The Search for John Travolta’s White Suit

Now remembered as one of the most iconic costumes in cinema history, the white 3-piece suit worn by John Travolta as Tony Manero in the 1977 film, Saturday Night Fever, has been discovered in London by the Victoria and Albert museum, following a four-year search.

The suit will now be included in the V&A’s major autumn exhibition: Hollywood Costume which will celebrate a century of film-making. Senior Guest Curator of Hollywood Costume, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, set her sights on including the suit for the exhibition back in 2008 whilst gathering together memorable costumes. She discovered that Paramount Pictures had auctioned it for charity in 1979 where US film critic Gene Siskel had been the buyer. At the auction, the suit was inscribed by John Travolta on the interior lining with the words ‘To Gene, so here’s to a classic, your friend, John Travolta.’ After Siskel passed away in 1995, it was then auctioned by Christie’s, after which the trail went cold.

Finally, after a high-profile media launch for Hollywood Costume at the V&A in January 2012, the museum received a phone call from the current owner revealing the white suit’s London location and offering it for the exhibition. The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, was the long sought buyer from the 1995 Christie’s auction. The white polyester two-button single-breasted suit with wide jacket lapels, matching waistcoat, and 28-inch waist white flared trousers is accompanied by the original black single-cuff shirt with pointed collar.  The lining inscription to Gene Siskel is still visible.

Designed by Patrizia Von Brandenstein, the costume became an emblem for the film and for the disco decade. The film’s director John Badham asked Von Brandenstein to shop locally in Brooklyn for the “perfect” suit for Tony Manero. She remembers throngs of girls screaming outside the shop for Travolta, then the star of a hit US television series, Welcome Back Kotter.

Badham and Travolta originally assumed that they would use a black number for the final dance scene, only to be convinced by Von Brandenstein to use white. She had two reasons for insisting on the colour; she felt strongly that white represented Tony Manero’s personal journey from ignorance to enlightenment and it ensured that the suit would reflect the dazzling lighting effects in the dark discotheque.

Patrizia Von Brandenstein commented: “When choosing what goes in to such a major dance costume, I paid attention to the usual factors of cut, “danceability” and maintenance and I thought about the character of Tony Manero. By virtue of his style, panache, and above all his lithe grace on the dance floor, he is a hero to his local gang, and by extension, to all of us.  Heroes from Sir Lancelot to Tom Mix wore white in the great contests to express purity and single-minded devotion to the task at hand. So for me, white was the only choice.”

The suit can be seen this autumn alongside more than 100 of the most notable costumes from a century of film-making. Hollywood Costume, sponsored by Harry Winston, opens at the V&A on 20 October 2012.

For further information and tickets, please visit:  www.vam.ac.uk/hollywoodcostume or tel: 020 7907 7073.

Image by V&A.

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