As it sells for $405,700 at auction, how Olivia Newton-John’s Grease look was a fashion game changer

Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny in 1978 film Grease
Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny in 1978 film Grease Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

We can all picture it. The leather jacket. The skintight trousers. The red mules. They instantly call to mind that memorable line, “Tell me about it, stud”, and the subsequent opening chords of You're The One That I Want.

Olivia Newton-John’s outfit in the finale scene of 1978 hit movie Grease, in which she starred as good girl Sandy opposite John Travolta’s bad boy Danny, is probably one of the most distinctive in movie history. 

If any proof was needed of that fact, the actress’s jacket and trousers sold for $405,700 (£314,197) at Julien’s Auctions in Beverly Hills this weekend, more than double the $200,000 estimate. The 71-year-old star, who is battling stage 4 breast cancer, sold 500 items from her personal collection to benefit the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, including an original Grease script and the custom-made pink dress she wore for the film’s premiere.

Newton-John pictured with the costume she wore in the finale of Grease Credit: Michelle Day

But what has made that single costume so distinctive? Why is it that look that instantly comes to mind when we think of Grease, and not the looks worn by Sandy for the majority of the film? The white frilled nightie buttoned to the top, or the full yellow skirt worn with a white blouse and yellow cardigan draped primly over the shoulders, for instance, get just as much screen time.

The answer is in what that final look represents to young women, most of whom will have watched the film in their formative years. For much of the plot, the suggestion is that one can either be a frumpy good girl or a rebellious-yet-sexy bad girl, but real life is never that binary. By marrying the good girl with the bad girl in the closing scene, we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Sandy.

The outfit itself is also carefully balanced. It’s sexy (it’s black and so figure-hugging, Newton-John had to be stitched into the vintage 1950s trousers), but also PG 13 (there’s no cleavage or excessively exposed skin). It’s a powerful image that’s easy to replicate, and replicated it was, helping to ignite the trend for leggings which dominated fashion for the next decade.

Newton-John and Travolta in the final scenes of Grease Credit: Paramount/Everett / Rex Features

The costume represented a filming highlight for Newton-John herself, too. “If I had to pick a favourite moment, it was the transformation from what I call Sandy 1 to Sandy 2,” she told The Telegraph in 2017. “I got to play a different character and wear different clothes, and when I put on that tight black outfit to sing You’re the One That I Want, I got a very different reaction from the guys on the set.”

Of course, it helps that Grease is a classic feelgood movie with broad appeal. It hasn’t even dated much - it’s celebrated as much by film-lovers today as it was when it was first released over 40 years ago. But it’s Newton-John’s performance that really makes high school student Sandy such a memorable character. Not only did she have the singing and dancing chops to co-star alongside Travolta, the final scene showed that she could be a convincing sex symbol, and as a result, she was able to transition from wholesome country singer to bona fide pop star, releasing hits including Physical.

The identity of the costume’s new owner has been kept anonymous, but Newton-John is keen to know where each item ends up and has requested that every buyer send her a photo of themselves with the item along with a personal note.

Whoever it may be, they now own a piece of popular culture memorabilia that holds an important place in fashion history too.