Grease (1978) has gone down in history as one of the most iconic movie musicals of all time. Part of what makes this film so magical, aside from the stellar acting and timeless songs, is the costume design. Led by costume designer Albert Wolsky, the outfits in this movie have become some of the most famous Halloween costumes and the most talked about ensembles in cinema.
When bringing to life to the style of 1950s high school students, Wolsky claims he first attempted to be realistic. After considering the absurdity of adults playing teenagers in the first place, he had a moment where he decided to ditch the attempt to be overly realistic. It was then that he said, "We just went mad with it." Each character in this movie took style cues from the 1950s but with a theatrical flair that made it perfect for film screens. From poodle skirts to leather jackets to frills, Wolsky brought to life every trend from that decade that you would want to see.
In order to put together the men's wardrobes for Grease, Wolsky used 1950s greaser subculture for reference. Greaser style during this era included heavily greased pompadour hairstyles, leather jackets, and work pants and jeans. All of these sartorial cues were incorporated into the film, especially for the male lead Danny Zuko (John Travolta). Danny is cited as one of the most famous representations of greaser culture in popular media.
This costume choice not only brought real-life 1950s culture into the movie, but it also spoke to the character wearing the clothing. Travolta brought to life a bad-boy character with a suave attitude, something that is further proven by the clothing he wears. Wolsky allows audiences to better understand these characters through their costumes. Danny Zuko's style became so iconic that it has been referenced and recreated countless times even today. Singer Harry Styles dressed as Danny just last year for his Halloween show!
Acting as the polar opposite to Danny, Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) embodied sweetness, innocence, and femininity. Sandy's wardrobe for the majority of the movie consisted of pastels, poodle skirts, cardigans, and bows. The styles and silhouettes of these ensembles reflected popular styles of the 50s, mirroring the character's affinity for abiding by the rules.
Throughout the film, Sandy's character undergoes a transformation from goody-two-shoes to a more risqué version of herself. The exaggeration of her innocent, feminine clothing allowed for a more dramatic transformation in the end, but it was revealed that Newton-John actually hated the preppy clothing she wore for the beginning of the film.
Source: Vogue France
For the end of the film and the iconic performance of "You're The One That I Want," Sandy unveils a new look, and it is the most legendary costume from the whole film. A far stretch from her old look, she stuns audiences and her classmates in an all-black skintight ensemble that reflected the change she has undergone throughout the movie. The pants that Wolsky acquired for this scene were actually from the 1950s, and because of a broken zipper, Newton-John had to be sewn into them before shooting.
With all of the praise this outfit received, it was also critiqued for showing a woman changing for a man. But museum costume curator Kate Bailey actually called this outfit a glimpse into the future. Being that the film was made in the 70s, popular women's fashion revolved around flairs and flowy silhouettes, and it wasn't until the next decade that women began wearing skintight clothing as a form of empowerment. This look was iconic not only as a plot point in the film but also as a fashion statement in a changing world.
Throughout Grease, Wolsky offers some of the most fascinating costumes of all time. Not only does the clothing tell a story of its own, but it perfectly reflects a campy version of the 1950s. The students of Rydell High School might not look exactly like the everyday teenager in that decade, but it gave audiences something to admire for decades to come.