What......Wednesday - The Athena Tennis Dress

What........a cheek!

This week we look back of one of Fieldings Auctioneers 'cheekiest' moments when we were asked to handle arguably one of the most famous dresses of the 20th Century! The dress achieved notoriety after an image of it being worn, taken by the late Martin Elliott, was printed by Athena going on to sell more than two million copies.

There aren't many people of a 'certain age' that won't instantly recognise the now famous image of a young lady walking towards the tennis nets in the summer sunshine, racket in one hand while the other lifts her skirt to reveal, well we all know the image!

Growing up during the 1980s simply wasn’t the same unless your bedroom wall was adorned with posters of your favourite TV, music or film stars, and whilst most of the pop culture posters we chose to cover our wallpaper with were deemed to be acceptable by our occasionally overbearing parents, this was one image in particular that was considered to be a little more risque.

The Tennis Girl poster, which went on to sell an impressive two million copies and is still regarded as something of a pop culture classic, shows an 18-year-old girl who we now know to be a lady called Fiona Butler walking towards a tennis net.

The image was captured by photographer Martin Elliott back in 1976 at the University of Birmingham’s tennis courts, and the photo’s subject, Fiona Butler, was his girlfriend at the time.

Butler’s tennis dress was made by her friend Carol Knotts who also supplied the racket. The plimsolls meanwhile were borrowed from Butler’s dad, and the tennis balls strewn on the ground belonged to her family’s pet dog!

The photo first featured as part of Athena’s 1977 Silver Jubilee calendar, the tennis theme featuring because it was the year that Britain’s Virginia Wade won the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon.The following year Athena starting selling the image as a £2 poster, and it became one of the best selling posters of all time!

Fast forward to 2014 and this is where Fieldings Auctioneers became involved in the story. One evening during the view of our monthly sale a good friend of Ms Knotts approached us and told us the tale of 'the dress' and its where abouts and asked if we would be interested in speaking to her. Obviously we jumped at the opportunity, as stories like this don't come along every day.

A meeting was arranged and Carol came in to see us with a copy of the poster, the racket used in the shoot and most importantly the dress. On speaking with Carol she filled in the back story of this now iconic dress!

'I used to get a monthly allowance from my parents and in order to make it stretch that little bit further, I made my own clothes. As I played tennis at the local club in Stourbridge, I bought a 'Simplicity' pattern and made my own dress, complete with lace trim.

Fiona was a friend and one day asked if she could borrow my dress and racquet. When she returned them, she gave me a big box of chocolates as a thank you. I've had the dress tucked away in a cupboard for all those years. It's a little piece of tennis history and I hope someone might find it an interesting novelty item to buy.'

How do you value such an item? In our job values and appraisals are based on past results, experience and of course gut instinct. In this case though there was nothing to compare it too? No benchmark what so ever.....so after much consideration we decided a pre-sale auction estimate of £1000 to £2000! Carol was more than happy and actually suggested that the whole process would be fun! The final master stroke was dreamt up by Nick Davies who suggested that we offer it on the same day as the Ladies Final at Wimbledon! 

The scene was set, the dress pressed, the catalogue done, it was time! Little did we know what would happen! As with so many of our finds and great tales we sent the story off to a press agency who then send them on to the relevant news bodies......within a few hours the phone started to ring and didn't stop right up until the day of the sale. Firstly the local press found the story and the newspapers featured it, then the local radio stations picked it up and then the regional TV news channels, from there the story just grew and grew and grew! 

We followed the stories progress not only across the country but also around the world as one by one the story of the little white dress travelled around the globe! It captured the imagination of so many who had grown up probably with that image on their walls! From as far away as India, the Far East and Australia people were once again talking about that cheeky image! 

Requests for a condition reports flooded in and soon the bids began coming in thick and fast. We were left with a huge number of commission bids and then there were the requests for a telephone bid! Soon we had reached our maximum and the phone lines were all booked, the bids were all in and it was sale day!

As the lot came round it was a glorious saleroom moment! We often say that a good bidding battle is like a good game of tennis and on the day Nick took to the rostrum like the best umpire Wimbledon had ever seen! Running up to the lot the room was packed as a huge number of people turned out to see what this simple, home made little white dress would fetch! 

Silence please.....service! And we were off! A wonderful volley of bids rained down on the rostrum as Nick took bids from the floor, a number of bidders in the room hoping to secure something that had been such an integral part of their youth! Soon the room was out bid and attention moved to the telephone lines....and this is where the fun really began! One by one the phones dropped out and it became a bidding battle between two parties! One of the bidders was actually a man on a fishing trip with his son who was on the phone from his boat in the middle of a lake, to add to that his signal wasn't great! Everytime the member of staff asked 'would you like to bid?' it was followed by....'I'm sorry sir, I can't hear you....can you repeat that!'

On the other line was an anonymous bidder, well anonymous to everyone except the staff at Fieldings Auctioneers! We had been sworn to secracy.....the rally played out as bids were smashed backwards and forwards between the two bidders...

£5000 - forehand

£6000 - backhand

£7000 - backhand ground stroke....

Slowly but surely the price rose and the room fell ever more silent as people watched the bidding played out between the two phones!

£15,000 - to the man on the fishing boat - 'Would you like to bid?' a hesitation followed by a yes....

£15,500 - to the anonymous bidder - 'Would you like to bid?' Overhead smash, instant reply, 'YES'

Our poor bidder in the boat was out.....GAME, SET & MATCH! 

From a £1000 starting price this home made dress had realised £15,500! But who was the bidder, everyone wanted to know but we were tight lipped and couldn't reveal their identity! 

A few weeks later the dress was delivered to its new home with a further request for our continued discretion! Then finally all was revealed! The dress had been bought by The All England Lawn Tennis Club to become part of their permanent exhibition in their museum at Wimbledon!

It was without doubt the best outcome that we could have hoped for and Carol was delighted to hear the news!

This remains one of the most fun, most exciting and most talked about items we have ever handled! The story travelled around the globe however I think one of our lasting memories was seeing it reported in the Indian Times where the image of Fiona had been pixellated to spare anyone the blushes!

Do you own anything iconic that has featured either in a film, on TV or became world famous? We'd love to hear your story and see the item! Weird or wonderful, we really don't mind! Email info@fieldingsauctioneers and we'll share the most famous finds with everyone!

See below just a few of the top news links which covered the story at the time! 








Posted on 29 April 2020 in: Auction life

News story

Meet our people

Louise Powell
Saleroom Assistant

Contact Louise

Be in the know

Sign up for auction email alerts so you never miss another sale at Fieldings!

Register now