Diana: Her Fashion Story

On the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I had the chance to see the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition at Kensington Palace as a guest of our auditors. This included a talk by Claudia Williams the exhibition’s curator.

Diana exhibition Kensington Palace Claudia Williams
Claudia speaks about the exhibition

Held in the former home of Princess Diana we were treated to an explanation of Diana as a charismatic cultural force, using the clothes she wore to speak volumes. This set of photographs introduces the exhibition and encapsulates  the transformation of her appearance, role and character throughout her brief reign as “the People’s Princess”. The dresses wore in these photographs tell the story of Diana, through her clothes. Let’s have a look at what it all means.

The changes face of Diana

Many of the outfits she is wearing in these photographs are brought together in the exhibition. Other reviewers have complained that there are not many dresses on display, and the cost of the exhibition (about £20). But each of these dresses captures a moment in her personal history and evolution and provided me with lots of food for thought.

Take the first photograph – the picture from the Balmoral honeymoon. Even though Diana was young, naive and tall (that is why she is sitting on the fence), she was nevertheless so fresh and beautiful. Her soft, natural colouring, her blooming complexion and elegant limbs made the dullest dress look marvellous. On the stand it was close to horrid. The curator explained at this point, as a teenager in Norfolk Diana had very little experience of high fashion. Her own formal wardrobe consisted of one evening dress, one blouse and a solitary pair of shoes. If she needed anything else she borrowed from her sisters or friends. She initially took advice from her mother about what she might wear in her new role, and her sisters employed a stylist from Vogue, Anna Harvey, to give Diana some help on putting a wardrobe together.

The second photo of Diana in the line up is in a 1985 Victor Edelstein, midnight blue velvet dress. Travolta, egged on by Nancy Reagan, eventually asked Diana to dance, having checked out her ability on the dance floor. In the end they danced for half an hour, including to “You’re the One I Want”.  He described this dance as the high point of his life. Edelmann describes a good dress as one that makes the wearer look wonderful rather than attract interest in the dress itself. In some ways the dress itself just sits there. As she dances, even in a still, the skirt swirls out and looks fantastic in motion.

The third photograph is from the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Here is the Catherine Walker dress – on and off. In life, in motion, it is radiant and stunning. Silver pumps, statement earrings, blue eyeliner and the scarf artfully tied at the back. On display it was quiet, eau de nil, flattened and something short of stunning.

Next up is the Elvis Dress. On the stand this dress was sensational. The narrowness of the skirt, achieved with a long back split,and the upright feature collar make the dress appear, on its own, to be about six feet tall. At 5’10” Diana was tall for a woman, with siim hips and impressive shoulders. In light cream, enhanced by pearl encrustations, this is, to my mind, the absolute epitome of a Modern Princess dress. Perfect for Diana’s figure, it looks amazing with and without the short jacket. Everything works wonderfully, esecially with the heavy choker and neat, low heeled evening shoes. And of course a tiara will set off any dress! I was so happy to see this dress close up. Worth going tor this alone although it is in the V&A collection. Here is the story of the dress:

Diana supported many London-based designers, such as Catherine Walker, the couturière from whom Diana ordered this ensemble. Walker first provided clothing for Diana during her first pregnancy in 1981, and continued to do so until Diana’s death in 1997. This outfit, which Diana called her ‘Elvis Dress’, was worn by the Princess to the British Fashion Awards in October 1989 and then on an official visit to Hong Kong.
In 1997, Diana sold 79 dresses in a charity auction held by Christie’s, which raised over 3 million pounds for AIDS and cancer charities. This dress was bought by The Franklin Mint, a company which produces memorabilia such as a portrait Diana doll, featuring her wearing this dress, thus making it one of the best-known of Diana’s many outfits.

The next image of Diana is of her in a pink suit. The whole concept of a pink suit is of course fascinating, not least because Jackie Kennedy had already “owned” the look. The juxtaposition of the “pink” with “suit” is almost an oxymoron. A suit is men’s wear, city wear, job wears. Pink is feminine, evening wear, night wear. A woman in a pink suit is not trying to be one of the boys – nor is she ultra feminine with flounces and frills and a romantic look, as favoured by the young Diana. In fact Diana’s own inclination for feminine looks was dropped along with her husband and princessy roles. As she separated from Charles she wanted, or was persuaded, to reinvent herself as the humanitarian leader. And the pink suit signified the transition. This is a business suit, but the wonderful shade of light shell pink makes Diana look completely radiant and happy. This pink lights up her skin and emphasises her natural freshness. The shape of the suit is flattering, modest, tidy and business-like, with sufficient detail to make it special. The lovely 1940s collar and cuffs, the interesting button stand, the prominent, shiny but restrained buttons, plus elegant princess lines giving wonderful shaping around the bust, waist and hips. This suit really did the business.

Finally let’s turn to the last Catherine Walker evening dress, featured at the start. I am a fan of this shape of dress on Diana which make the most of her figure, especially in terms of the neckline. The narrow, but widely placed straps straps amazing with her square  shoulders and the bodice creates a slight corset effect. She shows just a hint of a great cleavage and her hips and legs are celebrated. This neckline is chosen again and again for evening wear as it is her very best look – framing her face, and making her figure look stunning. But choosing the most simple shapes, but in this case heavily embellished fabric, Diana shows absolute body and wardrobe confidence. Her shapely calves in shiny tights and subtly shaped gold satin shoes need no handbag, hat, gloves or other fussy royal trimmings. She doesn’t have a court, a crown or even a husband. But she looks radiant and in control.




24 Responses

  1. Lisa

    Very timely. I’m taking my daughter to this exhibition today. I’m not a royalist or interested in gossip or conspiracy theories but I love pretty dresses! I’m looking forward to it.

  2. eimear

    I always liked that last dress – it seems to portray a modern woman – and everything about that look was so stylish and she owned it – she really could wear clothes so well – thanks for the review as dont think I will get to see this exhibition

  3. Jenny (the lilac cat)

    Thanks for this. I feel I was there! But what a treat it beats the normal corporate events of cricket or rugby…..

    It’s interesting how the wearer brings out the glamour of the outfit – the pink suit looks quite middle aged to me but on Diana it lifts it completely. But I always thought the Elvis dress stunning, or rather the jacket that sets it off. If I were Diana I would be quite sad only to be able to wear it a couple of times….

  4. Elaine Sabin-Simpson

    Couldn’t stand her, or the media hype surrounding her life and death, but some of her clothes were cool. This is a great article though Kate, and well-chosen images to complement the story.
    Very interesting

  5. jay

    Thanks for treating us to a snapshot of this exhibition, such beautiful clothes. She was a complex personality, put into a very difficult situation at a young age.

  6. Dagmar

    I love your line of “she doesn’t have a court, a crown or even a husband. But she looks radiant and in control”. How wonderful that fashion allows us to so successfully define in a visual sense how we wish to be perceived by others. I think that there is an incredible lesson in this and one that you detail regularly with your fashion and colour analysis posts.
    I wonder how she would have dressed herself had the minimalist 90″s not come about as the stripped down fashion ethos really suited her. I still think with horror at the prim and proper maternity wear complete with bows, ruffles and pastel colours that she had to endure and which looked terrible on her Amazonian frame. I remember being so disappointed at her wedding dress which even though I was quite young seemed to my eyes to engulf her and overwhelm her (literally, as it was miles too big on her). My favourite photos of her are the ones featuring her hair slicked straight back and with the classic square cut bodice and slim lower half, whether in a skirt or in trousers that you rightly pointed out as being her best look.

    Interestingly, her replacement with Charles also looks best in very clean cut and architectural shapes with minimal distraction!

  7. Rosemary griffin

    I saw a collection of her gowns that were sold for charity, they were on tour in Canada and the US. The narrow hemline on her formal gowns really amazed me. It was wonderful to see.

  8. Sue

    As I won’t be getting to this exhibition, thank you for posting this, I found it fascinating! I, too, enjoyed watching Diana’s personal style evolve with her increased confidence and change in fashions. I would love to see what she would have been like as she aged.

    • fabrickated

      Absolutely. That is the fascinating question Sue. Would she have been reclusive, or active? Would she have been a great grandma (I would think so). Who would she be with now? And what would she have looked like?

  9. mrsmole

    So interesting to know the story behind her choices of clothes! I watched the series about her last 100 days and the reasons behind her behavior and clothes choices right at the end. It was sad but a real glimpse into such a tortured life: http://abc.go.com/shows/the-last-100-days-of-diana/episode-guide. Thank you for sharing so much information and great photos!!!! I remember the night she died as my husband was editor of the newspaper in Liverpool and had to cover the tragedy respectfully on the front page as well as a review of her short life knowing the deluge of editions to come.

  10. Bunny

    Wonderful post, Kate! It shows so clearly how fashion can shape opinion, express confidence, and make a very specific impression. She was truly a princess and still so sorely missed.

  11. sew2pro

    Like Elaine, I didn’t particularly pay any attention to her and hated the hype. When she died, I thought ‘well at least they’ll write about real news now’. Instead we get a thousand sub-Dianas. I realise now how young and I guess lonely she was and am almost tempted to sympathise then I remember her choice in men… And yes, how horrid the engagement outfit was yet how radiant she looked.

  12. Anne

    Thank you. I won’t get to the exhibition. The clothes are so much better on Diana than on the models. She does look radiant. I will have a look at Mrs Mole’s link.

  13. Sarah Brown

    Thank you for the interesting review. A small point, but the first outfit wasn’t at the engagement but at Balmoral during the second stage of the honeymoon. The engagement outfit was that, not very attractive, royal blue two-piece with a scalloped edge at the front.

    I loved Diana’s early (1980/81) look – velvets, tartan, white collars, pearls, black patent pumps, little hats with feathers – and quite liked the very late, pared back, suits and dresses. Not so keen on the ‘Dynasty’ years in between.Some of those outfits look ridiculous now (and some did at the time). I regret that we haven’t been able to see how her style continued to evolve. I think she would have continued to be an object of great fascination.

    Thanks too for the piece on Brigitte Macron. I’ll be watching with interesting how her style changes with her new role. So far, I think she’s been badly let down by Louis Vuitton. If it were me, I’d be going to Chanel.

  14. Brenda Marks

    Super interesting. I’m in the age group of girls who was enchanted with the early part of her story and it’s interesting to see a retrospective of her style. It’s great how she evolved and her style reflected it. I’ll take that lesson with me!

  15. Carolyn

    Thanks for the recap! It was interesting and informative. I’m a little jealous that you got to attend such a marvelous event, especially since like many others I was enthralled with Diana. I really liked how her wardrobe reflected her life change after divorcing Charles. She seemed stronger and independent, even if it was an illusion.

  16. Sarah Gunn

    What a wonderful post! I followed Diana’s life and of course was fascinated by her evolving style. Many thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

  17. Janie de Bruin

    Like too visit the exhibition in London soon I loved the way Diana was dresed and folowd her from the begin to the end . So stad that we nog see het grow older she was such a great inspiration.

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