At the ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ exhibition

Princess Diana 02

The words “Princess”, “Diana” and “clothes” are indisputably intertwined. Those of us old enough to remember her getting engaged to Prince Charles will also remember her evolution from bashful teenager to 80s Sloane Ranger to 90s power dresser – and the way in which she experimented with frills, ruffles, bows and, of course, shoulder pads.

‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ takes us on that very journey with Diana, showcasing items of clothing made by her favourite designers: Bruce Oldfield, Emanuel, Victor Edelstein, Atelier, Versace, Jacques Azagury and Catherine Walker, whose dresses dominate the latter part of the exhibition.

And yet, Diana wasn’t always interested in fashion. At the time of her engagement, the woman whose presence on the cover of a magazine, just a few years later, would increase that magazine’s circulation by 40%, owned one dress, one pair of smart shoes and one blouse, Everything else, apparently, she borrowed from friends.

Balmoral honeymoon suit by Bill Pashley - 1981
Who remembers this tweed suit by Bill Pashley, worn by Diana on her Balmoral honeymoon in 1981?

 

That all changed post-engagement, when Diana began meeting with designers and building up her own wardrobe. It’s interesting, looking back now at the clothes Diana wore in her early and mid-20s; they bring back so many memories of that era, with their pastel colours and lacy, flowing fabrics. Diana, we are told, loved anything with frills and ruffles and embraced wholeheartedly the “romantic” look of the 1980s. The pink satin evening gown pictured below is a good example; Diana wore it for a Terence Donovan portrait.

Pink satin evening gown with white raw silk collar and cuffs - Catherine Walker, 1987
Pink satin evening gown with white raw silk collar & cuffs – Catherine Walker, 1987

 

Something this exhibition does well is illustrate the relationships built up with different designers (many of whom became loyal friends), to the extent that Diana would make suggestions about the clothes they were creating and write comments on the sketches they produced. They, in turn, found themselves catapulted to international fame and the profile of British fashion was raised across the world. If people hadn’t heard of Bruce Oldfield the night before Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House wearing one of his creations, they certainly had afterwards.

As a member of the Royal Family, carrying out 100 public engagements every year, there were a number of fashion protocols Diana had to follow: “not too short” being chief among them, in relation to both hems and sleeves. That said, she loved to experiment with costume jewellery and definitely broke a few royal rules along the way, dispensing with the gloves that were so beloved of the other female royals on walkabouts and becoming the first female royal to wear trousers to an evening event.

Diana also loved wearing black, which the royal family had traditionally only ever worn when in mourning. This red and black Murray Arbeid dress, which Diana wore with one red and one black glove, caused a media sensation.

Black velvet bodice and red silk taffeta dress - 1986
Black velvet bodice and red silk taffeta dress – 1986

 

As the exhibition progresses, we see both the tastes of the time, and Diana’s own tastes, change. A more subdued glamour emerges, and the clothes become more streamlined. Conscious of her ‘clothes horse’ tag, Diana simplified her style after her 1992 separation from Charles, wanting to focus attention on her work. She developed what the exhibition describes as an “executive wardrobe” of shift dresses and suits, such as the one below. Made for Diana in 1996, she would tragically die just one year later.

Red day suit worn to the launch of HIV charity London Lighthouse's new appeal - Catherine Walker, 1996
Red day suit worn to the launch of HIV charity London Lighthouse’s new appeal – Catherine Walker, 1996

 

We will never know what Diana would have gone on to do with her life or the kind of person she might have become. This exhibition provides a tantalising glimpse into her personality, but – sensibly – makes no attempt to guess at what Diana’s future would have held. Overall, this was an interesting experience – but brief (most of Diana’s clothes were auctioned off in aid of charity in the 1990s), and I felt that the clothes could have been much better displayed. It’s definitely worth a visit – but I suggest making a day of it and spending plenty of time seeing around the rest of Kensington Palace and the other, excellent, exhibitions currently on display there.

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