While working as The Catholic University of America's artist-in-residence in 1973, actress Mercedes McCambridge presented drama department head Reverend Gilbert Hartke with a priceless memento: one of the iconic gingham dresses Judy Garland had worn as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Though it’s not exactly clear how McCambridge came to be in possession of the dress in the first place, it was reported that she and Garland were friends. Even less clear was where the dress ended up. News coverage mentioned the acquisition at the time, and Hartke was photographed with the item in hand, but decades passed without any further sighting.
As CNN reports, thanks to drama department lecturer and operations coordinator Matt Ripa, the elusive frock has finally reappeared. “I had looked in our archives, storage closets, etc. to no avail,” Ripa told Maria Mazzenga, curator of Catholic University’s American Catholic History Collections. “I assumed it was a tall tale (of which many exist for Father Hartke).”
Last month, during a building renovation, Ripa spotted a trash bag atop the mailboxes with a shoebox inside. A note from the previous department chair explained that it had been in his office, but he evidently hadn’t alerted anyone to its contents—which, lo and behold, were one blue-and-white pinafore and a yellowed blouse.
To ensure that the clothing wasn’t just a clever replica, Mazzenga and her fellow archivists enlisted help from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Though the museum’s experts can’t officially declare such memorabilia authentic, they examined the dress in person and agreed that it seems to be the real McCoy. Their conclusion was based on a few notable details the dress shares with five other dresses believed to have been worn by Garland in the film. The pinafores all have a hidden pocket where Garland stored Dorothy’s handkerchief, and Garland’s full name is handwritten in the lining. The dress is also ripped right below the pinafore straps. “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,” Mazzenga explained.
The dress has now moved from its shoebox to a new home in the university archives, where it has access to amenities like humidity control.