It seems like no time since I woke up one summer morning to news of Princess Diana’s death. But, twenty years after her tragic passing, the ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ exhibition at Kensington Palace reminds us what an iconic woman of her time – and perhaps time immemorial - she was.
Walking in through the doors to what was once her home was slightly eerie, but in a warm and comforting way. Thoughts and images flooded into my head of the TV footage at the time showing the Palace’s flower-covered gates which became her unofficial shrine. Perhaps these thoughts were triggered by the beautiful flowers within the White Garden, which was created alongside the exhibition to mark the anniversary, and includes pretty flowers inspired by her life. A simple but fitting tribute which I meandered through on my way to the exhibition itself.
Like many, I had no personal connection to her of course, just a far-off admiration for this shy woman who changed from awkward teen to international icon – a tragic princess to an empowered modern woman who shaped her own identity despite the confines of royal protocol and an admitted lack of love from her husband. It was fascinating for young women of my era to watch as she grew in confidence and independence to became active – powerful, even - in championing her personal goals and the causes she supported. In an era where designer Katherine Hamnett made political statements using fashion, Diana grew to become a pioneer of visual messaging through fashion and photography.
As someone who supports the ‘sisterhood’, is interested in body image and personal image, loves fashion and has worked in the wider media industry for two decades, the exhibition was something I was keen to experience. I suppose I just wanted to get close to her in some way, to understand this fragile and fascinating woman.
In a nutshell, the exhibition, which - despite queues - is do-able in an afternoon, features a number of the Princess’s dresses and traces how her style evolved throughout her life, from her first public appearances to global moments in her life as a much-loved figure.
Curator Eleri Lynn, who collaborated with Diana’s favoured designers and photographers in staging the show, said: “Everyone who worked with her recalls that she knew what she liked and was very active in her own image-making.”
Many of the outfits, including very regal pared-down block colour suits, were created by British designer Catherine Walker. And indeed, I learnt at a later catch-up with a fashion PR that the princess was buried wearing Catherine Walker – not a well-known fact and I feel a bit tasteless even repeating it. The exhibition includes the Victor Edelstein velvet gown that she famously wore at the White House to dance with John Travolta in 1985 – but that wasn’t my favourite. I personally loved the ‘Elvis’ dress from 1989 and the super Sloaney checked honeymoon suit (which I admit I hated for a while) plus all the later flirtations with international designers, like Versace, Armani and others when she didn’t feel she had to always wear British design. Other highlights include the pink Emanuel blouse she wore for a portrait by Lord Snowdon in 1981, and a recently rediscovered blue Emanuel suit that she wore on a trip to Venice.
There are too many great dresses to single out, and some appear in photographic form, including dresses shot by Mario Testino and worn to royal engagements around the world.
Diana’s success as an image maker was reflected in the fact that “many of us have the impression that we knew what Diana was like, in some way”, said Lynn. “When I got into the research, it was a surprise to discover how little footage there exists of her speaking. The Diana that we think we know comes to a great extent from still photographs.”
Lynn said the emotional power of Diana’s style narrative came from the fact that to some extent, this was “a journey most women go on – from being a hesitant teenager, to maturity and confidence. But she did it on the international stage.”
“Fashion is a great medium to talk about the princess, because it is a language which she herself mastered in order to communicate with others,” said Lynn. In fact, British designer Jasper Conran said of the exhibition: “Whenever the Princess discussed her clothes with me, part of it was always: ‘What message will I be giving if I wear this?’ For her that became the real language of clothes.”
Quick to master the rules of a public wardrobe, she then learned to bend them and use fashion and still photography as weapons (the ‘Revenge Dress’ anyone? Or that Taj Mahal photo). She used fashion creatively, dressing with deliberate informality to convey approachability and break down barriers, especially when she visited patients with HIV or children. She famously didn’t wear hats to hospitals because, she said, “you can’t cuddle a child if you are wearing a hat”.
And that is why we love her.
The exhibition runs throughout 2017 at Kensington Palace.