Princess Diana by Mario Testino her iconic dresses

Princess Diana ~ Her Iconic Dresses and their enduring stories

Diana, Princess of Wales, as we all remember her as, is arguably one of the most famous, photographed, talked about and loved women of all time.  I am from the generation who grew up watching her blossom from the shy young woman who seemed afraid of the world she was thrown into, to the strong, passionate, mother and role model we came to know.

Everyone remembers where we were when the awful news broke and I am no different. Running from my bedroom to turn the TV on because it had to be a hoax…sadly it wasn’t. I was working in an office around that time and we had clients all over the world, a lady from New York called to express her condolences.  She told me how everyone there was devastated too.

My experience at the exhibition of her dresses at Kensington Palace

This summer my family and I went to the exhibition of Diana ~ Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palace. There are many tributes to her with this year being the 20th anniversary of her tragic death but this is my favourite as it celebrates her life through fashion, how refreshing.   Kensington Palace was her home for many years and is now home to Prince William, Princess Catherine, George and Charlotte and Prince Harry.

‘Her story is one many women from all around the world can relate to,’ ~ Eleri Lynn, Curator, Historic Royal Palaces.  It’s well documented how tough her life had been at times, she overcame a lot which is inspiring to many and her story has now been romanticised by history.  Perhaps that’s human nature, we all do it, look back with rose tinted glasses and it made her human, accessible, someone you could imagine having a cup of tea with.  Her life wasn’t perfect, she was just like us but with a big splash of sparkle! She wore many of the dresses several times breaking the unwritten rule of never wearing the same outfit twice, quickly learning the rules of royal and diplomatic dressing and then bending them!  Now I feel better about that fashion dilemma we all face ‘I wore that dress last year’.  Diana was one of the most photographed women in history and she did it, so I certainly can.  Her decision to do this would have been well thought through as she was well aware of her influence.  Over time she increasingly took control of how she was represented, I read a really interesting article on how and why she chose outfits for her engagements. (I feel another blog coming on!)

On my visit I was able to take photographs of the dresses…oh my I was in heaven and I feel so lucky to have viewed them ‘in the flesh’ (thank you Mummy). After all these are the dresses I feel I know almost as well as my own, from the many famous press and official photographs as well as growing up with her on my TV screen.  Hard to say what my favourite part was but, if I had to, it would be the sketches by the fashion designers. These would have been presented to Diana for her approval as part of the design process, some have material swatches attached and handwritten notes.  I wonder if the designers realised how special these would be in years to come, one has ‘please’ written by Diana’s recognisable writing.  As a lover of history, fashion, design, art and a self confessed photo addict, this ticked numerous boxes for me.  It’s great that designers such as Emanuel, Sassoon and Klein have lent their drawings to the exhibition, very much appreciated by many I am sure, for me it was a snapshot into the fashion world, one which most won’t ever see.  These drawing are works or art in themselves.

Below is my picture of the sketch by Bellville Sassoon in 1981 with a swatch of the material used for the actual dress attached.  Diana wore this dress for Prince William’s Christening on 5th August 1982 and again at Sydney Opera House in 1983 when on a Royal Tour of Australia and New Zealand.  She later admitted that she’d found the christening exhausting with the baby Prince being quite unsettled throughout.  The dress material was pink, white and blue crepe.

All of the dresses in the exhibition are on loan from their current owners, some known and some anonymous to this day.  When viewing them I could see slight imperfections such as missing beading which as we all know is the down side of embellished dresses. Showing that they’ve been left untouched since they were worn, making them even more special. It is usual for new owners to have items DNA tested and they are never cleaned Curators of the exhibition confirm that some of them are marked by young Princes William and Harry.  On one marks resemble small finger prints assumed to be made by her boys as it was worn for a private event at the Palace, another example of her down to earth nature.  

The exhibition has been put together to illustrate the story of her life, from the young shy Lady Di, to the confident People’s Princess we all admired.  Unbelievable how much she achieved in so many different ways in her very short life, it’s no wonder there is still this fascination and affection for her.

Responsible for raising the profile of the British fashion industry and with the massive amount of press coverage everywhere she went she knew her clothes had to look good from every angle.  Can you imagine the pressure she and her designers must have felt practically every day, I can hardly cope with a couple of formal occasions a year!  Ok so maybe I’m glad my childhood dreams of being a Princess didn’t come true.

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Ahh this dress and that photograph by the legendary Patrick Demarchelier (below) in which she dazzled on the cover of Harpers Bazaar in 1997, the iconic Versace Atelier gown.  The material is actually an ice blue silk with beading from Versace in an ancient Egyptian design.  Made for Diana following the end of her Royal duties which gave her the freedom to wear continental as well as British designers. This is one of the first to be designed by Gianni Versace who became a close friend of Diana’s, she was frequently seen in his creations.  It was sold at auction in 2015 for £126.000 after previously being stored in the Versace archives.

You can purchase a souvenir inspired by this dress in the Kensington Palace shop…picture below which if you are a real fan is a must.

This is the floral bead and sequin Catherine Walker dress (below) worn to the Christie’s Party in New York in 1997 where her dresses were to be auctioned for Aids and Cancer Charities at the suggestion of Prince William. The event was a private preview where the gowns were displayed, the following auction raised $3.25 million.  A number of them were brought by a Florida Businesswoman, Maureen Dunkel but were auctioned again in 2011 as she was declared bankrupt (this is too long a story for me to go into now!)

In my close up shot (unable to use a flash so a little blurry) you can see the detail and work that must have gone into this.  Catherine Walker’s signature work often made her designs look too beautiful to wear, but fit for a Princess of course.

Another of Catherine Walkers designs, the ‘Mermaid Dress’, (below) worn   Some think the design was a nod to The Dynasty style of that era with the big shoulders and glamorous look, others say it has an Artdeco vibe.  There is also debate on the colour, is it green or turquoise, when I saw it to me it was teal and auctioneers state it as sea green.  A Satin sequined, figure hugging gown, with very flattering ruching detail to the front and a knee length split.

Having an incredibly busy schedule with 130 engagements a year and mother to the two young princes Diana didn’t always have the time to see the design sketches.  Catherine Walker was one of the designers she trusted implicitly and this is one of the dresses she didn’t see until it was finished.

Like many of her dresses this has been auctioned several times, recently in 2013 by an Australian Collector for £75,000 and most recently £80,000 to The British Museum…Yay! Kerry Taylor Auction House in London had the honour of selling it, you can still view the listing which makes for interesting reading on their website!  First worn during a state visit to Australia Diana wore it several times after that, the last being in 1993.  She accessorised it with her Diamond and Emerald choker, a wedding present from the Queen Mother…imagine having such things to choose from!  

The Catherine Walker ‘Elvis Dress’ of silk crepe with 20,000 pearls along with sequins (below). Diana loved it so much she wore it twice in quick succession, firstly during a Hong Kong visit and then to the British Fashion Awards, 1989.  Named the ‘Elvis’ dress because of the high collar.  This was bought by The Franklin Mint in 1997 who still own it today.

Now to arguably her most memorable dress ~ The John Travolta Dress (below).  As I wasn’t able to use my flash the photos don’t show its true colour or detail so I’ve added some others that do.  Designed by Victor Edelstein, inspired by Edwardian fashion and described as an inky blue velvet gown Diana wore it to an event at the White House in 1985.  At this event she famously danced with actor John Travolta to the Saturday Night Fever theme wowing onlookers and subsequently fans all over the world.  The dress is now owned by an English gentleman who won it at the 2013 Kerry Taylor auctions for £200,000.  He won it against bidders from Asia, the US, Europe and Australia, to cheer up his wife who loved Diana.  Wow what a lovely gesture and his wife was said to be very happy, they celebrated with a glass of champagne.  Thank you whoever you are for allowing it to be displayed here.  Diana wore it again in Germany in December 1987, to the film premiere of Wall Street in April 1988 and for her last official portrait photograph in 1997.   When asked John Travolta stated “That was one of the highlights of my life and probably the best moment of the 1980’s”.

Below is another stunning Catherine Walker gown ‘The Gold Falcon Dress’ worn on a visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986.  An example of her diplomatic dressing with the gold Falcons the feature of the gown as it is the nation bird of Saudi Arabia.  Along with this picture is my photo of a wall of quotes at the exhibition by those who knew her. Catherine Walker’s being ‘She learned what worked, what would sparkle’.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post as much I enjoyed putting it together, I’d love to hear your thoughts and thank you for reading… Have a lovely day, ButterflyinRemission xx

For information about exhibition at Kensington Palace click here ~

13 thoughts on “Princess Diana ~ Her Iconic Dresses and their enduring stories”

  1. What an interesting, informative and enjoyable read Butterfly. The dresses are all beautiful but if I have a favourite it is the Elvis dress xx

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  2. What a cool exhibit! Those gowns are just stunning. I think my favorite is the John Travolta dress; I don’t know if it’s because I love the story behind it, or just because it’s truly gorgeous. Thanks for sharing your experience and your photos; I enjoyed living vicariously through you! 🙂

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    1. It was brilliant…yes the Travolta dress is stunning, just a shame I couldn’t use my flash to show it off properly. Pleased you enjoyed me reliving my visit to the exhibition and thanks for reading as I know its a bit of a lengthy post!

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  3. Oh, it’s all so beautiful 😊 I caught the Fashion Rules exhibition in 2013 with Diana, Margaret, and HM- that space is perfect for displaying dresses! Diana was such a unique character, and her sartorial choices were bold and daring. I would LOVE to see those sketches, they are gorgeous!! And that souvenir pillow 😍😍

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