This week’s passing of Olivia Newton-John prompted a deluge of tributes from celebrities and fans on social media. And the image accompanying the majority of posts was of Newton-John as Sandy Olsson in the final sequence of her 1978 film Grease. She looks into the eyes of co-star John Travolta as Danny Zuko while wearing tight black pants, an off-the-shoulder black shirt, red mules, and a motorcycle jacket. Her hair is teased and she holds a cigarette.
Grease, which was released over 45 years ago and is set in the 1950s, remains a cultural touchstone, with Newton-now-famous John’s makeover and final wardrobe playing a pivotal role. On Twitter, admirers paid tribute, with one stating that the clothing “has influenced my fashion sense since I was approximately three” and another claiming that its appearance “changed the world.”
Because the outfit is so recognizable, it is a popular option for costume events. In recent years, celebrities including Gigi Hadid, Jessica Simpson, and Hailey Bieber have dressed as Sandy for Halloween.
The ensemble’s role in the film contributes to the outfit’s enduring influence. In the last scene, Sandy, who was earlier shown as a square in 1950s pastels and poodle skirts, is changed into a “bad girl” in figure-hugging black and leathers.
According to Oliver Gruner, who curated the 2019 book Grease is the Word, “it appears to have a way of embodying everyone’s ambitions.” “[Sandy] goes from being a shrinking violet… It is an example of becoming a completely different person and reinventing yourself.”
Albert Wolsky, the costume designer for Grease, explains, “It was evident from the start that she would have to adapt.” “The idea was simple since she was so girly, so you had to go in the opposite direction — really tight and classy.”
While Wolsky created most of Newton-costumes John’s for the film, the notorious top and pants were vintage purchases. According to Newton-2019 John’s memoirs, the zipper was damaged and she was stitched into her pants each morning. She wrote, “They were so old and there was only one pair, so there was no room for error.” “One rip and doom.”
But there have been feminist criticism of Sandy’s transition, as it is she, not Travolta’s Danny, who transforms — he does wear a nerdy cardigan to express his love, but he quickly discards it when he sees the new Sandy.
Colin Richmond, the costume designer for the London production of Grease the Musical, dislikes this element. “It seems terrible to me for someone to modify oneself to win the adoration of another,” he says. However, according to him, it also has a dramatic effect. Sandy’s final appearance may be jarring because it is so contradictory and opposed. Perhaps all of this contributes to its grandeur.”
Gruner argues that humor is crucial. “That final scene could be interpreted as her transition from one stereotype to another,” he explains. “[However], Newton-John portrays this part with her tongue firmly in her cheek… For instance, [how] she seeks to her friends for guidance on how to quit smoking.”
Kate Bailey, a senior curator at the V&A in London who specializes in costume, feels the ensemble represented a vision of the future at the time it was created. She states, “It thrusts us into the vibrant, assertive fashion of the 1980s.”
“During the 1970s, women wore pinafores and flared pants. [This attire] is a fashion statement as well as a moment in the plot of Grease. It is truly ahead of its time.”
Bailey notes that the outfit’s simplicity – black pants, black blouse, red lipstick – has contributed to its longevity. “It is so daring, timeless, simple, and seductive that many people may wear it,” she explains. It is so stylish that everybody can afford to duplicate it. According to Wolsky, the shift needed to be complete.
“She was required to have specific hair and cosmetics,” he explains. “It all fits together. If she had the same hair and clothing as the rest of the cast, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Other style moments from Newton-career John’s are sure to be revisited after her passing. The headband and leotard worn for her 1981 hit Physical will undoubtedly appeal to a generation raised on athleisure, whilst the spacey disco outfit of the 1980 film Xanadu has already attained cult status.
However, Bailey believes that it will never surpass Grease. It is the Sandy character. This costume, that defining moment, and Danny’s response.”
Wolsky, a costume veteran with a six-decade-long career, claims that it remains a part of his reputation. “That will be on my tombstone,” he says. “I have appeared in Sophie’s Choice and received an Academy Award for All That Jazz, but this is the film for which I am most known.”
In 2019, Newton-John sold the jacket and pants at auction for $405,700 (about £335,00) to raise funds for her cancer center. The pants were purchased by Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, and they are framed and exhibited on the office wall.
An unknown admirer purchased the jacket, which was later gifted to Newton-John. She referred to the jacket as her “baby” and preserved it throughout her career, according to Martin Nolan, the executive director of Julien’s. He orchestrated the surprising return of the jacket. “She believed she was receiving a puppy and opened a large pink box,” he explains. “I’ve never heard such joyous shrieks before.”