Wonderful Wizard of Oz: An analysis

Excerpt from a Literary Text Analysis: Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum with pictures by W.W. Denslow

The high definition version of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz will be playing in theatre’s nationwide on September 23 in celebration of the films 70th Anniversary. Much discussion has been made over the Adrian designed costumes in the film, but little attention has been paid to the original vision the author had for the characters. This excerpt from a paper I wrote in 2002 provides some analysis of Denslow’s use of clothing to develop a character.

Born in 1856, L. Frank Baum grew up in Syracuse, New York. Married in 1882, his wife (the daughter of a suffragette) influenced his views on feminism. Mother Goose in Prose was his first work of children’s fiction, and was published in 1897.[1] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written in Chicago and published in May of 1900.[2] Baum wrote over 70 children’s books before his death in 1919.[3]

Written in a simple and straightforward style, The Wonderful World of Oz is a fantasy adventure for children. With this book, Baum created the first “truly American fairyland, using language and imagery that would be familiar to the ordinary American child.”[4] Eventually, Baum was asked to write the book and lyrics for the stage production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (first produced in Chicago in 1902, and in 1903, it moved to New York City). This in turn, spawned two silent films and finally, the MGM classic in 1939.[5]

The costumes in the book are not described in great detail, with cut and shape often left out altogether. Emphasis is usually placed on the fabric itself. For example, when Dorothy and the other main characters first enter the Emerald City to meet with Oz, the costume description focuses on only the fabric. The girl who greets them wears “a pretty green silk gown.”[6] And later, when Dorothy is shown to the room she will sleep in that night, she discovers a wardrobe full of, “many green dresses, made of silk and satin and velvet; and all of them fitted Dorothy exactly.”[7] Dorothy eventually chooses a gown to wear, the next day, “made of green brocaded satin.”[8] These fabrics are all easily associated with luxury and wealth.

Emphasis on the materials used aid in illustrating the contrast between the fantasy world, and the dull, real world from which Dorothy comes. An exception to this focus on fabric is the description of the Good Witch of the East, who first helps Dorothy. “. . .the little woman’s hat was white, and she wore a white gown that hung in plaits from her shoulders; over it were sprinkled little stars that glistened in the sun like diamonds.”[9] Here, not only do we get a description of the color and pattern, but we are also given some structural information.

Accessories, especially shoes and hats add to the sense of luxury and wealth in Oz, and aid in furthering the plot. Due to the materials it is created from, the Golden Cap is instantly associated with jewelry and wealth. The cap also has “a circle of diamonds and rubies running around it”[10] which only serves to reinforce the idea of affluence and power. Both the Golden Cap and the Silver Shoes have magical powers. The shoes are made of silver and are shown as a comparison to the faded and old shoes that Dorothy is more familiar with. In Kansas, her uncle wore gray boots[11] to match the gray description of Kansas. In addition, Dorothy’s original shoes (from Kansas) are “old and worn.”[12] This emphasizes the extreme difference between the two worlds.

Additionally, the Silver Shoes and Golden Cap act repeatedly as sources of power and help to further the action of the plot. Without the Golden Cap the characters could never defeat the various obstacles they face. Without the Silver Shoes, Dorothy could never get home. Therefore they act less as fashion, and more as functional objects. Dorothy even notes that the shoes, “. . . would be just the thing to take a long walk in, for they could not wear out.”[13]

More general information is conveyed by the costumes belonging to the fantasy peoples of Oz. While their clothes do not seem to establish time, they do help establish place within the world of the story. For example, when Dorothy and her group are in the Emerald City, everyone’s clothes appear green; the color to match the city. And when Dorothy first arrives in Oz, the munchkins all wear blue and indicates that they are in the last of the East. In addition, the fact that Dorothy is wearing both blue and white, helps to communicate to the Munchkins that she is both good and powerful. When she encounters a Munchkin named Boq, he thinks her a sorceress and tells her it is “because you wear silver shoes and have killed the wicked witch. Besides, you have white in your frock, and only witches and sorceresses wear white.”[14]

In terms of defining character, costumes have only a slight effect. As a children’s book, the characters are simple and so are their clothes. To the child reader, Dorothy’s clothes help establish her innocence. Blue gingham indicates (at least to me) that she is a simple and innocent character, whom children can identify with. The scarecrow’s costume establishes him as an imitation of a Munchkin man, and lets the reader know that he can not think as “real” man. The Good Witch of the East wears stars over her dress, indicating the magical quality of her character.

There have been many interpretations of the symbolic meaning within The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Some suggest that the book is in fact a political allegory, based on the American Populist Movement at the turn of the century. The silver shoes are used to discuss the value of having a silver, instead of a gold standard.[15] Some criticism has seen it as a heroic myth, as it appears to follow that structure.[16] Other perspectives seen reflected in the story include the feminist, spiritual, mystical, psychotherapeutic, Freudian, political, and social perspectives.[17] It seems that because the story is so basic that it can be found to have any symbolic meaning.

More details on the book and illustrations can be found here and Amazon has a collectors edition available here:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition (Books of Wonder


[1] Brooke Allen, “The Man Behind the Curtain,” Review of L. Frank Baum; Creator of Oz by Katharine M. Rogers. The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 2002. 13

[2] Mark Evan Swartz, Oz Before the Rainbow (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2000) 9

[3] Allen,13

[4] Swartz 10

[5] Swartz, 18.

[6] L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 123.

[7] Baum, 124

[8] Baum, 125

[9] Baum, 20

[10] Baum, 145

[11] Baum, 13

[12] Baum, 32

[13] Baum, 32

[14] Baum, 34

[15] David B. Parker, “The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a ‘Parable on Populism,'” JOURNAL OF THE GEORGIA ASSOCIATION OF HISTORIANS, vol. 15 (1994), pp. 49-63.

[16] “Edward Hudlin maintains that the book follows very closely the structure of the heroic myth as outlined by Joseph Campbell.” (Swartz, 19)

[17] Schwartz, 19-22


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2 Comments

  • Eva March 09, 2010 01.58 pm

    Thank you for sharing this essay. I found it very interesting and useful in my attempt to design an abstract costume for an Oz character who is going to be placed in a different type of setting (a sci-fi story).

     
  • Alex Davis October 04, 2015 05.32 pm

    Whoops!

    My names Alex not Ale, sorry didn’t notice it til after I posted the above comment.

     

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