John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever suit up for sale – with ‘authentic’ sweat marks | John Travolta #John #Travoltas #Saturday #Night #Fever #suit #sale #authentic #sweat #marks #John #Travolta

It’s one of film’s iconic images: a smouldering John Travolta, in a white three-piece suit, lapels licking the shoulders, raising his right arm on a glowing dancefloor.

And now, the white polyester outfit from Saturday Night Fever – the 1977 chronicle of the dying days of disco – could be yours for a quarter of a million dollars.

The suit, which was bought for $100 off the rack from a small menswear shop in Brooklyn, New York, is expected to sell at auction for close to $250,000.

Designed by Leading Male, the jacket, matching waistcoat and 28in-waist flared trousers will go under the hammer at Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles, along with the black polyester shirt worn with the suit, a bespoke slimline mannequin – and Travolta’s 45-year-old sweat marks.

Publicity still from Saturday Night Fever showing Travolta in the street wearing a white suit.
Travolta had two identical suits for filming Saturday Night Fever. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

“The sweat is how you know it’s authentic,” said Martin J Nolan, the executive director of Julien’s Auctions, which acquired the suit from an anonymous collector who had been given it by the film’s director, John Badham, in 1991.

Travolta had two identical suits for his role as Tony Manero, and would rotate them between scenes while one dried out.

“It was incredibly hot during filming, so you can still see the sweat marks around his waist [on the suit to be auctioned],” Nolan told the Guardian. “We never wash memorabilia. People want the stains, the DNA, particularly when a suit like this one hasn’t been auctioned before.”

Buyers would pass up the opportunity of owning memorabilia if it had been cleaned, he added, noting that in 2008, a tissue used by Scarlett Johansson sold for $5,300 on eBay.

Travolta’s suit was chosen by the costume designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein for its authenticity. The film had a budget for bespoke costuming, but it was felt that Manero, a 19-year-old working-class Italian-American character, could not have afforded an expensive suit. “Dancing was his escape, his life raft, and this suit embodied that,” Nolan said.

During filming, the black polyester shirt was sewn into the trousers to allow for Travolta to pose without baring his stomach. “When choosing what goes in to such a major dance costume, I paid attention to the usual factors of cut [and] danceability,” Brandenstein told the V&A Museum, which displayed one of the suits in 2012.

That a $100 suit could go for more than $200,000 was indicative of what Nolan described as an “all-time high” in these sorts of estate sales and auctions of memorabilia, which have become full-blown cultural events. Last year, Joan Didion’s estate made almost $2m, including $27,000 for a pair of Celine sunglasses. A few months later, an auction of the late Vogue editor André Leon Talley’s possessions raised $1.4m.

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“We can never predict which sales will take off,” said Elizabeth Seigel, the head of private and iconic collections at Christie’s, which oversaw the Talley sale. “But it tends to be objects that are most closely associated with them rather than the highest value ones. We use conservative estimates – as if the object belongs to you and me – and that way, you see what really matters to people. In the case of Mr Talley, it was the monogrammed Louis Vuitton luggage.”

Nolan cited the pandemic as one reason for high prices. In 2020 a sale of Doris Day’s possessions predicted to go for $600,000 made $4m. “I guess people couldn’t go to restaurants but they could go down memory lane,” he said. “People began seeing this stuff as an alternative investment, a tangible asset.”

Seigel agreed: “These sales tell stories of individuals through their objects and this increases their value in ways you can’t foresee.”

Younger buyers are also getting wise to the idea of buying memorabilia while someone is alive. “Once they’ve gone, that item can go for five times higher and it becomes a blue chip,” Nolan said. Equally, celebrities have become so canny at commodifying themselves, memorabilia is the next logical conclusion. “They know how to market themselves and we learn how to market their stuff,” he said.

Julien’s Auctions was founded in Beverly Hills 20 years ago, when celebrity memorabilia was considered “junk”. Julien’s sold the memorabilia, Sotheby’s sold the jewellery, Nolan said. The auction house sold collectibles from Barbra Streisand, Cher, Angela Lansbury, and most famously, Marilyn Monroe’s “nude dress”, which the star wore when she sang Happy Birthday to John F Kennedy.

The dress sold for a record $4.81m in 1999; Monroe had bought it for herself for $1,400 when she was 36. The same dress made headlines last May when Kim Kardashian wore it to the Met Gala, where she allegedly damaged it. Nolan said this was not true. “She put it on at the bottom of the step, took it off at the top and wore a stole where she couldn’t quite do it up,” he said. “If anything, it made it twice as famous. If we were to auction it now, it would go for $10m.”

One of the more common reasons an estate or collector will sell something is to cover medical bills. In 2008, Julien’s had lined up an auction with Michael Jackson for the following year. “But at the last minute they decided it wasn’t going to go ahead because he was coming back to perform, so he didn’t need to have an auction,” Nolan said.

After the singer’s death that same year, they assumed the auction would happen, but it never did. According to Nolan, this was because “they wanted to allow the children to be old enough to see what they want”. The contents of Jackson’s Neverland estate remain in storage.

Nolan is confident Travolta’s suit will surpass all estimates. Christie’s sold the other one at auction for $145,000 in 1995, far exceeding the estimate after a bidding war in which Jane Fonda’s partner, Ted Turner, lost out. At the time, Deney Terrio, Travolta’s dance teacher for Saturday Night Fever, said he thought the sale “went a little high”.

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