The Pigalle Gown

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Today we are welcomed by Superfan Jean-Francois into his Manhattan apartment to view this treasure of a glorious DSB gown!


He has just had the creation professionally restored



Here’s a report  of Jean-Francois’ fascinating experience from the 2003 auction:

“I have been a huge fan of Dame Shirley for many years. I have seen her many times in concert, always from the front row, and have a big collection of press cuttings, photographs and memorabilia going way back to the early days of her career.

When it was announced that Dame Shirley was to auction fifty of her stage gowns for charity I immediately contacted Christie’s in London. They sent a catalogue to my home here in New York, and after going through it I knew I simply had to get to London for the sale. I decided to bid, in person, for the Something dress (lot 32); a yellow sateen gown with cut-out paisley pattern shaped sections. It has always been one of my Dame Shirley favourites!

I made all the arrangements and before I knew it I was in London. I arrived the day before the sale and, due to a mix up with my invitation to attend, The Head of Special Events, Maria Estrada, had very kindly offered to personally show me around the viewing that day.

To see fifty of Dame Shirley’s gowns on display was truly breathtaking; some of them were being auctioned with the matching coats she is so famous for. Christie’s did a wonderful job with the display, everything beautifully lit and presented.

I was in for quite a surprise when Maria told me that Dame Shirley was actually giving a press conference at that moment in Christie’s and would be leaving shortly.

The next thing I knew Dame Shirley was walking toward me surrounded by her entourage. I just could not believe it when Maria stopped her and introduced me as “…a gentleman from New York who has come especially for the sale.” I will never forget that moment; Dame Shirley took my hand, looked into my face with such warmth and sincerity and said, “I really hope you get something.” By the way, she looked absolutely gorgeous, wearing the white pants suit from the Thank You for the Years CD cover. Believe or not, I ended up donating some money to charity to get the glass she had drank from during the press conference – complete with traces of Chanel lipstick!

The following evening I arrived promptly at Christie’s to attend the pre-sale cocktail party. Dame Shirley arrived in a beautiful full-length evening gown and really was the belle of the ball. “Give me a kiss!” she cried, after autographing my catalogue. She really was fantastic.

The sale was a wonderful, glamorous party. Five hundred of the most beautiful, elegant people. The champagne flowed and Dame Shirley really worked that room! She was on stage with the auctioneer and was as charismatic and dazzling as ever. I had decided, after actually seeing the dresses up close, to go for Lot 1 – The Pigalle dress; a shimmering, black gown that Dame Shirley first wore in 1965. Like many of her gowns it has been remodeled; it now has a slit to the hip, trimmed with black ostrich feathers which extend into a long train. The bidding started and I got to sixty-four hundred pounds. My lucky number is sixty-four and I could not stop myself shouting out to the auctioneer, “Sixty-four is my lucky number – bring the hammer down! The dress is mine!”

“Sold to the gentleman from New York,” the auctioneer announced. Dame Shirley blew me a big kiss and I called out; reminded her how, when wearing that dress, she had absolutely wowed them in Chile. She blew me even bigger kisses! For me, all of this was totally surreal.

The sale continued, each lot being snapped up one after another. Dame Shirley had a great time entertaining us. “I don’t have an orchestra!” she cried, when we called out for her to sing. But sing she did. She started out with Goldfinger, acting out with the auctioneer who pointed into the audience, announcing bids at the end of every line she sang. During the course of the sale she also sang Something, This is My Life, I Am What I Am and Diamonds are Forever. Her only accompaniment was her audience; we clapped and sang along with every line of every song.

The grand finale came with the last lot; the Diamond dress. The bidding on this lot was very high. When it reached thirty thousand pounds, Dame Shirley burst into tears. I called out to her, “Shirley, you are magnificent. We adore you!” The audience gave her a huge ovation and it was clear that she really was very touched. The dress finally sold for thirty-five thousand pounds. Dame Shirley then sang her final number, The Party’s Over.

Just like her concerts, the crowd did not want to leave. “How much for the dress you’re wearing?” I shouted to her. Before we knew it, bidding started on the gown she was wearing! It reached three thousand pounds before she cried out. “I can’t sell this – I haven’t paid for it yet! And I’m going out to dinner after this!”

Dame Shirley eventually said her good-byes. The people there, many of them friends and colleagues as well as fans, obviously adore her; she has enormous presence, as we all know, and enchants everyone around her.

The people at Christie’s were wonderful. When I paid for and collected the dress next day so many of the staff congratulated me and I was given a wonderful poster used to advertise the sale. It is actually a close-up of the Something dress, which I had originally planned to bid for. The auctioneer was there when I collected the dress and told me that I had actually been bidding against Christie’s for The  Pigalle dress; they had wanted to buy it to put on permanent display alongside a costume worn by Rudolf Nureyev. He also told me that if I ever wanted to part company with the gown that Christie’s would buy it back from me. Yes, sure! I told him that if he was nice enough I may let him try it on some time. He then went on to say that in all his years as an auctioneer he had never, ever seen a sale like that; five hundred people singing and having an absolute ball.

Dame Shirley’s La Pigalle dress had a seat all of its own right next to me on the flight back to New York – there was no way I would let it out of my sight! Once home, I examined the dress in great detail; it really is very beautiful and so heavy! It is lined with gold tissue and the lining of the train actually has a tear in it where Dame Shirley must have stuck her heel – I love that!

My trip to London took hardly 72 hours – I didn’t even have time to get jet-lag, but now that I have time to reflect, I can’t help thinking, “Not bad for a little boy from Montreal.”

Thank you so much Jean-Francois for sharing your adventure. That gown certainly went to a good home!


From Christie’s catalogue:

A glistening stage gown by Douglas Darnell, the black silk faille ground densely embroidered overall with vertical rows of black bugle beads, the skirt slit to the hip at one side, the flowing train and slit trimmed with deep layers of black ostrich feathers, lined in gold silk tissue.

(Bugle beads are small, tubular shaped glass beads which vary in length from 1/8″ to 30mm (1 1/4″) and are available in a wide variety of colors and finishes. Bugle beads are great in fringe.)

Weight: approx. 3.5kg

This gown has been adapted by Darnell since he first made it in 1960 from the original form of a simple column gown to which he added the ostrich feather to the hem, and later the side slit with further ostrich trim.

The photograph illustrated on the front cover of this catalogue shows Dame Shirley wearing this gown on stage at the Royal Command Performance, London Palladium, November, 1965. Other photographs show her wearing this gown previously during performances at the Pigalle Club, London, September, 1960. Subsequently it has been worn at various venues including the Royal Albert Hall in 1973, and during her Spring Tour, 1988. It also features on various 1960s album covers including: The Best of Bassey; Shirley Bassey As Long As He Needs Me; and Shirley Bassey Live At The Pigalle.

Dame Shirley recalls wearing this gown on stage at a key moment in Chile at a music festival in the 1970s. She told us:
“I wore this in Chile at a two day song festival. The first day they put me on at 2 o’clock in the morning. Those kids [in the audience] had been going since 7pm and were ready to rock. Then this woman comes on and starts singing ‘Goldfinger’…they weren’t interested at that hour. By the time I came to do my third song…it was in Spanish…because I could hear them wasn’t boo boo [she laughs] but the Spanish equivalent …I forgot my words and I was saying mumbo jumbo words…I was distracted and my show business voice in my head was saying “Get off before you get lynched” I came off and I cried…there was no consoling me and everyone thought “Oh tomorrow’s off” …But before I went to bed I said “Now this is how it goes. You want me to sing tomorrow. I want to go on first and I only want to sing three songs…this is how it’s going to be”. And I chose this dress…and they put me on first and I marched on …and they saw this leg .. [in defiant voice] and I did ‘Goldfinger’, I did the Spanish Song then I ended up with ‘This Is My Life’…there was huge applause…also because of what had happened the night before. The audience were cheering …the audience awarded the gong…I won…I would have got two if they’d put me on first the night before [laughs]. I would have been the only singer ever to have got two…so that’s the significance of this gown…”

Copyright: Christie’s