At Prada last year it sprang up covered with daisies, at Burberry it appeared as a stiff cranberry cocoon and on Miu Miu’s runway it materialised in the jewel-hued heavy duchesse satin that was part of Dior’s New Look nearly 70 years ago. But when Vivienne Westwood arrived at the New York Met Costume Institute’s punk-themed gala ball in her own design of floor-length opalescent-pink silk, it was confirmed: the opera coat is as versatile and dramatic as in its early-20th-century heyday. Indeed, this elegant cover-up has had a rich history of rediscovery and reinvention, so buyers have many vintage incarnations from which to choose.
With roots in the deshabille or boudoir-receiving gown of the 18th century, and distinguished by their voluminous fit and opulent, often embellished fabric, these coats are “dreamy and voluptuous” and “something to dazzle people with”, says fashion auctioneer Kerry Taylor. The silk-faille and goffering of belle-époque examples inspired Christian Lacroix, and both now fetch substantial sums. Clare Borthwick, a vintage couture specialist at Christie’s, estimates that a sortie de bal by Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895) might fetch £5,000-£10,000, and in 2012 a seven-year-old Lacroix coat from her house’s sale of the Daphne Guinness collection reached £11,875. Similarly, the oriental-influenced, embroidered, sloping-shouldered silhouette of Paul Poiret’s early-20th-century creations (one of which Atelier Mayer sold online for £2,500 in 2012) was revisited by Romeo Gigli 70 years on.
Oriole Cullen, acting senior curator of the V&A’s fashion collection, pinpoints the Gatsby era as a rich seam in the coat’s history: “There are some wonderful surviving pieces from the 1920s, although the beaded, metallic fabrics were very delicate as well as glamorous.” In Taylor’s June sale, a mid-1920s ivory muslin opera coat with bugle-beaded floral swags sold for £1,050, exceeding its estimate, while her December one included a c1924 Maison Worth green velvet example with shocking-pink beaded embroidery on its gold sleeves.
York-based entrepreneur Rebecca Holt bought a 1920s summer dusky-pink opera coat from vintage emporium Juno Says Hello, which she has worn to weddings over contemporary dresses and accessorised with an art‑deco platinum and diamond watch and white topaz and diamond drop earrings. For Holt, the appeal lies in the evocation of bygone glamour. “I receive a huge number of compliments. It is a thing of beauty that swirls around as I walk.” Current stock at her source includes a 1930s reversible black and green velvet coat for £550.
Opera coats can also be a canny investment, as art director Christina Moore, who recently scouted locations for Game of Thrones in Croatia, has found. She bought a Poiret-esque opera coat for £100 at Christie’s 20 years ago, which she wears for special occasions. Made of peony-patterned black satin, with oyster silk lining, a monogrammed internal pocket and an ermine collar, it could now fetch several times as much.
While Christie’s Borthwick advises clients to look for one of the great names – such as Schiaparelli, an example of whose work, in black wool with red leather lapels embroidered with turquoise beaded flowers, was auctioned in November – Taylor points out that unlabelled pieces can be bought at auction from as little as £200.
It is vital, however, to seek out coats that haven’t been altered, but this is less of a problem than with other vintage pieces, as the sweeping, loose cut suits all shapes. One glance at the round-shouldered, bracelet-sleeved black-silk taffeta Christian Dior swing coat available for $895 from US dealer Bustown Modern at 1stDibs, or at the exquisite egg-shaped apricot silk-taffeta and georgette 1950s Nina Ricci opera coat hanging in Florence’s Recollection by Albrici for €800, and it’s immediately clear how the scene-stealing cover-ups could slip over myriad styles of dress.
“Wearing that kind of volume, cut or strong colour with panache makes a statement about the owner’s taste and confidence,” says William Banks-Blaney, founder of WilliamVintage in Marylebone. He, together with couture dealer Cameron Silver, founder of US boutique Decades, cites Balenciaga as the dream designer for opera coats. In Banks-Blaney’s Diptyque-scented treasure trove is a c1952 Balenciaga black double-faced silk-taffeta example for £3,375. Alongside are a c1958 Dior one in raspberry silk for £2,375 and a black satinised-cotton 1960s Hardy Amies coat with a cream silk lining and wide, stand-up collar for £975. And Silver has a black-faille Givenchy haute-couture opera coat ($2,200) that can only be described as ravishing.
Banks-Blaney can sometimes be coy about individual pricing, but says that opera coats start at £400-£500, rising to several thousand for couture pieces. Such, however, is the precise calibration of the market that Parisian dealer Didier Ludot – who has a dark-green velvet Jean Desses and a faille Balmain in stock, both from the mid-1950s – refuses to give prices except in person.
Banks-Blaney sources his opera coats all across the globe, from Palm Beach to Waiheke Island. But with a boom in manufacturing as well as money spent on Paris imports in the 1950s, the US is a fertile hunting ground for vintage buyers. 1stDibs provides a showcase for a number of estimable American dealers. Currently, Timeless Vixen has a rose-print satin coat and matching cocktail dress for $800, Park Avenue Couture has a black and gold brocade metallic coat for $550 and Torso Vintages has a pink satin babydoll coat by Italian designer Sarmi for $1,200.
“Opera coats were an opportunity for couturiers to put their skills on display,” says Taylor. “The moment you step on the pavement, you’ve got the wow factor.”