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.
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.
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.