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First look: New exhibition on Princess Diana’s fashion over the years

An exhibition at London’s Kensington Palace shows how Lady Diana used fashion to speak to the world

brunch Updated: Oct 07, 2017 21:45 IST
Neeta Lal
Neeta Lal
Hindustan Times
Kensington Palace,Princess Diana,Victor Edelstein
The much-anticipated exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story began earlier this year (©Historic Royal Palaces)

“There are loads of movie stars and celebrities, but there will be only one Diana.” This quote, by Elizabeth Florence Emanuel, the late Princess Diana’s feted wedding gown designer, catches my eye at the entrance to the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palace, London.

The exhibition captures the evolution of the late Princess of Wales into a fashion icon ( Neeta Lal )

It also explains why I’ve queued for 30 minutes – along with hundreds of other jostling visitors – to nip up to the palace’s elegant (albeit gloomy) state rooms (home to Diana from her marriage in 1981 to her death in 1997), to view a display that has garnered glowing reviews. The much-anticipated exhibition that began earlier this year captures the evolution of the late Princess of Wales’ style, from her early years as an earl’s shy daughter in Jane Austen-esque gowns to the fashion icon she ultimately became.

Style stories

They’re all there. The Versaces, the Diors and the Chanels: 25 extraordinary era-defining dresses, each of which tells a story, charting Diana’s fashion progress in six themed displays. The story begins with Diana’s first ball gowns before she joined the royal family, right through to the elegant dresses and suits she donned during her final months.

(From left) The Catherine Walker dress with sequinned falcons that Diana wore for an official visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986; Green velvet halterneck gown designed by Catherine Walker ; Diana experimented with international labels like this ice-blue silk Versace gown ( ©Historic Royal Palaces )

The apparel gets bolder and fancier in the 1980s, the subtle chiffons paving way for the ornately accoutred velvets, loose silhouettes capitulating to form-fitting apparel, some with a hint of cleavage even. The exhibition also includes samples and sketches of designs from outfits Diana wore for royal ceremonies, including the famous fairytale dress that she sported just before the announcement of her pregnancy with Prince William. There’s also an AV as well as a final room devoted to samples of some dresses sold by Diana at Christie’s auction in New York in June 1997, which raised US $3.4 million for AIDS and cancer charities.

Diana greets a Maori man with a traditional greeting in Wellington, New Zealand ( Neeta Lal )

As Eleri Lynn, the curator of the exhibition, said in an interview: “Fashion is such a good way to talk about her (Diana) because she was a very good silent communicator through her own clothes. She understood the language of clothes.”

The exhibition’s most thronged dress is the “Travolta dress” — worn by Diana at the White House in 1985 when she hit the floor so stylishly with John Travolta

The exhibition’s most thronged dress is of course the Victor Edelstein ruched off-shoulder midnight blue silk velvet gown – aka the “Travolta dress” – worn by Diana at the White House in 1985 when she hit the floor so stylishly with John Travolta. A photograph of the smashing duo shimmying to a song from the film Saturday Night Fever appears next to the garment that was auctioned in 2013 for £240,000.

Diana memorabilia being sold outside the Kensington Palace ( ©Historic Royal Palaces )

Then there’s the “Elvis dress”, a strapless white silk crepe gown encrusted with pearls and sequins. Worn to Hong Kong in 1989, it led its creator Catherine Walker to gush: “She shone in the dress and the dress shone around her.” A cream silk crepe dress embroidered with sequinned falcons, again designed by Walker, and worn in 1986 during an official visit to Saudi Arabia, thoughtfully pays homage to the Arab nation’s national bird.

(From left) Diana wore this Regamus ‘Debs’ to a ball as a teenager; Victor Edelstein’s silk velvet gown aka the“Travolta dress” worn by Diana at the White House; Catherine Walker’s blue chiffon ‘Grace Kelly’ dress inspired by the film To Catch A Thief ( ©Historic Royal Palaces )

Royal tales

Diana’s trademark early embrace of haute couture with street style in a single garment comes through in the 1981 Bill Pashley brown tweed day suit she wore on her honeymoon in Scotland with Prince Charles. Juxtaposed with the suit is the couple’s image, Diana looking radiantly happy by her husband’s side at a barn on Balmoral estate.

Diana seen here with her sons, William and Harry ( Neeta Lal )

Indeed few can deny Diana her status – as a critic put it – of a powerful “pioneer of visual messaging”. She leveraged her fashion knowledge creatively with a small army of designers/stylists carefully choreographing her every public appearance. A sunshine Bellville Sassoon floral dress – which she called her ‘caring dress’ – thus became a personal favourite on her visits to children’s hospitals. It was always worn without a hat. Why? Simply because, as the princess said: “You can’t cuddle a child in a hat!”

Diana leveraged her fashion knowledge creatively with a small army of designers/stylists carefully choreographing her every public appearance

As her confidence grew, Diana developed a more personal sartorial vocabulary. Upending fuggy royal traditions, she proactively built her image of an independent and empowered woman on the global stage through her clothes. Never mind if she once commissioned 40 designer outfits for a single foreign tour, one of them embroidered with 20,000 pearls!

A wall of magazine covers featuring Princess Diana at the exhibition ( (c) Historic Royal Palaces )

As an extension of the exhibition, Kensington Palace has also created a new temporary ‘White Garden’ featuring classic white roses (which Diana so loved) fringing a reflective pool. I amble around the fragrant space, soaking in a vibrant palette of tulips, scented narcissi, forget-me-nots and daisies. Walking out of Kensington Palace’s wrought iron gates, my mind flashes back to the sea of flowers that laid at this very spot after the news of Princess Diana’s death on August 31, 1997. Even 20 years after her death, the spot mists up many a visitor’s eye.

From HT Brunch, October 8, 2017

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First Published: Oct 07, 2017 21:41 IST