Today I write this from Kensington Palace. It sounds grander than it actually is; I’m in the bustling cafe and trying to ignore the general cacophony of families and friends enjoying a day out. I am hugely excited to be using this space to share my enjoyment of the historic surroundings and an exhibition showcasing one of the palace’s erstwhile residents.
I specifically visited Kensington Palace to see the Diana: Her Fashion Story and I wasn’t disappointed. Iconic is a word that is often overused, but in this context I think justly apt. Twenty-five iconic dresses are on display as Diana’s enduring popularity continues to draw visitors to her former home.
My photographs do not do the exhibition justice, try as I might, I am not a photographer and with the necessary low-lighting and no-flash photography rule, it is hard to snap a perfect picture. There are too many other people in the pictures, you are frequently nudged out of the way, the reflection often catches me in the image and my photos fail to catch the sparkle of the sequins that glisten under the subdued lighting inside each glass cabinet, which house various components of the collection.
The exhibition displays dresses from three decades of Diana’s life. Its narrative; the evolution of Diana’s fashion, from the debutant through to princess and then the pared down humanitarian.
The first dress you encounter is the dress she wore to a debutant ball in 1979, a striking contrast against the sartorial elegance of the princess years. One of the earliest outfits showcased is the instantly identifiable tweed suit, one of two that she commissioned, one larger than the other so that she could partake in country sports with ease, worn to a photocall at Balmoral during her honeymoon.
There are sumptuous gowns from the 1980s, the ‘Dynasty Di’ era, with big shoulder pads, when Diana had equally big, albeit short, bouffant hair. A treat is in store with the Victor Edelstein velvet evening gown worn to a state dinner at the White House in 1985, when she danced with John Travolta. There are staples from her working wardrobe, which became known as her ‘royal uniform’ and gowns that were worn around the world attending diplomatic functions when she was Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales.
Moving on to the 90s, the styles change, sometimes less opulent in design and with under-stated, but still exquisite, embroidery, all classic pieces, instantly recognisable. Another fabulous dress exhibited is the stunning Catherine Walker ivory and delicate pink gown worn on tour in Brazil in 1991. Catherine’s brief was to avoid the football team colours of Argentina, Brazil having recently lost to that country in the World Cup.
Diana, cognisant of all the protocols her clothes must follow, would have designers incorporate ‘nods’ to their hosts when travelling abroad. Catherine Walker was an exemplar of this. Note her modest, high-necked, long-sleeved gown created for a tour of Saudi Arabia. It was resplendent with embroidered in-flight falcons trailing down the back into the gown’s train. It was long-sleeved to meet Middle East conventions; adorned with the falcon, as it is the national bird of Saudi Arabia. According to Jasper Conran, Diana would always ask ‘what message’ she would convey with an outfit.
In 2007, I enjoyed the exhibition of the equally iconic Marilyn Monroe’s ‘lost’ William Travilla dresses, however, this is grander in scale, with five times as many dresses on show, offering Diana devotees a glimpse of her life in fashion. I saw Diana once, I was sixteen and had joined hordes of people gathered on the streets of London in July 1986 for the marriage of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. I stood on a balustrade near Admiralty Arch, cheering as the royal carriages processed from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace. Then, along with thousands of others, marched down The Mall and stood holding the railings of Buckingham Palace, in front of the balcony, waiting for the new Duke and Duchess of York to kiss. Diana wore a green and black polka-dot dress on that day and accessorised with a matching wide-brimmed hat.
Although Diana was known for her fashion flair, daring and being a trendsetter, she used her influence, her soft power if you like, to express her emotions and to convey overt and covert messages, such as visibly removing gloves to shake hands with an HIV sufferer or to have her dress embroidered with Indian inspired designs on a state visit to India in respect of their hosts.
Her glamour was an intrinsic part of her and she used it to her advantage at times; remember the killer cocktail dress the night a Prince of Wales documentary aired on television? As her priorities changed towards the end of her life, she auctioned off 79 of her famous dresses at Christies in New York, raising $3.25 million for AIDS and cancer charities. Some of those dresses have returned to Kensington Palace for this exhibition. Twenty years after her death, Diana’s fashion choices are back in the news. Since the auction, numerous dresses have toured many unofficial exhibitions purporting to be charitable and have appeared sporadically for re-sale, it is only fitting that during this milestone year, the gowns return once again to Kensington Palace.
Source: Diana: Her Fashion Story
Photos: Author’s own