Sometimes a dress is more than just a dress. In its perfect form, a dress has the power to catapult unknown celebrities into the spotlight, to inspire generations of fashion designers and to fetch millions for charities at auction. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even be expensive, just worn with confidence.
These frocks might not carry lasting appeal like a Hoss Intropia or Philosohy by Alberta Ferretti dress, but they were in the right place at the right time, and that’s all that matters. Whether you love them or hate them, you can’t deny that these dresses are unforgettable.
Audrey Hepburn - Givenchy (1961)
The most iconic little black dress of all time. Audrey Hepburn wore this sleeveless, floor-length crepe dress in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The original Givenchy design had a long slit that revealed an inappropriate amount of leg, so the lower half was redesigned by Edith Head.
After Hepburn’s death in 1993, Hubert de Givenchy donated an original version of the dress to charity for auction. It was one of three designed for the movie, none of which were ever used in the film or promotional photography (the dresses Hepburn actually wore in the movie were destroyed after production). According to Christie’s, a second version of the dress lives in the Givenchy archivies in Paris, while the third is in the Museum of Costume in Madrid. Christie’s expected the dress to sell for £50,000 – £70,000 ($98,800 – $138,320), but it sold for a whopping £467,200 ($923,187). The winning sum was paid for by an anonymous phone bidder.
Elizabeth Hurley - Versace (1994)
Elizabeth Hurley wore this black Versace dress when she accompanied Hugh Grant to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994. “The Dress,” as it was referred to by media, catapulted Hurley from a no-name plus one to a global star. The Versace creation was such a hit that in 2007, Harrod’s sold a copy of it for £10,690 (about $16,000).
Princess Diana - David and Elizabeth Emanuel (1981)
Princess Diana’s taffeta confection is the most copied wedding dress of all time. Even today, designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel still receive requests for replicas of Diana’s ivory silk taffeta and antique lace gown. Valued then at £9000, the wedding dress had a 25-foot (7.62 m) train and was made up of six different fabrics, including 25 yards of taffeta, 100 years of crinoline and 150 years of netting for the veil.
Marilyn Monroe - William Travilla (1955)
The image of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate in this ivory halter dress has been described as one of the most iconic film moments of the 20th century. The dress only cost $200 to make, but in 2011 it sold for $5.6 million in a Beverly Hills, California auction. The sale shattered the previous record price for a Monroe dress: $1.26 million for her slinky “Happy Birthday” dress.
Bjork - Marjan Pejoski (2001)
Bjork wore this swan dress to the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001, where she pretended to lay an egg on the red carpet. Enough said.
Julia Roberts - Marilyn Vance (1990)
This dress transformed Julia Roberts from common prostitute to aristocratic girlfriend in Pretty Woman. Specifically, she wore it to the opera, La Traviata, which is about a prostitute who falls in love with a wealthy man. On the 20th anniversary of the movie, in 2010, Marilyn Vance told Elle Magazine that Western Costumes (the manufacturer that cut the pattern for the dress) still gets multiple requests from men who want the dress for their wives so they can recreate the whole scene.
Princess Diana - Christina Stambolian (1994)
On the day Prince Charles publicly admitted his affair with whatshername, Diana stepped out in this black silk dress. Known as the “Revenge Dress,” it was overly sexy, skimpy and made Diana look like a million bucks.
Jackie Kennedy - Chanel (1963)
Jackie wore this suit on November 22, 1963, the day her husband, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. It’s been called the most legendary garment in American history and an emblem of the loss of innocence. After JFK was assassinated, Jackie refused to take off the blood-stained suit. She wore it during the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson and during the flight back to Washington with JFK’s body. The still-stained suit is stored out of public view in the National Archives.
Geri Halliwell - Gucci and Geri Halliwell's Sister (1997)
Geri Halliwell wore this dress to the 1997 BRIT awards, where the Spice Girls were nominated for 5 awards and scheduled to perform. The Gucci mini dress she was supposed to wear was deemed “too boring,” so she asked her sister to sew a Union Jack tea towel to the front. The patriotic gesture made headlines the next day, but also a year later when the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas bought the dress for £41,320. Halliwell donated all proceeds to a children’s cancer charity.
Cher - Bob Mackie (1986)
Cher’s garish ensemble isn’t technically a dress, but because it has a loincloth I’m including it in this list. She wore this Bob Mackie monstrosity to the 1986 Oscars in protest of the dress-code memo that went out to nominees and members. She didn’t receive a nomination, either, which probably also influenced her choice of outfit. While presenting an award, she famously said, “"As you can see, I did receive my Academy booklet on how to dress like a serious actress."
Jean Harlow - Edith Head (1933)
Jean Harlow wore this white satin, bias-cut gown in the 1933 classic, Dinner at Eight. It was such a fashion hit that the style became known as “The Jean Harlow Dress.” But Harlow was probably the only one who had to be sewn into it, sans underwear.
Jennifer Lopez - Versace (2000)
J-Lo wore this silk chiffon Versace dress to the 42nd Grammy Awards in 2000. To keep the look PG-13, she wore nude body shorts underneath and kept it in place with double-sided tape. It’s currently on display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.