Once a year, usually at Christmas, 82-year-old Anne Sanz would open up a suitcase full of clothes that she kept in her spare bedroom. She would take a look at the contents, relish the memories, then neatly fold them away again.
It had been a ritual since 1970 when she first brought home the clothes, given to her by the actress Elizabeth Taylor. Sanz’s husband, Gaston, had been a chauffeur and bodyguard to Taylor and husband Richard Burton, flitting around the world with them at the height of their fame in the 1960s.
Taylor famously didn’t travel light and was tired of carting 40 cases around. She made a snap decision one day, while unpacking into the wardrobes in her namesake suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel. She instructed her friend, Mrs Sanz: “Take whatever you like.”
And so it came to be that one of the most important dresses in the fashion history of the Oscars was “lost”. The Christian Dior dress that Taylor wore to the 33rd Academy Awards in 1961 – accepting her Best Actress award for Butterfield 8 – was one of the dozen or so outfits given to Sanz. Back then, celebrity culture wasn’t quite the lucrative, frenzied industry that it is now. Why wouldn’t Taylor just pass the old dress on to a friend?
The importance of today’s dress code is defined by the past. Whoever wins will find that what they wear contributes to a rich and exciting legacy of red-carpet fashion – stories that rarely end on the red carpet.
Some Oscar-night dresses are preserved and archived. Others have been sold for extraordinary sums. Some have been involved in high-jinx Hollywood robberies, or simply trashed beyond recognition. It’s all the stuff of fashion legend.
In late 2022, Sanz’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was Elizabeth Taylor’s goddaughter, got in touch with the British auctioneer Kerry Taylor.
The dress was destined for sale with a modest estimate of £60,000 in December, but it was held and is now expected to be auctioned in June this year. You could own it next, should you have the cash to spare.
Just a handful of Oscar-winning dresses have been auctioned over the years, typically far exceeding their estimates. The first sold by Taylor was Leslie Caron’s 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent gown in 2006, for just £3,800 – a figure that highlights just how much interest in owning celebrity fashion has heightened in recent years.
Some dresses can be so exquisite, or symbolic, that they become museum-worthy. Susan Sarandon’s bronze Dolce & Gabbana winner of 1996 is owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum also displayed Björk’s 2001 Marjan Pejoski swan dress in its tribute to camp fashion in 2019.
“The Elie Saab gown I wore the evening I won my historic Oscar is extremely meaningful to me,” Berry says. “And that is exactly why I decided to donate it.”
“Not only will the gown remain in the expert care of the museum’s curators and conservators, but it will also be accessible to generations of people for whom the dress also holds meaning,” she says. “I hope it will forever be a reminder that all things are possible.”
While some dresses do come back into the public domain, others are kept behind closed doors. Occasionally stars will be given their dresses by the designer, as a gift to congratulate them on their win. It is more common these days, though, to have “I’ll keep the frock” written into your contract when you agree to wear the label.
“She might do a Pretty in Pink thing and re-sew it and cut it up,” she said, before backtracking. “Actually, I don’t know if I’d let her chop that one up.”
After actress Lupita Nyong’o wore a Calvin Klein gown studded with 6,000 white Akoya pearls to the Oscars ceremony in 2015, she did as most stars do; she went back to her hotel room to change before the after-party. When she left, though, thieves broke in, prompting a Hollywood dress hunt.
In some cases, an Oscar dress has seen too much fun. By the time Audrey Hepburn’s 1954 Edith Head dress arrived at Taylor’s office, it was essentially trashed, having been passed through family friends, chopped up and refashioned as a minidress.
“I was dismayed, to put it mildly,” says Taylor. “It is probably one of the most elegant Oscar dresses of all time. It is often attributed to Givenchy, but he personally told me that he had nothing to do with it.”
“In the mid-1960s Audrey’s mother gave the dress to a family friend for her daughter to wear,” she explains. “Unfortunately she had completely removed the original bodice and turned the full ballerina-length skirt into a minidress. We got the original bodice, most of the skirt and various fragments of the lace all packed together in a box with the now minidress. I had to painstakingly put it back together again with the help of a couturier.”
The endeavour was worth it. In 2011 Taylor sold Hepburn’s dress to a celebrity fashion collector based in Asia for £70,000.
That iconic dress will go on display in London next month, in Kensington Palace’s Crown to Couture exhibition, open to the public from April 5. It’s nice to think that, whether in the hands of a careful collector or a fashion fanatic, the new owner becomes a part of the story.