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The enduring appeal of the 'Sex and the City' tutu

Sarah Jessica Parker is pictured in the tutu in the 2008 <em>Sex and the City</em> movie.
Collection Christophel/HBO/New Line Cinema/Alamy file
Sarah Jessica Parker is pictured in the tutu in the 2008 Sex and the City movie.

A tutu worn by Sarah Jessica Parker in the hit HBO TV series Sex and the City has sold at auction for $52,000 — over four times more than expected.

Made out of layers of white tulle and a satin waistband, the tutu became famous after Parker wore it with a pink tank top and strappy heels in the opening credits for the show, which originally ran from 1998 to 2004.

The auction house Julien's Auctions had expected the airy ballet skirt would fetch just $12,000. The sale this month came as part of the auction house's Unstoppable: Signature Styles of Iconic Women in Fashion Hits the Auction Runway sale.

In the Sex and the City opening sequence, the camera pulls back to reveal the skirt just as a bus splashes Parker's character, girl-about-town Carrie Bradshaw, with puddle water. "It was so good for that pie-in-the-face," Parker said in a 2018 interview for People of the contrast between the picture-pretty pastel outfit and the sudden, embarrassing dousing of its previously happy-go-lucky wearer.

According to the auctioneer's website, costume designer Patricia Field found the skirt in the $5 bin in a New York Garment District store.

"Parker's character was originally going to wear a spring 1998 Marc Jacobs runway dress in the opening credits, but Field wanted to style her in something that wasn't specific to the time so it wouldn't date fashion-wise. She showed the skirt to Parker who loved the idea," the website said.

"We talked a lot about what this should be — thrilled that was the decision we made," Parker said in the People interview. "I would never wear it myself personally. But it's spot on."

The tutu didn't fetch nearly as much money as other outfits presented at the auction. A black velvet Catherine Walker cocktail dress worn by Princess Diana and Princess Grace's 1961 Givenchy ensemble worn to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy both sold for $325,000.

Yet Sex and the City was known for its fashions, making 20-somethings fully conversant in the language of Manolo Blahnik, Prada and Fendi. And like many of the outfits Parker wore on the show, the tutu has gone on to develop quite an afterlife.

"While Sarah Jessica Parker had her handful of iconic outfits while playing Carrie Bradshaw during Sex and the City (read: Manolo Blahnik pumps, newspaper dresses, purple Fendi baguette bags), her number one, unforgettable, quintessential look was undoubtably her tiered white tulle skirt," wrote Samantha Holender in an article about the show's fashions for Us.

Articles have chronicled the in-depth history of the tutu, while it's inspired the runway trends of major fashion houses.

"After using it often at Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri brought tulle back in a big way in her first collection for Dior – and the frocks went on to be worn by some of the world's most famous red-carpet stars, including Jennifer Lawrence and Bella Hadid," wrote Harper's Bazaar's Amy de Klerk in a 2018 articleabout Sex and the City's key styles.

Knock-off versions of the skirt — as well as outfits inspired by it — can be found in abundance on clothing websites for prices ranging from less than $100 to more than $2,000. Replicas have beenauctioned off for charity. And the tutu has also outfitted drag queens and myriad Halloween costumes.

The skirt reappeared in the 2008 Sex and the City movie — when Bradshaw pulled the item from her closet and decided not to throw it out — as well as in the 2021 TV show reboot, And Just Like That, albeit in a longer, billowier version.

Parker reinvented the style in black as part of her debut LBD (Little Black Dress) fashion collection in 2016. And she donned a Carolina Herrera tutu dress worth more than $4,000 to a performance last year at the New York City Ballet.

"She channeled her inner Carrie Bradshaw," wrote Ruby McAuliffe in InStyle of Parker's look that night.

In an interview with NPR, Hal Rubinstein, author of the new book Dressing the Part: Television's Most Stylish Shows, attributed the lasting appeal of Sex and the City's most iconic fashion item to its relationship with dance — and its relative affordability.

"Dance has always had a close relationship with fashion, simply because it's the art that's closest to the celebration of the body. And for generations, young girls dreamed of being ballerinas. Both contributed to the tutu symbolizing both innocence and elegance," Rubinstein said.

"However, another reason for the tutu's surge is a simply pragmatic economics. Regardless of how many ready-to-wear runways it comes down, a tutu is cheap to acquire. It's not out of anyone's grasp. So to see the actress who, during Sex and the City's run, was regarded as the most stylish woman on television, wearing something so accessible every week guaranteed its success," he said.

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Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.