Don’t miss your last chance to see Diana: Her Fashion Story, a spectacular tale of style evolution that takes in piecrust collars, sequinned ballgowns and Armani chinos! 

Photo credit: Historic Royal Palaces/SWNS

As fashion icons go, Diana, Princess of Wales, undoubtedly remains at the top of the list of trendsetters, having influenced women the world over in their wardrobe choices, throughout her lifetime and in the years following her untimely death.

Diana’s fashion story is a particularly fascinating one, for many reasons; in part because it is inextricably linked to her multi-faceted role as a royal, a wife, a mother and a campaigner, and also because as a young woman catapulted onto the global stage, her choice of outfits and designers was subject to scrutiny at the highest level. But perhaps equally significantly was the way in which her fashion style changed over the years as she grew in confidence and embraced new challenges and causes.

It was this evolution of style that the Historic Royal Palaces were particularly keen to focus on when they began planning an exhibition to celebrate Diana’s life on the 20th anniversary of her death in 2017.The show, which is titled Diana: Her Fashion Story, opened that year at Kensington Palace – the princess’s former home – and is now nearing the end of its run, on February 17, 2019.

Audiences have had the opportunity to take in a spectacular array of outfits, from instantly recognisable dresses to never-before-seen pieces, alongside original fashion sketches, created for her during the design process.


A life in fabric

Isabella Coraça, the exhibition’s assistant curator told The Net Gallery, that it had made sense in many ways to explore Diana’s achievements through fashion. “Each of the garments on display represents a different aspect of the Princess’s life – from her charity work to her love of theatre and dance,” she said. “We carefully selected from collections around the world her most iconic and popular outfits, and through them, we talk about her work and legacy,”

The show takes viewers on a glorious journey of fashion trends that became synonymous with Diana, from the early 1980s’ romantic ruffles, lace, flounces, piecrust collars and light colours, to the dazzling, Hollywood-style ballgowns and the later, simpler outfits she adopted for her charity work.

The shift from shy teenager to self-assured Princess and campaigner is clear to see. “As she learned what worked well for public engagements and the press, Diana’s style becomes more sophisticated and sometimes daring,” Coraça noted. “By the mid-80s, she is favouring overtly glamourous outfits, lots of velvet and sequins, bold colours and dramatic details inspired by the theatre, opera and ballet.”


Friends and colleagues

One of the key aspects of the show is the way in which it documents the close relationships Diana struck up with designers when she joined the royal family.

Coraça explained that the young Lady Diana Spencer had very little experience of high fashion. “Following her engagement to The Prince of Wales, the Princess-to-be started to meet with designers she liked, and began to put together a wardrobe for her life as a working princess,” she said. “Many of the designers became close friends.”

The exhibition tracks the designers Diana selected in her early days, including David Emanuel, who created her iconic wedding dress, and Bellville Sassoon, who was responsible for her trousseau.

HRH The Princess of Wales in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace after her wedding on 29th July 1981. (Photo by Lichfield).

The close relationship she forged with Catherine Walker in the late 1980s is also referenced. “Together they honed Diana’s image, developing a sleek silhouette that consolidated her fashion icon status,” Coraça explained. “Walker called it her ‘royal uniform’.”

Further change followed in 1992, following her separation from The Prince of Wales, when Diana chose to adopt a simpler, executive wardrobe of shift dresses and suits in a bid to keep the primary focus on her charity work. “For public engagements, she also started to wear outfits from international designers, such as Versace,” Coraça added.


Playing by and bending the rules

While the show relays the ‘unwritten’ rules of royal dressing that Diana had to assimilate, it also highlights her decision at times to break with fashion conventions as she grew in confidence.

For her official state visit to Saudi Arabia in 1986, for example, Diana wore a Catherine Walker evening dress with a high neckline and long sleeves for modesty, as a mark of respect for the host nation’s customs and traditions, which was also embellished with falcons, the Kingdom’s national bird.

Yet, she abandoned the royal protocol of wearing gloves, Coraça said, because she liked to make direct contact when shaking or holding hands.

While all the exhibits have their own tale to tell, inevitably a select number of pieces have proved to be particular talking points. Coraça’s personal favourites include Victor Edelstein’s iconic mid-blue velvet gown, famously worn at the White House in 1985, when the Princess danced with John Travolta. “Seeing it up close really highlights Edelstein’s amazing craftsmanship – it is not easy to achieve those pleats in velvet and make such a heavy fabric move and twirl so beautifully!” she noted.

Princess Diana and John Travolta dancing at the White House in 1985.

She is also particularly fond of the pleated silk evening dress by Yuki, worn by the Princess to a state dinner in Tokyo, adding, “By choosing London-based Japanese-born designer, Yuki, the Princess was making a diplomatic gesture and honouring her hosts.”


Working wardrobe

Less glamorous but equally significant garments include the Armani outfit worn in a landmines area in Angola, which Coraça describes as an iconic look exemplifying the simple and practical style she adopted for her humanitarian work.

Summing up, Coraça believes the show relays the Princess’s understanding of the language of clothes and the extent to which she knew how to use fashion to help her do the job at hand.

“She crafted her public image carefully, and learned how to use it to engage and inspire,” she told The Net Gallery. “Above all, the exhibition explores how the Princess learned throughout her public life to use her image to champion the causes she cared about.”


By Miriam Dunn.