostly because I researched that one too.

It’s cleverly designed to allow the Scarecrow to occasionally become “unstuffed” and his face is very cleverly combined with a hood to make his features seem painted on.  The actor’s mannerisms do the rest.


The Tin Man’s clanky armor, funnel cap, and dented nose do its job.


The Cowardly Lion’s tail nearly upstages the actor!


Again, these costumes are so familiar, how does one talk about their success at helping the actor to inhabit their character?

Glinda’s bubblegum ball gown matches her pink bubble and makes her the epitome of a fairy princess. The movie’s depiction of her is quite different from the books, whose illustrations have more of a Nouveau feel.

Compare Glinda (the tall one) along with very Mucha Princess Ozma and blond-bobbed Dorothy here:


Glinda here is more regal and elegant and simple – very different from the high-voiced cupcake we see in the movie. No disrespect – what child doesn’t like a pink fairy princess dress! Complete with poofy sleeves, tall crown, and magic wand!


This dress is so poofy, we almost don’t notice the detail on it, the tiny stars sequins and rhinestones, the tightly corseted waist. I didn’t even noticed that she had a rather large rhinestone butterfly choker on until I saw the Robert Tonner doll! Her costume is worth a second look.

The Wicked Witch is also worth a second look. Because her costume is black on black, any detail is lost. Her costume is actually quite pretty with its laced corset and little waist pouch.  I was once told that the knots hanging from this pouch are actually “monkey fist knots”, which I think is a lovely little touch. Her sleeves are also very pretty with their puffed tops.


Here is a shot of the witch’s laced bodice, sleeves, and pouch:


According to the same blog, MGM experimented with a vampier more glamorous witch, rather than going by the old crone we saw in Snow White.  It looks like again they went with a compromise – which I think worked, because Miss Gulch hardly needed the pointy hat and green skin to be a convincing witch.  (Though I do love the pointy hat with its long chiffon drape.)

Excellent still of the witch’s laced bodice and Dorothy’s darker blue checked dress.


This movie did a fabulous job costuming, down to the smallest character – even the Flying Monkeys have a unique little uniform, complete with little cap. Then there are all the people of Oz, the different groups of Munchkins, the Lollipop Guild, Lullaby League, the Mayor, etc.

Lollipop Guild complete with artificially torn shorts and shirts and stripey stockings.


Munchkins in very folk-like, idealized peasant-like outfits:


Lullaby League in their pointe shoes and pointy hats – in pink!


And of course – the Oz costumes – all variations of green and all different looks! And nearly all with some sort of 30s influence. Maybe some 30s Deco.




Now, some exhibit pictures.

The witch’s hat on display at Disney Hollywood (formerly MGM)

I have some owner photos of the real Dorothy dress sent to me on this page, also, my own exhibit pic of the real ruby slippers

Here, my exhibit photos of the Scarecrow costume from the Smithsonian:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Okay, so when Maggie and I were talking about which movie to review, there were many exciting possibilities: LabyrinthBrazil? The Adventures of Baron Munchausen?  But nooooooo, we decided to pick the most iconic, beloved, enduring classic film of all time: The Wizard of Oz.  I’m going to tell you right now: daunting.  Daunting task this is.  But here it goes.

Doing a little research on this film, it appears that the filmmaking process was just as chaotic then as it is now.  In the days and weeks before production, there were a million re-writes.  The script was finally locked five days before shooting.  The original director was a guy named Roger Thorpe.  After shooting for a while, he was fired.  Meanwhile, Buddy Ebsen (cast as the Tin Man) suffered an allergic reaction to the aluminum-based “Tin Man” makeup, and was hospitalized.  The film got a new director, George Cukor, and a new Tin Man, Jack Haley, and they were up and running again.   Cukor changed Dorothy’s hair and makeup (from blond and doll-like) to brown and natural, and changed the Wicked Witch of the West’s makeup (though it is not clear if it was here that she went green).  This meant that everything that had been previously shot (with Thorpe at the helm, and Ebsen as the Tin Man) had to be tossed – there was a new look, and the old footage had to go.

Before Cukor could even begin shooting, he was replaced by Victor Fleming.  Cukor had a prior commitment to direct Gone With the Wind (good excuse, buddy) so Fleming stepped in, and production rolled forward.  Later in the production, Fleming actually had to replace Cukor on Gone With the Wind, so King Vidor replaced Victor Fleming on Wizard of Oz, and completed the film.  Still, the directing credit went to Fleming.

As far as the costumes go, it appears that it was Adrian from start to finish.  But back in those days, costume design was very, very different from the way it is now.  Back then, a costume designer would be under contract with a studio, doing several movies at once, sketching and fitting the principal actors while turning over the design of the rest of the day players and background to someone else (their crew or an uncredited assistant or associate designer).  These days, unless it is a gigantic movie with a cast of thousands, the costume designer is responsible for everything: principals, day players, background, everything.    There is more work involved, and thus a designer these days has a tendency to have fewer overall credits than a designer of yester-year.  These days, we are actually attached to a movie (with chains and padlocks) until the bloody end.  There is no flitting down the hall from workroom to workroom, overseeing our multiple projects.  Our work is done all over the world now; we are no longer solely based in Hollywood.  It is a different game.

But yet the game is still surprisingly the same – last minute re-casting, last minute new directors, new concepts, switching gears on a dime, reams of script changes, etc.  It is still exhausting and thrilling, and the adventure of it drives all of us to continue on, no matter how difficult or insane it may get.

I am sure that someone, somewhere, has written a book about these Wizard of Oz costumes.  If you know of such a book, please register and leave me a comment here. I’d like to see the book.  These Wizard of Oz costumes are some of the most iconic ever committed to celluloid.  I remember attending an exhibit at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) where these costumes were featured – it was a “Classic Hollywood” costume exhibit, with designs from Adrian, Walter Plunkett, and others.  I can’t find my program – do any of you remember this exhibit?  It must have been ten or more years ago.  It was stunning, showcasing the power of these iconic images through costume.

The foursome from the Wizard of Oz are perfectly designed, with careful consideration made for color, texture and graphic impact.  You have the Scarecrow: deep green torso, tan face, burlap texture, straw texture, jagged lines  PICTURE ; the Tin Man: smooth metallic texture, shiny finish, silvery hue, straight lines PICTURE ; the Lion: golden hairy texture, soft, wavy curly texture, undulating lines PICTURE ; Dorothy: human, cotton fabrics, homespun dressmaking, red white and blue, simple lines PICTURE .  Think about this – none of those characters has even a whisper of the other characters in their design.  They are all completely separate from each other visually, and yet, when put together, harmonize perfectly. PICTURE

In the world of Technicolor, this must have been a great challenge.  Technicolor was brand-new at the time, and I am positive that there were a great number of screen-tests done to determine which hue of green would be the right one for the Scarecrow, which gold would be the right one for the lion, which blue would be the right blue for Dorothy.  We do this kind of extensive screen-testing now, particularly with digital photography.  These are the same challenges we face today.  These tests are necessary to get just the right “look” for the film.  In this case, these characters wear only ONE costume for the duration of the film.  Their costumes need to be just right, and that requires a lot of testing.

That said, look what the costume department achieved.  On just a technical level, they were able to interpret L. Frank Baum’s work (and the illustrations from the book) and turn that information into wearable garments.  They transformed a man into a Scarecrow, into a Tin Woodsman, into a Lion.  These garments were not made with foam latex and vaccuform, like everything is today.  These garments were made with straw and metal and fur!  Yes, some of the work looks dated – the lion’s costume seems a little low-tech to our eyes now – but it still holds up, considering what they were trying to achieve.

And let’s talk for a second about Glinda the Good Witch – her dress is a confection. PICTURE In pale pink, with acres of tulle, sequins and glitter, she is a mesmerizing vision.  Her crown alone – and look how tall it is: PICTURE — is nothing short of miraculous.  If you watch her move in this film, the little baubles at the top of her crown shudder and twinkle with her every breath.  It is a kinetic masterpiece, otherworldly, especially in the context of 1939.  And yes, you can see the fashion influence of 1939 in the costume, but the gown is so stunning and classic, the “dated-ness” doesn’t detract one iota from the beauty of the costume.  Can you imagine how achingly gorgeous she would have appeared in the eyes of children of the Great Depression?

The Wicked Witch of the West is equally as fantastic.   In the sepia-toned “Kansas” sequences, Ms. Elmira Gulch (later known as the Wicked Witch of the West) wears old-fashioned clothes. PICTURE If the movie was intended to be set in 1939, Elmira Gulch is still dressing like it’s 1909.  It’s a great informative costume touch, and tells us a lot about the character.  Maybe Elmira pulled off to the side of the fashion highway in 1909, when she felt beautiful and alive, and just stayed there.  Maybe her disappointment with life shows in her self-neglect as the years went by.

As the Wicked Witch, her costumes are also more historical in silhouette: PICTURE She wears the classic, pointy witch hat, but with a long, diaphanous black scarf flowing from it.  Her sleeves are long and tight, with a tiny puff of leg-of-mutton sleeve at the top: PICTURE, which would be from around 1894 or so.  The body of the dress is fitted through the waist, with a full skirt. It is worn with the occasional full-length cape (though it is really hard to tell when she’s wearing the cape and when she’s not, due to the large amount of dark fabric.) PICTURE In any case, it is an attractive solution to the problem of dressing a Wicked Witch, and serves to continue the Elmira Gulch idea of a “time-warped” individual.

What really needs discussion, however, are the background players.  Witness, the Munchkins: PICTURE Perhaps you can see the place from which the mind of Tim Burton sprang.  The Munchkins are so perfectly designed – they are kind of a period-non-period look, as we say.  They look old, but we’re not exactly sure from which period.  They look foreign, but we’re not exactly sure from where.  Notice the Munchkin soldiers, in their green and yellow uniforms – I can’t find any pictures, but take a look at the film for these uniforms.  They are perfect and insane!  These Munchkins have some crazy hair, especially the guys from the Lollipop Guild: PICTURE

But take a good, close look at these pictures. PICTURE You will see echoes of Big Fish, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Willy Wonka, The Grinch, and countless other “fantasy” movies.  These Munchkin costumes are the unsung heroes of the film, in my opinion.  Their legacy is lasting and long – we will continue to use them as a visual reference for our work in years to come.

Next: the Witch’s minions – the flying monkeys and the castle guards.   The flying monkeys KILL me because number one, they are super scary as a concept and as a reality for small children.  Two, because they are actually people, humans, in costumes. PICTURE In fact, some of the flying monkeys were actually played by some of the same actors who played Munchkins!  Airborne primates are creepy!!  The costumes here are very low-tech, but very effective.  This simianization of the human face later became bigtime in the Planet of the Apes phenomenon.  But check out the little furry arms and legs in the costume.  It would be pretty adorable if it weren’t so completely disturbing.  PICTURE

The Wicked Witch’s Castle Guards, also known as the “Winkies”… now here is what I consider to be a real costuming accomplishment.  The guard costumes are part Mongol, part Queen’s Guard, part Samurai… it’s an eclectic use of those old iconic uniforms that give us this one iconic “Winkie” look.  The Winkie guards have the same green face and hooked nose as the Witch, and they wear these spectacularly cool uniforms, almost too cool to fight.   Then our three friends get into the uniforms: PICTURE to rescue Dorothy from the castle. PICTURE I can’t find any really good pictures of just the Winkies in their uniforms, but you get the idea from seeing our three friends in them, yeah?

Lastly, the Wizard himself.  In the Kansas segment, he is Professor Marvel – he wears checkered pants, a double-breasted vest, a four-in-hand tie with a horseshoe tie-tack, a black hat, shabby black jacket, and he carries a cane.  It’s dignified, but it’s worn-out.  PICTURE It is also supremely old-fashioned.  Maybe he didn’t have the money to buy any new clothes, but his old clothes speak to the quality he sought. These were once fancy clothes, but with the economic downturn in the Great Depression, he didn’t have any money to buy anything new for a long, long time.

There is a story that the costume department searched exhaustively for the perfect coat for Professor Marvel.  They found an old coat in a second-hand shop that fit the bill, and one day on set Frank Morgan, the actor playing Professor Marvel, turned the pockets inside out.  Legend has it that there was a label inside the pocket indicating it had belonged to L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz.  The jacket was taken to Baum’s tailor and to his widow, and they verified that it was, indeed, Baum’s coat.  After the film was completed, the coat was presented to Baum’s widow.  It seems far-fetched, but it is actually possible, considering that Baum lived in Los Angeles in his later life, and passed away in 1919 here in Hollywood.  But crazy, non?

As the Wizard of Oz, Morgan wears a well-kept Emerald-City-Green vest, dark jacket, trousers, and string tie. PICTURE It’s old-fashioned-looking (Old West feeling) and in this manner, his character is visually related to the Professor Marvel character.  He is not of 1939, but of another time.  He wears a top hat and cuts a much more dashing silhouette.

Looking at all of these costumes, we can come up with a thousand meanings for them – Dorothy in red, white and blue (America) gets tossed in a tornado (political turmoil) and lands in a foreign land, killing one of its dictators.  She wants to get home, but is ordered by the leader of the land to kill another dictator in order to do so, thereby completely liberating the foreign land.  Clearly there are political implications to the story, and I think if you interpret it thusly, the costumes serve those purposes.  I mean, this discourse would require a late-19th-century political history lesson, and five more pages of writing, but yes, you can make the political connection, for sure.

As it is, at face value, The Wizard of Oz is a contemporary-ish fairytale, aimed primarily at children.  However, its many incarnations after the 1939 film have continued to twist and reshape the story and characters. The Wiz, and Wicked, just to cite a couple of examples, have done this quite effectively.

It is worth noting that the credits in the film list only the actors’ roles in their Kansas incarnations. Ray Bolger is only credited for playing “Hunk”, when, in fact, he was also the Scarecrow.  It’s pretty clever, and an attempt, I think, to preserve the magic of “Oz”.  Whatever happens in Oz, stays in Oz.  First rule of Oz is – you don’t talk about Oz!

Talking about Oz, Maggie and I have agreed to transcribe a chat between the two of us about this movie, and about our thoughts on each other’s interpretations of the movie.  I am going to put it in another post, because this one is just getting TOO long!


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