Grease: Olivia Newton-John is Squeaky Clean, Jellybean

The leading female character of Grease (1978), Sandy Olsen, played by Olivia Newton-John, is the character who wears the clothes most typified by fancy dress companies pertaining to sell costumes linked to the film.

Desperate to fit in at her new school, many of her clothes bear the ‘Rydell High’ logo in some way. Unfortunately for Sandy, she chooses ‘The Pink Ladies’ as her new best friends, the clique who find school far beneath their coolness. No wonder she is deemed by Rizzo as “too pure to be pink”.

We see this purity at the beginning of the film, where Sandy refuses to take her ‘Summer Loving’ with Danny a step further. Wearing a lilac hooded gym top and bikini bottoms, this is more revealing than her Rydell attire, but then again, this is the beach. We are immediately reminded of her warm, gentle nature as we are introduced to her flawless, delicate face, her sensible half-up in a ponytail angelic blonde bobbed hair and her voice full of sincerity. Further outfits in this montage, such as her virginal white terrycloth beach robe, echo this.

At all times über-girl-next-door Sandy looks lovely, arguably lovelier than The Pink Ladies, but she looks like the sweet young lady a mother-in-law would adore, particularly in her “first day at Rydell” gear. NOT a good way to fit in. She is like a 12 year old in her ‘just pressed’ white round-collared with embroidery button-front blouse, her white cincher, yellow full circle skirt (all that is missing is a poodle, which is not worn ONCE by Sandy in the film), little white flat pumps and a yellow cardigan slung over her shoulders.

She wears not a hair out of place, with two matching lemon floral barrettes either side, presumably to keep it out of her face for studying, ever sensible. Her neat, barely made-up face looks as if her mother has spat on a tissue and scrubbed at it. She holds her books protectively; obviously nervous about what is to come. From the moment she sits down with The Pink Ladies and talks about her ideas of love, it is obvious she could not be more different from them, and not only in appearance.

Possibly realising she has more in common with school goody-goody Patty Simcox, Sandy promptly joins the cheerleading squad. Ever a fan of the bobby sox and white plimsolls, Sandy sports these along with a white sweater with a huge red ‘R’ emblazoned on the front, cute red peter pan collar, red wide circle skirt, a red ribbon bow in her bouncy ponytail, and one red and one white pompom. She never looks more like a schoolgirl; as she grins widely her pride is evident, while The Pink Ladies pout away cynically.

Throughout the film Sandy sports the Rydell ‘R’ to highlight her happiness at belonging somewhere. Be it a red ‘R’ on her beige cardigan or a white ‘R’ on a short sleeve red blouse, her love of uniform perhaps hides insecurities and a need to conform to rules and regulations, compared to the Pink Ladies who have a confidence in their own style. But what they don’t realise is that they too are conforming to each other, albeit in a different way.

It is interesting that Sandy is often with Tom, the high school Jock, as she wears her ‘school’ garments, and some are borrowed from him as she sets about making Danny jealous. In those days, lending your ‘girl’ your sweater to keep warm was a way of showing that she was yours’. She is possibly also trying to impress Tom here, compared to the ‘rebellious’ Danny who couldn’t be more against school procedures.

These vast differences arise even more at Frenchy’s sleepover. Sandy wears what appears to be her Aunt Ethel’s nightgown, in a virginal white Broderie Anglaise style dress, starting with a ribbon at the neck and running right down to the floor. A white hair band tops off the ‘no sex for me’ look, in sharp contrast to the Pink Ladies’s scant night attire. Frenchy even tries to ‘beautify’ Sandy by piercing her ears, who can’t handle the blood loss and rushes to the bathroom.

Sandy is such a drip that Rizzo dedicates the song ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’ (a super sensible 50’s film star) to her. The song is full of references regarding her squeaky clean image. This prompts Sandy to rush outside and sing her beloved Danny (who only appears in her imagination; to the audience he ‘appears’ in the pond…) the love song ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ – ironic as she is wearing something so sexless, but to her, loving Danny is a romantic rather than sexual pleasure.

Sandy’s neckline becomes a little lower on her first date with Danny. In buttercup yellow, suitable as butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, the dress has a lightly-scooped round neck with a cutie bow in the middle and cap sleeves, of course with a big typically 50’s-style flared skirt. Ever sensible, she dons a thin white cardigan over her shoulders (picking up on the Pink Ladies’s style?).

It is appropriate that in the scene where Danny tries to make out with Sandy at the drive-in, she is dressed ready for what could be attending catholic school. In a peppermint green (ever the sweet girl) cashmere jumper with pristine white flouncy Peter Pan collar, a moss green wide skirt and her ever present white ankle socks and plimsolls, it is unsurprising that she is horrified at his advances.

She is such a cold fish she won’t let the pale green ribbon bow in her swingy ponytail move out of place. Her only ‘on-trend’ 50’s touch is the fact that her sleeves are slightly rolled-up. This disgust follows the sheer delight at Danny offering her his class ring…a huge gesture of commitment for American high school males, particularly in the 1950s.

Sandy’s loveliest outfit comes at the dance-off. In angelic white once again, she looks radiant and childlike rather than sexy, in an almost floor-length silk strappy full-skirted dress with a square neckline, pinched in at the waist with a delicate pink-lilac corsage and plenty of fanciful folds and ruffles. On arrival, she even wears a little white embroidered cape, covering most exposed skin on the top half of her body, but this is later discarded as her confidence builds (and her competition arrives) when she begins to dance, in a romantic rather than a raunchy fashion.

Her hair is combed within an inch of its life, half up with white decorative white flowers, and she wears white t-bar Grecian sandals – ironically worn by her total opposite and dance rival Cha-Cha in gold. She looks and feels like a princess.

Interestingly enough, the moment at Thunder Road when Sandy requests that Frenchy gives her a “new” look is a moment where she looks arguably the most wonderful, in a peach shirtwaist dress with short sleeves, full skirt and white embroidered Peter Pan collar. The pretty colour and style, along with the picturesque scenery and lighting makes her innocent blue eyes sparkle, her cream-puff skin look purer and her terrific silky blonde hair (bangs swept to side this time) look softer, which contrasts greatly with her sizzlingly sultry and sexy finale costume to follow.

When Olivia Newton-John emerged on set in an off-the-shoulder black cap sleeve sweater, genuine 50’s skin-tight black pants (chosen by the actress herself who was sewn into them), red killer mule-style heels (Newton-John’s own), a black leather jacket lined in red, collar turned up hep-style, thrown over her shoulder à la Pink Ladies, huge frizzed hair, jewelled hoop earrings and fiery red lips and nails, she wasn’t recognised by the crew of ‘Grease’, much to her and costume designer Albert Wolsky’s delight.

Her demeanour matches her clothes as she hitches her hands half-way into her back pockets to push out her chest, and sticks out her hip to one side. After the pure pastels, devilish black and red could not be farther removed from her old look, to portray a new naughty, red hot image. Certainly when she walks into shot, cracking gum with a new-found husky voice, she is no longer like a young girl and is every greaser’s fantasy.

But do the audience approve? Sandy certainly now seems a cool, collected character and a true Pink Lady, but this writer cannot help but ponder if this ‘bad gal’ makeover is not the real Sandy, and in any case, we love her because she is a little different. We are conflicted here because while we are thrilled that she is now accepted and happy with her man, there is a niggling disappointment that she felt the need to be a ‘sheep’ and follow the crowd, especially when Danny loved her for who she was anyway!

So, sweet Sandy or sexy Sandy? You decide.

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.