“If she hadn’t been wearing that dress, it wouldn’t have been such an amazing moment,” says Eleri Lynn, curator of the newly opened exhibition celebrating the fashion and life of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Ms Lynn is introducing the “Travolta Dress”, the midnight blue silk velvet evening gown by Victor Edelstein, which Diana wore to to a state dinner at the White House in 1985. “Apparently, it took Nancy Reagan half an hour to persuade John Travolta to ask Diana to dance,” she says. Diana had wanted to be a ballet dancer until she grew too tall, but she loved taking to the floor. That night she had danced with other partners, but truly came to life when she took the hand of the Saturday Night Fever star. And in doing so, they provided images that filled TV screens and newspapers across the globe.
“Marking 20 years since her death, Diana: Her Fashion Story is a collection of many of the princess’s iconic gowns and outfits, each with its own story to tell as they chart the growth from Shy Di to confident style queen of the world.
It is all staged, fittingly, at her former home, Kensington Palace, in itself a revelation for anyone who, like me, had never visited before. It’s a reasonably though not overly splendid country-style mansion, set in acres of tranquil rolling parkland but a stone’s throw from the day-to-day normality of Kensington High Street, where you can shop the likes of TK Maxx, Zara, Robert Dyas and Boots.
I went along earlier this week for a breakfast showing of the exhibition, organised for a small party of fashion journalists by House of Fraser. Seeing the gowns close up is an extraordinary experience. They are so opulent and yet so personal and touching. Another Victor Edelstein gown features a cluster of marks at about knee-height, thought to be the fingerprints of the young princes clinging to their mother’s legs.
Curator Eleri Lynn illuminated each beautiful piece with insight and passion, starting with the first gown, a blue and white frilly creation with nylon net lace overlay number, worn as a debutante in 1979. Fashion was not part of her world at that time.
Ms Lynn says: “She owned a a long dress, a smart shirt and a nice pair of shoes, and the rest she borrowed from her friends, sisters, mother, but she clearly didn’t have much experience of high fashion.”
And yet, she was a natural. “Fashion is a very good medium to explore Princess Diana, because, although she didn’t want to be known as a clothes horse herself, she intuitively knew the language of fashion and used it as a tool to do her job,” says Ms Lynn.
“Diana had a very strong sense of her own style right from the start. She loved anothing frilly with ruffles and lace. She really love that New Romantic style of the 1980s.
Gowns featured include those by Yorkshire designer Bruce Oldfield , who once said that “dressing her quite different to dressing the divas who were going to swish parties.”
She quite quickly realised that she needed a timeless elegance.Curator Eleni Lynn
Ms Lynn says: “The designers felt a sense of responsibility to help her and guide her. But she wouldn’t wear anything if she didn’t like it.”
The “Elvis Dress”, worn in 1989 on a state visit to Hong Kong, covered in pearls and with a high collar jacket, is an exquisite piece, illustrating Diana’s height and shape. “Caroline Walker created an elongated torso,” explains Ms Lynn. “It really suited Diana and she then stuck to this silhouette for the rest of her life.
“After her separation, she was trying to find a new role. She concentated on arts and humanitarian work and charity work, and she realised tha,t in order to focus attention on what she was doing rather than what she was wearing, she needed to dress down, and so she adopts this uniform of executive suits in order to give the press very little to focus on.”
For glittering occasions, Diana started to buy designs from European designers, with Versace was a firm favourite.
In summer ‘97 she held an auction and sold 79 of her most famous dresses in New York to raise money for Aids and cancer charities.
Images by Mario Testino were taken in June ‘97 for Vanity Fair to publicise the event - images that have come to define the later Diana. “She relaxed, confident, informal,” says Ms Lynn. “She looks as though she has just come in from a party - that’s how Testino reportedly wanted to shoot her.
“She quite quickly realised that she needed a timeless elegance. Although the Versace is very ‘90s, you could also wear it today. Somehow, she managed to be both fashionable and timeless.”
The auction raised more than £3.4 million. “The press painted it very much as a symbolic act, that she was closing a chapter on the Royal life and style, and beginning upon a new chapter, perhaps focusing on her humanitarian work,” says Ms Lynn.
“And, of course, we couldn’t know what that next chapter was to be, because just a few months later, she was to die in Paris.”
Diana: Her Fashion Story is booking until October 31. Go to www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace for information and tickets.