Once a year, usually at Christmas, 82-year-old Anne Sanz opened a suitcase full of clothes that she kept in her spare bedroom. She would examine the contents, savor the memories, and then fold them neatly.
It had been a ritual since 1970 when she first brought home the clothes she had been given by actress Elizabeth Taylor. Sanz’s husband, Gaston, had been a chauffeur and bodyguard to Taylor and husband Richard Burton, flying around the world with them at the height of their fame in the 1960s.
It is known that Taylor did not travel light and was tired of lugging around 40 suitcases. One day she made a quick decision as she unpacked in the wardrobes of her eponymous suite in London’s Dorchester Hotel. She instructed her friend, Mrs. Sanz, “Take whatever you want.”
And so it was that one of the most important dresses in Oscars fashion history 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 dozens of outfits given to Sanz. Back then, celebrity culture wasn’t quite the lucrative, bonkers industry it is today. Why didn’t Taylor just pass the old dress on to a friend?
Decades later, leading up to tonight’s 95th Academy Awards in Hollywood, the stars in attendance will have thought hard about what to wear to the ceremony. Stylists will have spent months strategizing, making decisions as delicate as selecting a wedding dress.
The importance of today’s dress code is determined 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 kept and archived. Others have been sold for extraordinary sums. Some have been involved in high-jinx Hollywood robberies, or just been smashed beyond recognition. It’s all stuff of a fashion legend.
In late 2022, Sanz’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was Elizabeth Taylor’s goddaughter, came into contact with British auctioneer Kerry Taylor.
“As soon as I saw the customer’s name, I realized the close connection between the Sanz family and Elizabeth Taylor and was sure it was the real dress,” says Kerry Taylor. “When I went to visit Anne and took a closer look at the dress, with its fantastic relief work, embroidery of insects and blossoms, it was clear. I was amazed at the small size of the waist and how curvaceous the dress shaped the figure.
The dress was set for sale at a modest estimate of £60,000 in December but was put on hold and is now expected to be auctioned in June this year. You could then own it, if you had the money to spare.
Only a handful of Oscar-winning dresses have been auctioned over the years, typically far exceeding their estimates. The first to be sold by Taylor was Leslie Caron’s 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent dress in 2006, for just £3,800 – a figure that shows how much interest in owning celebrity fashion has increased in recent years.
“Buyers are international, a mix of superfans, museums and celebrity collectors,” Taylor explains of the call. “The star who wore it, the beauty of the dress, the designer, age and condition can all affect the price. These dresses are worn by the most beautiful women in the world, usually made by the best fashion houses and are the crème de la crème of style of a certain period.”
Some dresses can be so sophisticated or symbolic that they become museum worthy. Susan Sarandon’s 1996 Dolce & Gabbana bronze winner is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The museum also displayed Björk’s 2001 Marjan Pejoski swan dress as a tribute to camp fashion in 2019.
When Halle Berry became the first woman of color to win Best Actress for Monster’s Ball in 2002, she donated her dress to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
“The Elie Saab dress I wore the night I won my historic Oscar is extremely meaningful to me,” says Berry. “And that’s exactly why I decided to donate it.”
Berry’s is the only winner’s red carpet outfit owned by the museum, deemed so important that it is on public display alongside artifacts such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and an annotated original script for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
“The dress will not only remain in the expert care of the museum’s curators and curators, but will also be accessible to generations of people for whom the dress also has meaning,” she says. “I hope it will forever be a reminder that all things are possible.”
While some dresses come back into the public domain, others are kept behind closed doors. Occasionally, stars receive their dresses from the designer as a gift to congratulate them on their win. However, it’s more common these days to have “I’ll keep the dress” written in your contract when you agree to wear the label.
Cher still has her Bob Mackie feathered headdress and sequined crop top from 1986 in her personal archive. Gwyneth Paltrow owns all of her Oscar dresses, including the pink Ralph Lauren dress she wore when she accepted Best Actress for Shakespeare in Love in 1999. She once said she had hoped her daughter Apple, now 18, would wear these to her prom.
“Maybe she’ll do something with Pretty in Pink and sew it up again and cut it up,” she said before going back. “Actually, I don’t know if I’d let her chop it.”
The trend to re-wear on the red carpet is newly popular, as a way to show off one’s eco-fashion credentials. Stylist Elizabeth Stewart, who works with Cate Blanchett and Viola Davis, says they both saved the dresses they wore to the Oscars. She’s waiting for the opportune moment, she says, to “put a fun spin on” the scarlet Armani dress Davis wore in 2017 to claim the Best Supporting Actress award for Fences.
Many celebrities simply return their dresses to the designer, but some take the long way home.
After actress Lupita Nyong’o wore a Calvin Klein gown studded with 6,000 white Akoya pearls at the 2015 Oscars ceremony, she did as most stars do; she went back to her hotel room to change for the after party. However, as she left, thieves broke in, sparking a Hollywood dress hunt.
The gown was found dumped two days later; the thief was never caught. It was assumed that the unique dress would be recognizable 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 had essentially been trashed, having been passed down by family friends, chopped up and made into a mini dress.
“I was appalled, to say the least,” says Taylor. “It’s probably one of the most elegant Oscar dresses of all time. It is often attributed to Givenchy, but he told me personally that he had nothing to do with it.”
Fortunately, Taylor got most of the pieces from the original and so a preservation 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 mini dress. We have the original bodice, most of the skirt and several fragments of the lace, all packaged together in a box with the now mini dress. I had to painstakingly put it back together with the help of a couturier.”
The effort was worth it. In 2011, Taylor sold Hepburn’s dress to a celebrity fashion collector in Asia for £70,000.
That iconic dress will be on display in London next month at Kensington Palace’s Crown to Couture exhibition, which opens to the public from April 5. becomes part of the story.