The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz and a brief history of the witch hat

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Jul 25, 2018, 2:00 PM EDT

Ruby slippers, a blue and white gingham pinafore dress, and a black witch hat — these are the iconic Wizard of Oz pieces from legendary MGM costume designer Adrian. The hat has fetched $200,000 at auction on two separate occasions. It is an image that is synonymous with a specific kind of fairy tale archetype. The Wicked Witch of the West is the wicked witch.

Yes, it is basic, but the black conical hat with a wide brim is not going to get confused with another costume idea on Halloween. You won’t spend all evening explaining the gag behind your look. It won’t matter if someone else comes dressed in the same thing. There are no points for originality here. It's a last-minute party invite savior that can be found in every drugstore during the holiday and won’t break the bank. Inevitably the hat will be lost by the end of the evening, but it doesn’t matter. Felicity (Keri Russell) went all out with her Bride of Frankenstein look in Season 1; by Season 4, she turned to the witch hat and wig.

Felicity 4.05 witch costume

Witches in pop culture have evolved over the nearly 80 years since The Wizard of Oz made its big screen debut. Green skin, warts, a haggard face, black curly toe ankle boots and a broom are far from the only style choices. But the cultural significance of this movie and its depiction of a witch are hard to ignore. Let’s take a look behind the curtain to discover the journey of this item, from witches that were feared to a witch that has her own smash hit musical.

When L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, the accompanying illustrations by W.W. Denslow included the Wicked Witch of the West wearing a tall conical hat. This followed the trend of Victorian fairy tale imagery depicting witches wearing this kind of garb. Before, witches were just part of a story to scare children, and there was a very real fear among adults of these supernatural beings. In The Witches, Stacy Schiff notes that “Between 1580 and 1680, England, Scotland and Wales dispensed with no fewer than four thousand witches.”

What these witches look like does vary, but there is evidence of the conical hat as an accessory as early as 1600 in this illustration of accused English witch Jane Scrimshaw.

Jane Scrimshaw
In Cotton Mather’s book Wonders of the Invisible World, this woodcut of a witch and her gang includes the quintessential witch attire and method of transport. Mather played a role in the most infamous witch trials in 1692 in Salem; this book was published the following year. 

Witches are not the only ones to have experienced an image overhaul over the last few centuries. Hats are no longer a daily requirement; they're something that have only been essential for the last hundred years or so. Neil Steinberg explains in Hatless Jack: The President, the Fedora and the Death of the Hat that women were expected to wear hats in public at all times, but “It was women, in the early 1890s, who first began removing their hats in situations where etiquette demanded that hats should have been worn, beginning in the theater.” In some earlier witch illustrations, hair is flowing, their head is uncovered — the greatest act of rebellion. The church was not a fan of pointed headwear, the suggestion here being that it was too reminiscent of devil horns. Pointed hats, therefore, symbolized an alignment with demonic forces. This can be seen in Goya’s 1798 painting, “Witches’ Flight.”

Fashion evolves, but some of these accessories remain. What was once a sign of a pervasive dark force becomes a whimsical accessory for a night of dress-up, candy, and gentle scares. None of these people wearing flowing robes and pointed conical hats are going to be hung, stoned, or burned at the stake. Halloween as an annual celebration similar to the one that takes place in the present started around the same time The Wizard of Oz was published. A postcard from 1910 shows a child wearing a red witch hat wishing the recipient a “Jolly Halloween.” Red as a color linked to witches can also be seen here in this illustration from 1908. These both look similar to the iconography that has been prevalent in pop culture with a few color differences.
wizard of oz

Credit: Getty Images

For The Wizard of Oz, costume designer Adrian made 3,210 individual sketches. He looked to the original W.W. Denslow drawings as inspiration for the principal characters. Everything was custom-made for this production of The Wizard of Oz, as there was nothing appropriate for the fantastical Land of Oz in the MGM costume stock. This included 124 Munchkin costumes and 300 outfits for the inhabitants of Emerald City. Adrian wasn’t restricted by period as he had been in previous ventures. The MGM executive costume designer also turned to sketchbooks he had worked on as a child for inspiration.

Some changes were made. The silver slippers in the book were switched to red in order to pop against the Technicolor yellow brick road. The Wicked Witch of the West lost her umbrella, which was switched out for the more traditional broomstick, while her skin became a shade of green and the hat was transformed from a tall conical shape to the jagged wide-brim number so it would cast a wider shadow across actress Margaret Hamilton's face to up the scare factor. It was so scary, in fact, that a number of her scenes had to be trimmed. The Golden Cap the Wicked Witch uses in the book to control the Winged Monkeys was also scrapped, since rubies and diamonds are far less sinister than the crooked black hat she wears throughout the film.  

Wizard of Oz
Hamilton was a last-minute addition to the cast after actress Gale Sondergaard left the production. There was a behind-the-scenes creative disagreement about whether the Wicked Witch should be glam evil or more like the haggard book version. The latter won out and Sondergaard was tested in the new makeup, but she was considered still too alluring. Enter Margaret Hamilton. It is hard to imagine anyone else in the role or an alternative aesthetic to the one that has been made famous by this film. Not only that, but the Wicked Witch of the West has been granted an extended life through novel-turned-musical Wicked.

Multiples of costumes is a common practice, particularly when stunts are factored in — there were at least seven pairs of Judy Garland’s slippers made. Three known versions of the Wicked Witch hat with its offset cone, irregular brim, and flowing black silk scarf were made. The one Margaret Hamilton wore for the majority of the film was sold in 2010 for $200,000. Another used for the melting sequence, which was oversized so to give the illusion that Hamilton was getting smaller, was sold ten years ago for $208,000. The ruby slippers fetched $612,000 in May 2011. Costumes from The Wizard of Oz are investment pieces. The cultural significance of this film is evident in how revered and recognizable these garments are.   

The witch's hat was a popular costume choice before The Wizard of Oz, but it became iconic after. Following on from the success of this film, the witch's hat continued its reign as headwear for the magically gifted. Hollywood isn’t so fond of “ugly hags” unless there is an academy award at the end of it. Soon, witch-hat-wearing characters only had a black pointy hat in common with the Wicked Witch of the West.

I married a witch
In 1942 Veronica Lake starred in I Married a Witch doing the sexy cute witch thing we are all familiar with. Same with these pin-up images of Ann Miller and Ava Gardner.

Ava Gardner and Ann Miller
The use of the “old crone” stereotype is raised in the Season 1 episode of Bewitched, “The Witches are Out,” when a client of Darrin’s (Dick York) favors the Wicked Witch approach, warts and all, over a prettier version. Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) is less than thrilled that she will be represented this way. Darrin uses Glinda (Billie Burke) from The Wizard of Oz as his example of what a witch might actually look like. Of course, this is not the image that springs to mind for his client.
The Bewitched opening title sequence also playfully invokes the hat that typically indicates someone has powers.

Adrian’s costume design for the Wicked Witch of the West was far from the first time someone had taken images seen in illustrations and put it into the public sphere, but he created a legend. Since The Wizard of Oz, there have been numerous witches on screen, from those that resemble a fairy tale book character to ones that don’t indicate abilities through their choice of headwear. Halloween costumes from the 1910s reveal that the public dressed in this way for Halloween long before audiences flocked to theaters to see The Wizard of Oz. In the Land of Oz, it is all about branding, it is why the Wizard is revered and the Wicked Witch is feared. The Wicked Witch melted away, but her hat and its sartorial legacy survived. 

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