LONDON — It’s been nearly 20 years since the death of Princess Diana, and Kensington Palace — the royal’s former home — is marking the anniversary with a show of her style and how it evolved over the years.
“Diana: Her Fashion Story,” which opens to the public on Friday, showcases looks she wore during daytime public engagements as well as for evening occasions. It will be open for two years.
“Diana has become a fashion icon in the same way as Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn — timeless, elegant and still so relevant,” said curator Eleri Lynn, during a walk-through on Wednesday.
“She championed British fashion designers and put many of them on the international stage. Everything she wore had a huge impact and was copied by the high street. She helped popularize the romantic look in the early Eighties, the fabulously glamorous ‘Dynasty’ look in the late Eighties and the sleek silhouettes of the Nineties. Each of these looks reappears on the catwalk from time to time, and are inseparable from Diana. Perhaps her greatest influence, though, will be championing understated British tailoring in the Nineties,” she said.
Lynn described the show as the story of “a young woman who had to quickly learn the rules of royal and diplomatic dressing, who in the process, put the spotlight on the British fashion industry and designers. We see her growing in confidence throughout her life, increasingly taking control of how she was represented and intelligently communicating through her clothes.”
Housed at the palace’s Pigott Galleries, the show spans six rooms, part of the Queen’s Apartments, which were built for Queen Mary II. The showcase includes 25 pieces that range from the evening gowns she wore in the Eighties to the Catherine Walker suits she donned in the Nineties. Walker, one of the late princess’ favorite designers, has the most looks of all the labels featured in the show.
A series of sketches from the royal’s other designers, such as David Sassoon, David and Elizabeth Emanuel and Roland Klein, are also on show. Highlights include Victor Edelstein’s blue velvet gown that Diana wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House, a blue tartan Emanuel suit she wore in the Eighties and the pink Emanuel top that appears in a portrait of the royal shot by Lord Snowdon in 1981.
One of the rooms spotlights Diana’s start in the world of designer fashion and includes the oldest dress in the showcase — a Regamus style from 1979. Another features the magazine covers she appeared on, including British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Vanity Fair.
There are ensembles that she wore to royal daytime engagements, and the Emanuel top Diana wore during a Vogue photo shoot — which would become known as her engagement photograph.
Also on display is the Bill Pashley tweed suit she wore while on honeymoon with Prince Charles at Balmoral. Another room highlights gowns that were sold at auction and images by Mario Testino.
The auctioned gowns were among the dresses that Prince William had suggested she sell to raise funds for the various humanitarian causes she supported. Among them is an Atelier Versace ice blue gown she wore in 1991 for a Harper’s Bazaar shoot when she was photographed by Patrick Demarchelier.
“One of the most surprising things I’ve discovered during the course of my research for this exhibition is that, before she got engaged in 1981, Diana only owned three items of clothing herself: a long dress, a smart shirt and a pair of smart shoes,” said Lynn. “The rest, she shared with flatmates. When her public life began in 1981, she had to very quickly learn the rules of royal dressing, and at the same time, her own personal style was evolving.”
Lynn said she sees Diana’s fashion journey as starting with the dress often referred to as Diana’s ‘debutante’ dress, worn at a family ball at Althorp in 1979, and concluding with some of the evening gowns she famously sold at the Christie’s auction in 1997. “By that point, she had really learned what suited her and was one of the most famous and most photographed women in the world.”
Lynn added it was fascinating to see the royal take risks. “She learned the unwritten rules of royal dressing but liked to break them sometimes, even with tiny touches of something daring,” said Lynn. (Of course, not all of these were successful — such as the majorette-style outfit Diana once wore to welcome King Fahd of Saudi Arabia at Gatwick Airport.)
“She often didn’t wear gloves or hats, and was the first female royal to wear trousers to an evening event. She liked to wear tuxedo style outfits and she wore a lot of black — a color usually only worn by the royal family for mourning, but which is obviously highly fashionable. What particularly springs to mind is that she once wore a flamenco-style Murray Arbeid dress with one black evening glove, and one red one,” Lynn said.
Alongside the exhibit, a temporary White Garden has been installed and curated. The garden has been planted with tulips, narcissi, Forget-me-nots for the spring, while in the summer there will be English white roses, cosmos daisies and gaura. According to Kensington Palace, the princess admired the floral garden and would often speak to the gardeners tending to it. The garden will open in the spring.
The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., a longtime supporter of programs at Kensington Palace, is the show’s sponsor. Although the exhibition will run for two years, the garden will be in place until September.