July 08, 2021
Dress label with Judy Garland's name written on it

In 1973, Catholic University’s Tower newspaper wrote about a gift to Catholic University meant to be a source of “hope, strength, and courage” to students. The gift was a dress that is believed to have been worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.” It was given to Rev. Gilbert Hartke, illustrious head of the drama program, by actress Mercedes McCambridge, who served as artist-in-residence at CatholicU in 1972. 

Father Hartke holding Judy Garland dress
Rev. Gilbert Hartke holding the dress. 

For many years, it was rumored that the dress was still located in Hartke, the building named after the priest, but no one knew exactly where. Matt Ripa, M.F.A. 2008,  lecturer and operations coordinator for the Department of Drama, had heard those same rumors of the dress being in the building where he regularly works.

He had looked for the dress in the theatre’s archives and storage closets, and was beginning to assume the legend of Dorothy’s dress was “a tall tale (of which many exist for Father Hartke).” But while preparing for some renovations to the building, Ripa noticed a bag on top of the faculty mailboxes.

“I was curious what was inside and opened the bag. Inside was a shoebox, and inside the shoebox was the dress! I couldn’t believe it,” Ripa says. “My co-worker and I quickly grabbed some gloves and looked at the dress and took some pictures before putting it back in the box and heading over to the (University) Archives. Needless to say, I have found many interesting things in Hartke during my time at Catholic University, but I think this one takes the cake!”

By the time McCambridge gave the dress to Father Hartke, Judy Garland had died. The University is unaware of how McCambridge acquired the dress, although it is known she was a contemporary of Garland and they were believed to be friends.

“As archivists, we were obliged to work on gaining additional documentation for this popular culture national treasure,” says Maria Mazzenga, Ph.D. 2000, curator of the American Catholic History Collections at Catholic University. “We have several photos of Father Hartke holding the dress, and articles from The Tower and The Washington Post referencing it. So the circumstantial evidence is strong.”

The dress in the university's archivesMazzenga reached out to experts in cultural memorabilia at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The museum has several artifacts from the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” including a famous pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Curator with the Division of Cultural and Community Life, Ryan Lintelman, an expert in the museum’s Oz memorabilia, offered a wealth of information he’s gathered on the history of the film’s Dorothy dresses. 

There were several of them, though it appears that five, excluding the University’s dress, have been verified as probably authentic. All of the dresses have certain verifiable characteristics, including, for example, a “secret pocket” on the right side of the pinafore skirt for Dorothy’s handkerchief, “Judy Garland” written by hand in a script specific to a single person who labeled all of the extant dresses in the same hand. Apparently, the thin material of the blouse was prone to tearing when Garland took it off after filming, and a seamstress often repaired it before she donned it for the next shoot. 

The Hartke dress has all of these characteristics, including blouse tears where the pinafore straps sat on the shoulders.

Lintelman, along with his colleagues at the museum — Dawn Wallace, objects conservator, and Sunae Park Evans, senior costume conservator — paid a visit to Catholic University to view the dress shortly after it was discovered. Employees at the museum are not authorized to authenticate objects like this one, but they suggested that the dress was consistent with the other objects from the film, and that the evidence around the dress was strong.

Dorothy’s “Wizard of Oz” dress, once the province of myth, is now a real object in the University’s Special Collections. It can now be preserved in proper storage in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment so that hopefully, for many more years, it can be a source of “hope, strength, and courage” for Catholic University students. 

This is not the first time renovations at the University have uncovered interesting and valuable artifacts. In 2010, Bishop David M. O’Connell, then-president of the University, found a Rembrandt etching in a restroom closet in his residence. 

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