John Travolta’s white suit to star in the Victoria and Albert Museum
The most famous white suit in the world, a classic example of the finest 1970s polyester tailoring, has been tracked down by the Victoria and Albert Museum after an international search.
The three-piece suit was as much a star of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever as John Travolta who played Tony Manero, or the Bee Gees, who provided the soundtrack for the story of a young man who disco-dances his way out of the ghetto.
Bought off the peg in a cheap men’s clothes store in Brooklyn, the suit was last seen in public 17 years ago, when it was sold at a Christie’s auction to an anonymous bidder for $145,000 (£93,000), three times the top estimate. The curators of this autumn/winter’s exhibition on Hollywood costume were determined to find it and put out an international appeal. To their surprise it has turned up in London, in immaculate condition, and the owner has agreed to lend it to the museum.
The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous but has let slip his age, is not a collector. He said: “I was nine years old when Saturday Night Fever came out and before seeing the film I had already fallen in love with the legendary soundtrack.
“The ritual of [Travolta's character] choosing his clothes to go out at night, in a world of his own and disconnected from the reality of his life, particularly resonated with me. It was the first film I really loved, and in essence it was part of my own rite of passage … When I saw the suit on sale, I wanted to buy it because of what it represented to me personally.”
Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a designer and historian of film costume – her own credits include Michael Jackson’s Thriller video and Raiders of the Lost Ark – is senior curator of the exhibition. She said: “Saturday Night Fever was actually a very dark little movie, and this suit, made of completely gross polyester, was the shining light, the symbol of aspiration and hope that shone in the film in that heart-stopping moment when it all comes together, the music, the lights, the suit, and Travolta dances in it.
“It took me totally by surprise. I fell completely in love with him, as everyone who sees the movie does.”
The broad lapels, tight waistcoat and high-waisted flared trousers – a 71cm (28in) waist which Travolta could never get into these days – have been endlessly imitated. But there is no doubt that this is the genuine article. The curators have already been to inspect it, and found conclusive proof in the actor’s handwriting.
It was first auctioned in 1978 for charity, when the American critic Gene Siskel, who listed Saturday Night Fever as one of his favourite films of all time, paid $2,000. The actor signed it and the inscription is still faintly visible in the lining: “So here’s to a classic, your friend, John Travolta.”
Originally the character of Tony Manero was to strut in a black suit, but white was the inspired choice of the film’s costume designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein. “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 for the suit.”
She went shopping in Brooklyn where the character lived, with the director John Badham, and Travolta – who was then starring in a hit television series, Welcome Back, Kotter. As word spread that he was in the neighbourhood, screaming mobs descended on the small clothes shop where he was trying on the suit, beating on the windows and pleading with him to come out.
Nadoolman Landis said buying it off the peg was a piece of genius: “Even in a low-budget movie like Saturday Night Fever, they could have found the money to make Tony a suit – but the fact that it was bought from an ordinary shop that anyone could go into gave it a great truth, exactly the sort of garment somebody from his background would see and long to own.”
Brandenstein actually bought several suits, two to dance in, and two that had to be turned up at the hem for Travolta’s much shorter stunt double. The other suit worn by Travolta was stolen from an exhibition in the US, so Nadoolman Landis had almost abandoned hope of including the item in the VA show, which includes costumes worn by characters including Pirates of the Caribbean’s Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Darth Vader.
“The costumes in this exhibition are so powerful that each has its own soundtrack which the visitor will hear in their heads – but even in this company the white suit is special,”? “It is the Turin shroud, the closest an ordinary mortal can come to the body of the actor.”
• Hollywood Costume, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 2012 to January 2013
Category: Art News