The Genteel
April 17, 2021


A US one dollar bill signed by Andy Warhol sold for £8,125. Source: Photograph by Paul Grover.
Madonna's cone corset by Jean Paul Gaultier.
Source: Photograph by Paul Grover.

World renowned auction house Christie's of South Kensington put 154 key pieces of twentieth century music, movie and fashion memorabilia up for auction on November 29, selling 81 per cent of lots offered and fetching a total of £652,950. These included a bamboo cane used by Charlie Chaplin (sold for £6,875), a US one-dollar bill signed by Andy Warhol (£8,125), Madonna's infamous Jean Paul Gaultier-designed conical corset (£32,450) and an Omega watch worn by Pierce Brosnan in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies (£10,625). All of the items stand as symbols of a century that rewrote the rulebook on how music, movies, fashion and mass media were combined to transform the course of Western cultural discourse. 

"We've memorabilia from every decade since the 1900s," Christie's junior specialist in pop culture, Caitlin Graham, recently told British Vogue. "The idea of being able to own something so tangible with such a close connection to the rock star who wore it at a particular moment in time, as well as being able to see documentation and photographs of that moment, is really appealing to collectors."

The selection of props, photos, original artwork and personal items represented every decade of cinematic, music and fashion history from the past century. The sale incorporated the game-changers of a century that accelerated a sense of freedom in expression, creativity and groundbreaking individuals. Lot 30, a Chinese dancing costume worn (sold for £3,750) by Anna-Mae Wong in Daughter of Shanghai (1937), recognised the significance of the actress who overcame Hollywood practice during a period in which white actors were being cast to play Asian roles. Wong was the first and one of the leading Asian-American movie stars in the 1920s through to the late 1930s. 

 A flamboyant lace-up sleeveless jumpsuit of pearl white velour, embellished all-over with silver metal poppers backed by transparent sequins worn by Jagger for the Stones' 1972 US tour sold for £20,000. 

The golden era of Hollywood witnessed the highest prices with two 1940s artworks, one for Disney's Pinocchio and the other a studio portrait of Ava Gardner, selling for £43,250 each. As for the defining decade of the century, the 1960s were represented by two symbols of the creative splurge that emanated from the hub of Swinging London. Five middle class boys from England, otherwise known as The Rolling Stones, somehow channeled the spirit of the American Deep South to produce a spine tingling sound cloaked in the devil's own music. With a whirligig of mannerisms reminiscent of a Native American shamen, front man Mick Jagger provided the focal point on which maverick designer Ossie Clark could work his magic. Clark's flamboyant lace-up sleeveless jumpsuit of pearl white velour, embellished all-over with silver metal poppers worn by Jagger for the Stones' 1972 US tour sold for £20,000. 

Madonna came along in the '80s to blast a hole in the good ship of patriarchy with music and an attitude that destroyed the assumption of passive femininity. The material girl used her sex, business sense and a batch of catchy pop tunes to turn the tables on the white male hegemony over the musical levers of power. Lot 153 was a couture corset in green silk with conical cups and beaded fringe, embroidered with candy stripes of opalescent sequins and peppermint bugle beads. Designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, and famously worn by Madonna during the Blond Ambition tour, the corset sold for a whopping £32,450 - over double the estimated price and, according to Christie's, a "world record price for a Madonna costume at auction."

The century that saw two world wars, a man on the moon and the birth of the Internet has indeed left its mark on history. It was a period of enormous social, economic and political upheaval that was gilded by a litany of golden moments in music, film and fashion. With the digital age still in its infancy, the world is in the process of chrysalis adapting to new forms of communication technology that is again transforming how the big wheel keeps turning. So while Kim Kardashian (and family) may have made an energetic early pitch, the twenty-first century still has a long way to go to make a similar impact.



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