The making of Princess Diana’s wedding dress was practically a military operation. Its designers, David and Elizabeth Emanuel, blocked-up the windows to their small Mayfair store, and enlisted security guards to shield their creation from prying eyes and the press. Their judicious methods of protection paid off: the provenance of the dress remained undetected and, on July 29 1981, Lady Diana Spencer arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral ensconced in a voluminous silk-and-taffeta meringue. Embellished with 10,000 pearls and fitted with a 25 foot-long train–the longest in Royal history–it was the dress that launched a thousand imitations, and confirmed Diana’s status as a bona fide Style Icon.
20 years after her death, and an exhibition at Kensington Palace–the Princess’s former home–pays testament to her inimitable taste. Showcasing a line-up of lavish evening gowns, dresses designed for diplomatic visits, and tweed suits worn on weekends up in Balmoral, Diana: Her Fashion Story charts her transformation from a gauche teen with a weakness for oversized lapels to a seasoned star who, under the watchful and often unscrupulous gaze of the media, rapidly developed a sophisticated understanding of the immense power wielded by her wardrobe.
“Fashion seems such a good way to talk about the Princess’s life,” says Eleri Lynn, the show’s curator. “She didn’t like to be known as a clothes-horse. She understood the language of clothes really well, and used her fashion to help her communicate all of these different roles that were important: as a diplomat, patron of the arts, a humanitarian and, of course, as a Princess.”
The first hat Diana donned from her sartorial lexicon of personas was that of the Sloane Ranger. Tripping around Kensington and Chelsea in midi heels and frou-frou frocks, and attending Annabel’s in plaid skirts and piecrust collars, for her official engagement photograph, Lord Snowdon famously shot her buttoned neatly into a pale pink, formidably high-necked shirt, on display in the exhibition.
Quickly, Diana’s demure dress-sense became emblematic of the roaring upper-classes. As poster girl of the stately tribe, in 1982 she even appeared on the cover of the Sloane Ranger Handbook. Sporting a hefty pair of pearls, her headshot was accompanied by a series of headlines that advertised the merits of salmon fishing and serious drinking, and advised readers that crying whilst singing carols was acceptably de rigeur. Crying at funerals, of course, was not.
Diana soon realised that her trademark Sloane-style didn’t photograph particularly well, and so it was swiftly abandoned. “She learnt that perhaps those complicated frills didn’t necessarily work in press releases,” says Lynn. “So around the mid-eighties, you see her losing that cluttered look, really sleeking down, and developing a fluid silhouette.”
She entered an era of impeccable tailoring and tightly-fitted cocktail dresses, exemplified in the exhibition by the sequinned, ivory Catherine Walker two-piece she wore in 1989, whose high collar earned it the nickname “The Elvis Dress.”
The relationship between Diana’s evolving style and the turbulence of her private life has been well-documented. Launched onto the international stage alongside the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, she became one of the first figureheads of the digital age. Subject to unprecedentedly intense scrutiny, she used clothes as a tool to forge her own narrative. “She was very active in the creation of her own image,” explains Lynn.
In 1985, she made headlines around the world after dancing with John Travolta at the White House, wearing an inky-blue Victor Edelstein dress, also on show at the exhibition. Years later, when Travolta was asked what part of the decade he would like to relive, he cited that evening: “That was one of the highlights of my life.”
A few years later, as Prince Charles admitted to his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles on television, Diana attended a summer party in at the Serpentine wearing a plunging black, off-the-shoulder dress. Offset with a thick pearl choker, it was promptly and ubiquitously dubbed her ‘revenge’ dress.
Told from the perspective of the Palace, Diana: Her Fashion Story largely veers away from the fractious territory of her marriage, and instead focuses on how the Princess moulded fashion to fit the many causes she championed. She learned the rules of diplomatic dressing, and refitted them to suit her style.
“She would often wear clothes in cheerful colours, because she wanted to convey approachability to the children,” says Lynn. “She also undid the Royal protocol of wearing gloves because she liked to touch and hold hands with people.” In 1987, at the height of the AIDS crisis, Diana was pictured shaking hands with an HIV-positive man. The illness was so stigmatized at the time that the man refused to have his face in shot.
“And she also stopped wearing hats after a while because she said you can’t cuddle a child in a hat.”
Shortly before her death, the strands of Diana’s personal and public lives memorably collided when she decided to sell 79 dresses in a charity auction at Christie’s. “The press widely reported it as a symbolic movement,” explains Lynn. “They saw it as her closing a chapter on her Royal life and opening a new chapter.” Amongst the dresses up for grabs was the aforementioned Travolta gown, which sold to an anonymous bidder for a weighty £177,300.
Diana’s famous Vanity Fair cover, photographed by Mario Testino, and published a year after her divorce, was timed to tie in with the auction. According to Lynn, on the day of the shoot, Testino had never seen her looking so beautiful. “He said a true Princess walked in that day.”
“The Mario Testino photoshoot has become the lasting and indelible and iconic image that we have of the princess.”
“Those images of Diana are what we remember her by.”—Isobel Thompson
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Credits: Georges De Keerle; Anwar Hussein;Keystone France; Anwar Hussein; Georges DeKeerle; Princess Diana Archive