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Judy Garland's 'Wizard of Oz' costume heads to auction, decades after it was lost

One of the most famous movie costumes of all time has resurfaced.

By Matthew Jackson
Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

One of the most famous movie costumes of all time is headed to auction after a version of it thought to be lost for decades resurfaced at an American Catholic university last year. 

According to the Associated Press, next month Bonhams will auction one of the screen-used blue-and-white checked gingham dresses worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, one of only five versions of the dress known to exist. Though other versions of the costume are on display in museums and private collections, this version is one of only two that retains the white blouse Garland wore underneath, making it an especially rare find that could fetch anywhere from $800,000 to $1.2 million. 

So, where was the dress all this time? According to the AP, this particular piece of movie history was found in a box at the Catholic University of America, where it was donated in the 1970s and had been presumed lost since at least the 1980s. It was donated to the university by actress Mercedes McCambridge, best known to genre fans for voicing the demon in the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. McCambridge had nothing to do with The Wizard of Oz, but experts at Bonhams believe she may have acquired the dress when MGM was clearing out its wardrobe department at some point before the mid-1960s. She donated the dress in 1973 with the goal of enriching the drama department at the university. 

From that point on, the dress was in the care of Father Gilbert Hartke, head of the Drama Department at the university and McCambridge's mentor. Hartke retained custody of the dress until he retired in 1986, and from there it eventually faded from memory at the university, until it became what current department head Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw called something of a "myth" among students and faculty. It's not clear how the dress ended up lost, or who tucked it away in a box in the drama department, but while clearing out his old office during the pandemic shutdowns, a retiring drama professor came across the dress and passed it on with a note that simply read "I found this in my office." In 2021, while preparing the theater at the university for renovations, the rest of the drama department staff became aware of the find. 

Costume historians have been able to distinguish different versions of Dorothy's Wizard of Oz dress based on their appearances at different points in the film. According to the Bonhams listing, this dress was used for scenes in the Wicked Witch of the West's castle, specifically the scene in which the Witch turns over an hourglass to count down until Dorothy's planned death. Apart from a small snippet of fabric missing where someone cut a piece out of the back as a souvenir years ago, it's in good condition, and a very valuable piece of Hollywood history. The Catholic University of America plans to use the proceeds from the auction to fund a film program for aspiring filmmaker students.

The dress heads to auction, alongside other pieces of Hollywood memorabilia, at Bonhams on May 24. 

If you're suddenly in the mood for some family-friendly fare, check out The Bad Guys, in theaters now, or Minions: The Rise of Gru in theaters Friday, July 1.