Site icon papayakart

Sold, stolen, lost: What happened to the most famous dresses in Oscars history?

Halle Berry, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor

The stars in attendance will have put a great deal of thought into what they will wear – and the stories rarely end on the red carpet CREDIT: Getty

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?

Lost… and found! Elizabeth Taylor gave her 1961 Dior gown to a friend CREDIT: Getty

Decades on, ahead of the 95th Academy Awards in Hollywood tonight, the stars in attendance will have put a great deal of thought into what they will wear to the ceremony. Stylists will have strategised for months, with decisions as delicate as the selection of a wedding dress.

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.

Taylor wearing the now famous Christian Dior dress at the 33rd Academy Awards in 1961 CREDIT: Getty

“As soon as I saw the client’s name I realised the close link between the Sanz family and Elizabeth Taylor and was certain it was the genuine gown,” Kerry Taylor says. “When I visited Anne and inspected the dress in close detail, with its fabulous raised work, embroidery of insects and blossoms it was obvious. I was amazed at the tiny size of the waist and how curvaceous the dress made the figure.”

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.

Taylor’s dress is expected to be auctioned in June this year CREDIT: ROCH

“Buyers are international, a mixture of superfans, museums and celebrity collectors,” explains Taylor of the appeal. “The star who wore it, the beauty of the dress, the designer, the age and condition can all affect the price. These dresses are worn by the most beautiful women in the world, usually made by the finest fashion houses and are the crème de la crème of style of any given period.”

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.

Björk wearing her 2001 Marjan Pejoski swan dress at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards CREDIT: WireImage

When Halle Berry became the first woman of colour to win Best Actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002, she gave her dress to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

“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.”

Donated: The Elie Saab gown worn by Halle Berry in 2002 is now in a museum CREDIT: Getty

Berry’s is the only winner’s red-carpet outfit owned by the museum, deemed so important that it is displayed for the public to see next to artefacts such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and an annotated original script for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

“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.

Kept: Cher still has her Bob Mackie feathered headdress and sequinned crop top from 1986 CREDIT: Bettmann

Cher still has her Bob Mackie feathered headdress and sequinned crop top from 1986 in her personal archive. Gwyneth Paltrow owns all of her Oscar dresses, including the pink Ralph Lauren gown she wore to accept Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. She once declared that she had hoped her daughter Apple, now 18, might wear it to her prom. 

“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.”

Passed down: Gwyneth Paltrow wants her daughter to wear her Ralph Lauren gown that she wore in 1999 CREDIT: Getty

The trend for rewearing on the red carpet is newly popular, as a way to flaunt one’s eco-fashion credentials. The stylist Elizabeth Stewart, who works with Cate Blanchett and Viola Davis, says that both have kept dresses they have worn to the Oscars. She is waiting for the opportune moment, she says, to put “some fun twist on” the scarlet Armani gown that Davis wore in 2017 to claim Best Supporting Actress for Fences.

Kept: Viola Davis took home the Armani gown she wore for the 2017 ceremony CREDIT: WireImage

Many celebrities do simply give their dresses back to the designer, but some take the long route home.

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.

Stolen: The Calvin Klein gown worn by Lupita Nyong’o in 2015 was taken from her hotel room CREDIT: Getty

The gown was found dumped two days later; the thief was never caught. It was assumed that the one-of-a-kind gown would be recognisable and traceable if they tried to sell it and after some restoration, it was returned to the safety of the Calvin Klein atelier.

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.”

Ruined: Audrey Hepburn’s 1964 Oscar gown had been remade into a minidress CREDIT: Getty

Luckily, Taylor was handed most of the pieces of the original and so a conservation effort was feasible. 

“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.”

Audrey Hepburn’s dress on display in London CREDIT: WireImage

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.

Exit mobile version