Diana’s fashion story – like her life story – ended just as things were getting good. Thrust into the limelight aged 19 as the fiancée to the heir to the throne, she only owned one dress: she had to learn about fashion and discover her sense of style in the public eye. This exhibition charts the way that style evolved, which is also the way her life evolved.
As an ingénue her wardrobe was incredibly romantic and hyper-feminine: all flowing fabrics, soft diaphanous pleats, pastel shades and frills. She was every-lacy-inch a fairytale princess. However, even early on Diana used fashion to send a message, showing herself to be a new, softer side of royalty. Eschewing gloves – and royal convention – she shook hands with HIV patients in what was just the beginning of her work with Aids charities.
A thoroughly modern princess, Diana was the first female royal to wear trousers to a public event and as she grew to enjoy fashion, she began to play with contemporary trends making them suitable for public life. The tux trend, also worn by Cindy Crawford, was tempered by Belleville Sassoon into a cocktail dress.
One of the most photographed women ever – Diana’s image could increase newspaper circulation by 40 percent, which might explain why she’s still on the cover of the Mirror every other week – she became increasingly media savvy, learning what would look good on camera. Designer Catherine Walker, who created over 400 dresses for the princess, thought about how a dress would look from every angle. For a trip to Riyadh, Diana wore a dress decorated with a spiral of beaded falcons – the national bird of Saudi Arabia – so that every camera pointed at her would capture this diplomatic detail.
Free of the shackles of the Royal Family, she bonked a rugby player and was almost engaged to Dodi Al Fayed. Confident and happy, her wardrobe reflected her freedom becoming ever bolder. Shot by Mario Testino in 1997 to promote a sale of her dresses, relaxed and smiling broadly, she looked her most beautiful.
Disappointingly absent from the exhibition are her wedding dress and more significantly, the so-called ‘Revenge Dress’ by Christina Stambolian which she wore the day that Prince Charles admitted he had cheated on her with Camilla Parker Bowles. Arguably her most iconic look, it was the sartorial equivalent of flicking two fingers at her ex in-laws.
To reach the exhibition you have to walk through really-quite-stuffy Kensington Palace, and perhaps deliberately, the dedicated Diana area stands in stark contrast. Modern, airy and light – with laser-cut panels and plinky, plonky piano music, it has the atmosphere of a spa. A bit like the architectural embodiment of how Diana seemed compared to the rest of the Windsors.