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Dorothy’s dress from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ discovered at Catholic University


Public Domain

J-P Mauro - published on 07/10/21

Decades of searching turned up nothing, then one administrator stumbled upon it by accident.

Administrators at the Catholic University of America have discovered a rare piece of Hollywood memorabilia. While preparing for renovations to Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre, they stumbled upon the dress worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. The iconic blue and white gingham dress had been missing for nearly 50 years. 

The dress was long rumored to be in the possession of the CUA drama department. It was given to Rev. Gilbert Hartke, the drama school’s founder, by actress Mercedes McCambridge, in 1972. Although CUA’s records include a photo of Fr. Hartke holding the dress, its whereabouts were unknown for decades.

Discovered by chance

According to CUA, the dress was found by Matt Ripa, operations coordinator for the Department of Drama. Ripa explained that he had searched for the dress, following rumors that it was donated to CUA about 50 years ago. Despite his best efforts to seek out the artifact, his search efforts all ended in failure. 

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A post shared by CatholicU Special Collections (@catholicu_archives)

The dress, one of only six remaining from the production of the 1939 film, was finally found by complete chance. While preparing Hartke Theatre for upcoming renovations, Ripa noticed a garbage bag atop the faculty mail slots. Ripa recalled to the CUA press:

“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!”

The dress has yet to be officially authenticated, but it shares all the characteristics of the five others. It has a hidden pocket, where Dorothy kept her handkerchief, as well as Judy Garland’s name written on the label. The dress also bears signs of repair from where Garland was known to have accidentally ripped it when undressing after a shoot. 

Fr. Hartke

It is completely unknown how McCambridge came into possession of the dress, but it was not an unusual gift. According to the Catholic Sentinel, Fr. Hartke was often given unique articles of clothing, which he graciously collected and enjoyed. His collection included a silk jacket from India, a 6-foot-long aviator scarf and a Russian fur hat

Fr. Hartke was a vastly influential director, playwright, and priest of the Dominican Order. His work with the CUA drama department, which was named for Fr. Hartke, helped form a generation of Catholic actors. His prestige reached much further than just CUA, bringing him into business and political circles as well. 

When JFK was assassinated, he was one of two priests asked to stay with the president’s body until the funeral. This request was made by Jackie Kennedy herself, who asked for Fr. Hartke by name. In 1981, Fr. Hartke was named “one of the most powerful men in Washington, D.C.” by Washingtonian Magazine.

The newly discovered dress has been turned over to the CUA archives. There, it will be preserved and kept in a climate-controlled environment. Unfortunately, they have stated that the dress is far too valuable and fragile to be placed on display. 

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