It’s in the Details

We think a lot about sequins here—about their care and conservation—the history of their invention and evolution—and they ways their sparkle conveys the magic and glamor of performance.

From the Hollywood movies of Judy Garland to the honky-tonks of Patsy Cline, sequins have played an important role in audience enchantment. Their very glimmer is a kind of short-hand for magic—the magic of a fantasy world conjured upon a screen or the magic of a voice stirring powerful emotion. It was the marriage of sequins, intense light, and Technicolor, after all, that gave those slippers their ruby glow in The Wizard of Oz and conveyed their inner power. [1]

Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," 1938, designed by Gilbert Adrian, NMAH

“The iridescent glimmer of sequins are essential elements in the larger-than-life persona of many a performer. It’s as if the shimmer allows them to bring their own special lighting to the stage.”

               —Dwight Blocker Bowers,
 Entertainment Curator,
National Museum of American History

PBR shoes made from over 2,000 hole-punched aluminum circles; woven white plastic bags in background

Sequins—whimsically employed—are what first drew me to artist Timothy Westbrook’s Pabst Blue Ribbon shoes. They were posted on Facebook by Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel where Westbrook is Artist-in-Residence. Online, the shoes were gorgeous and charming—their blue bows and red ribbons lining up just right—but it was the sequins’ brilliance and texture that put them over the top. I have two-stepping friends who would die to dance in them.

My cousin Rebecca’s wedding brought me to the hotel soon after, and in a quiet moment I discovered Westbrook’s studio just off of the hotel’s ornate 19th-century lobby. An odd place for PBR shoes, you might think, but this is Milwaukee, home of the Pabst family of brewery pioneers. Pabst Blue Ribbon is about as iconic as it gets in this place of invention.

I spotted the shoes right away—twinkling amid mannequins, gowns, and sparkling fabric being woven on a giant loom. I moved closer. I had never seen sequins like these—like round pieces of confetti arranged as if scales on a mermaid’s tail. I couldn’t stop looking.

Timothy Westbrook in his Pfister Hotel Studio

“Please touch!” enthused a voice from behind a non-electric treadle sewing machine. The kind and welcoming artist himself. Even with permission, I was hesitant to touch, but I’m so glad I did. Those weren’t sequins at all! They were red, white, and blue aluminum circles hole-punched from PBR cans! I loved the shoes even more for their surprise—for the inventive way that they not only celebrated an iconic American product—they were the product, recycled back to life.

Each shoe, Westbrook explained, was covered in over 2,000 aluminium circles hole-punched from used PBR cans. Separated for color and pattern, the “sequins” were then meticulously glued to a pair of vintage shoes over the course of 32 hours. Next to the PBR shoes were the latest entries in what Westbook calls his, “Drinking Shoe” collection: “Strongbow shoes” made from the hard cider’s distinctive yellow and black cans.

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Detail of Strongbow shoe

Strongbow shoe in-process

Strongbow by Westbrook

Strongbow kit: cans, vintage shoe, hole punch, glue

Strongbow shoe by Westbrook

Making "sequins" from Strongbow aluminum cans

The “magic” of the PBR shoes, I told Westbrook, made me think on some level of that most celebrated pair of sequinned shoes in the Smithsonian’s collection. Funny I should say that: Westbrook recently created “Ruby Slippers” for a project commissioned by Misha Rabinovich.

Westbrook's glistening red "Ruby Slippers" made from another American icon—the Coca-Cola can; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

The result is a spectacular pair of shoes that would make the Wicked Witch of the West take notice: a sparkling duo made of thousands of aluminum “sequins” from another American icon: Coca-Cola. The project was difficult on several levels—the heel, for example, is often wrong in reproductions—but Westbrook’s greatest challenge was creating something that evokes the public’s powerful memory of the shoes while providing a 21st-century twist.

"Ruby Slippers" by Timothy Westbrook

Model wearing Westbrook's "Ruby Slippers"; photograph by Alison Barnick www.alisonbarnick.com

“The closer I get to garbage the more interested people are, ” Westbrook said. ”When they don’t know what they’re looking at, when they have to look closer and differently to figure it out, they see the innovation—that it’s not garbage at all—it’s something beautiful and a piece of Americana.”

Turns out, there was more to see, including other pieces made from recycled materials such as audio cassette tapes, MRI film, scrap yarn and fabric, umbrellas, medical splints, electric wire, and those ubiquitous white plastic bags. Even retired sheets donated by the Pfister get a second life as gowns.

Since that meeting in Milwaukee, I’ve enjoyed an ongoing conversation with Westbrook about his work and commitment to using re-purposed material. So much of what he talked about resonated with conversations the Lemelson Center has had with the many creative and innovative people that come through our doors. In my next post, I will talk about the work Westbrook is doing to transform discarded audio tape into shimmering textiles that challenge one’s definition of luxury.


[1] Blocker Bowers, Dwight (Entertainment Curator, National Museum of American History). 2007. From the Smithsonian Channel’s America’s Treasures video.

 

 

 

Don’t make me get the flying monkeys

A souvenir "Chistery," the original flying monkey, soars on the breezes in my office, above a sign that reads, "Don't make me get the flying monkeys! — The Wicked Witch" (a gift from my sister years ago!). Photo by Joyce Bedi

OK, let’s get the confession out of the way. One of my favorite movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz. I know, I know. I should pick something more edgy, or more indie, or even something French. But I am an unabashed fan of the Emerald City gang. Even though I grew up in the era of black-and-white television, a local station showed Oz every year around Easter. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the Easter-egg hues of the film’s sets and costumes (even though we couldn’t see them). Maybe it was to mark the beginning of tornado season in the Midwest. I honestly don’t know. But my Mom and I looked forward to that broadcast each Spring. And when I finally saw the film in color in my college years, when I opened the Kansas farmhouse door and stepped into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time, my addiction was complete, undeniable, and irreversible.

A year ago or so, I discovered a new dimension to the Oz story. I had seen Gregory Maguire’s book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in bookstores but never quite brought myself to buy it. I guess I could have gone to a public library, but that never happened, either. Then, I got an iPad and started delving into e-books, and one of the first I read was Wicked. What a great complement to the story I know so well. It had more in common with L. Frank Baum’s original book published in 1900 than the classic 1939 MGM film, and added new plot points from Maguire’s imagination. I really enjoyed this deeper glimpse into the history of Oz, if you can call it that.

So recently, when my husband and I saw an ad for performances of Wicked, the musical, I mentioned that I would like to see the play. Being the best husband in the world (no exaggeration), he announced a few days later that he planned to take me to a performance as part of our anniversary celebration! I wasn’t sure what to expect, and that turned out to be a good mental state to bring to the theater. The show was amazing. But my historian-of-technology’s eye couldn’t stop seeing the inventions and innovations that appeared as uncredited actors throughout the production.

Jeanna De Waal as Glinda and Christine Dwyer as Elphaba in Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

For example, in one scene, it begins to rain. It truly looked like rain, but it was all done with lighting and projections. The vaguely steampunk, clockwork design of the sets also displays innovative techniques, like the bicycle brakes and bass drum pedal used to manipulate the enormous Wizard’s-head puppet. Of course, there is the makeup that makes Elphaba (the alleged Wicked Witch of the West’s real name) her signature green. Makeup designer Joe Dulude II tweaked a commercially-available product from M.A.C. to give Elphaba a complexion that, as he put it, looks like skin, not makeup.

Mandy Gonzalez as Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus

Then there are the costumes created by Tony-award-winning designer Susan Hilferty. She calls her concept for Wicked “twisted Edwardian,” taking inspiration from Baum’s book and from the characters themselves. For Elphaba, a character she sees as rooted in the earth, she created a variation on the stereotypical witch’s black dress and hat, designing an asymmetrical costume of many dark colors, reminiscent of the hues found in coal, mica, and other minerals. Glinda the Good’s costume is the opposite—light and airy and “of the sky.” Then there are the flying monkeys, whose hand-painted costumes must allow them to move like, well, monkeys, but also to “fly,” with integrated mechanical wings.

The National Museum of American History recently collected Elphaba's dress, hat, and broom, a donation from Susan Hilferty. As soon as it went on display in the American Stories exhibition, I dashed up to see it. As great as it looked on stage, it was even more impressive up close. Smithsonian photo.

As I did a little research into these behind-the-scenes features of the show, I found that, not surprisingly, the creative process of the designers isn’t all that different from the inventive process that we document and teach at the Lemelson Center. In our Spark!Lab, we break down the invention process into a number of nonlinear steps:

  • Identify a problem or need (Think it)
  • Conduct research (Explore it)
  • Make sketches  (Sketch it)
  • Build prototypes (Create it)
  • Test the invention (Try it)
  • Refine it (Tweak it)
  • Market the invention (Sell it)

Susan Hilferty articulated a number of these same steps in talking about her design for Elphaba’s costume. “First of all,” she said” “I do a sketch and I have a very clear idea about what I want it to look like. And there is a draper who interprets my sketch. So we first look at in a . . . cheap fabric so I can look at what the draper has put together. . . While we’re doing that step, we’re talking about how it’s going to be fabricated . . . The skirt itself, for instance, takes about 40 yards of fabric where we piece it together. We take yards of fabric, rip it up, and piece it back together again, to make it feel like an organic material, which incorporates many, many different colors. Then they are stitched together by one person and it takes her about 40-60 hours stitching all of those layers on so they’re right up next to and around each other, almost like a topographical map.”

Susan Hilferty's sketch for the Elphaba costume was part of the donation to the Museum.

Imagining, sketching, prototyping, manufacturing, tweaking. These are activities with which inventors are intensely familiar. To modify an old chestnut (perhaps an appropriate thing to do during this holiday season), great creative minds think alike.

From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy . . .

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy’s when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard, his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy’s shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Photo: Only the Oz portion of the movie was filmed in Technicolor; the Kansas scenes were shot in black-and-white and toned sepia.

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescottfounded Technicolor in 1915  (the “Tech” in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company:

“The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests.”

Photo: One of Daniel Comstock’s former students at MIT, Joseph Arthur Ball, was primarily responsible for developing the three-strip motion picture camera that was used until the 1950s when color negative motion picture film was introduced. The camera was large, heavy, and loud. It was attached to a dolly to help move it around the set, and an outer box was called a “blimp” surrounded the camera mechanism to muffle the noise.

The Technicolor team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow.”


Photo: Natalie Kalmus wrote, “We must constantly practice color restraint.” Did that philosophy influence Adrian’s choice of muted colors for the Scarecrow’s costume?

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don’t know if she played a part in transforming Baum’s silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.


Photo: Several pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film. The Museum’s pair have felt soles, suggesting that they were worn by Judy Garland in dance scenes.

The Museum’s collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the ruby slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating “There’s no place like home,” is part of our shared memory. Would the ruby slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?

Sources:

  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qbV65PabTEYC. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.