how Olivia Newton-John’s latest Grease outfit became a cultural phenomenon

Olivia Newton-John’s death this week was followed by an avalanche of tributes from celebrities and fans on social media. And the photo that accompanied most of the posts was Newton-John as Sandy Olsson in the final scene of her signature 1978 film, Grease. Wearing tight black trousers, an off-the-shoulder black top, red mules and biker jacket, with her hair teased and a cigarette in hand, she looks into the eyes of co-star John Travolta as Danny Zuko.

Released almost 45 years ago and set in the 1950s, Grease remains part of the zeitgeist – with Newton-John’s now infamous makeover and final outfit central. Fans paid tribute on Twitter, with one writing that the outfit “has shaped my fashion style since I was about three” and another saying “the world changed” after seeing it. The piece is so recognizable that it is a popular choice for costume parties. Celebrities including Gigi Hadid, Jessica Simpson and Hailey Bieber have been Sandy for Halloween in recent years.

Its continued impact is thanks in part to the outfit’s place in the film. In the final scene, Sandy – previously painted as a square in the cute poodle skirts and pastel colors from the 1950s – is transformed into a “bad girl” in figure-hugging black and leather. “It seems to have a way of representing [the] dreams about everyone, says Oliver Gruner, who edited the 2019 book Grease is the Word. “[Sandy] transforms from a shrinking violet… [It’s an example of] just completely becoming a different character, remaking yourself.”

“It was very clear from the beginning that she had to change,” says Grease’s costume designer, Albert Wolsky. “The idea was easy because she had been so girly, so you had to go the other way – all tight and sophisticated.” While Wolsky made Newton-John’s outfits for most of the film, the infamous top and pants were purchased vintage. As Newton-John relays in her 2019 autobiography, the zipper was broken and she was sewn into her pants every morning. “They were so old and there was only one pair so there was no room for error,” she wrote. “A rip and disaster.”

But there has been feminist criticism of Sandy’s transformation, because it is she, not Travolta’s Danny, who changes – he shows up in a nerdy cardigan to show his love, but that is quickly abandoned when he sees the all-new Sandy. Colin Richmond, costume designer for the London stage show Grease the Musical, is uncomfortable with this element. “It feels wrong to me that someone should change themselves for another person to have their love,” he says. But, he says, it also has a dramatic effect. “Perhaps there is something so discordant and so opposite about Sandy’s final appearance that gives us a jolt. Perhaps that is all part of its greatness.”

Gruner says humor is all important. “You could read the last scene as her going from one stereotype to another [another],” he says. “[But] Newton-John plays that role with a heavy kilt stuck to his cheek… [The way] she looks to her friends for instructions on how to quit smoking, for example.”

Kate Bailey, senior curator at the V&A in London, who works on costumes, believes the outfit at the time was a glimpse into the future. “It throws us into the bold, powerful dressing of [the 1980s],” she says. “[The 70s] was a time when women wore pinafores and flares. [This outfit] marks a moment in Grease history, but it’s also a fashion statement. It’s really ahead of its time.”

The simplicity of the outfit—black pants, black top, red lipstick—has helped the staying power, says Bailey. “It’s so bold and classic and simple and sexy that a lot of people can wear it,” she says. “It’s so elegant and [anyone] can afford [replicate] it.” Wolsky says it was crucial that the transformation be total. “She had to have certain hair, make-up,” he says. “It’s all of a piece. If she had the same hair [as the rest of the film] and that costume, it wouldn’t work.”

Olivia Newton-John donned a headband and leotard for the video for her 1981 hit Physical.

Olivia Newton-John donned a headband and leotard for the video for her 1981 hit Physical. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After her death, other style moments from Newton-John’s career are likely to be rediscovered. The headband and leotard worn for her 1981 hit Physical will no doubt appeal to a generation raised on leisure, while the spacious disco look of the 1980 film Xanadu already has a cult following. But, says Bailey, “I don’t think it will ever eclipse Grease. It’s the character of Sandy. That costume, that moment, Danny’s reaction.”

Wolsky, a costume veteran whose career spans six decades, says it’s still part of his reputation. “It will be on my tombstone, that’s for sure,” he says. “I’ve done Sophie’s Choice, I won an Oscar for All That Jazz, but this is the one I’m known for.”

Newton-John auctioned the jacket and trousers for $405,700 (about £335,000) at Julien’s in 2019 to raise money for her cancer centre. The pants were purchased by Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, and are framed and displayed on the wall of the company’s offices. An anonymous fan bought the jacket and then returned it to Newton-John as a gift. “She called her jacket ‘baby’ and kept it throughout her career,” says Martin Nolan, managing director of Julien’s. He organized the surprise by returning the jacket. “She thought she was going to have a puppy [and] opened a big pink box, he says. “I have never heard such screams of joy.”

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