The Wizard of Oz at 70: politically relevant and fashionably inspirational

Alberta Ferretti'sMoschino (left) & Oscar de la renta (Right)

It’s been seven decades since L. Frank Baum wrote the popular children’s tale of Dorothy and her gaggle of organ-lacking friends as they follow the yellow brick road up to Emerald City. To celebrate its longevity, Saks is bringing in ruby slipper designs from some of the most notable shoemakers around the world. Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Giuseppe Zanotti, and Christian Louboutin, to name just a few, have created bejeweled, heightened, and Swarovski crystal-spangled versions of these red heels, to be on display at Saks from today until September 8th.

Although The Wizard of Oz is often considered a comforting bedtime story, its original purpose was much more serious. The book is a monetary allegory for  Democrat William Jenning’s Bryan’s attempt to inflate the economy with silver in the United States. This phenomenon is brought to musical life in the operetta Ballad of Baby Doe, which I sang with the Augusta Opera while in high school.

Even 70 years after its publishing, The Wizard of Oz  remains culturally relevant. Baum was attacking what he called the “populist fairies” of his time, those who wished to move towards free coinage of silver to make it more accessible to small businesses and farmers.

The parallels break down like this: Dorothy is the idealistic American. The twister that strikes her Kansas home represents the governmental upheaval, as populists had begun taking Kansas by storm. Her canine companion Toto is a play on “teetotaler,” someone who abstains from drinking. He trots “soberly” along with Dorothy, encapsulating the prohibitionist zealots. The scarecrow is the American farmer, who had convinced himself he had no brains as a simple American, beaten down by condescending intellectuals. The Tin Man represents an affluent Atlantic coast worker, dehumanized by the corporate machine, and thus without a heart. Lastly, the Cowardly Lion was Bryan, who did not get involved in the Spanish Civil War, marking him as callow according to his critics. Interestingly, Bryan was described as a lion, the fierce proponent of populism, by his own party. The late Ted Kennedy, lauded for his progressive ideologies, is described as “the liberal lion” by both republicans and democrats alike.

The yellow brick road is, of course, in reference to gold, which leads to the promised land of Emerald City. Oz is the standard politician, whose power is elevated through smoke and mirrors and charismatic oratorical skills. The solution for Dorothy is to click her ruby slippers, which she has had all along. This represents the successful Republican McKinley’s platform to stick with the extant standards, as he did not believe that change brought about from mass governmental reform  on centuries-standing policies was the answer to the problem.

So while The Wizard of Oz may remind us of childhood bedtimes, its implications have been far more resonant. Politically, this book reminds us of the long-standing reputation politicians have as beguiling liars, while the iconic ruby slippers have offered stylish inspiration decades after their introduction. For a more fashion-based take on the awe-inspiring contemporary ruby slippers on display, see the piece I did for my “Fashion Quintessential” column at AskMissA.com.

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One comment

  1. Geoff Lawrence · August 31, 2009

    I always thought the book was pro-Populist. You’re right about most of the representations, but you’re missing the fact that the slippers were actually made of silver in the book. They were changed to ruby for the movie. The silver slippers carried her home and settled the storm.

    Also, the Emerald City is Washington DC which is so enamored with the gold-backed greenback that they see everything in green. William Jennings Bryan was portrayed as cowardly by the Populist movement not because of the Spanish-American War but because the followers believed that he didn’t act to implement the free coinage of silver when he had the chance. It was only his rhetoric that was “lionly” – especially in the “Cross of Gold” speech.

    It’s also no coincidence that Dorothy is a mid-western farm girl, because this was the primary constituency for populism.

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