LONDON — Long before the “Kate effect” sent sales of trends embraced by the Duchess of Cambridge soaring, or the fashion choices of Michelle Obama (and other members of presidential families) moved global retail markets, there was Diana, Princess of Wales.
Diana, one of the most photographed women in the world, whose every fashion choice was scrutinized by millions, evolved from girlish ingénue to glamorous international star — powered in no small part by her choice of dress.
On Friday, as part of a year of commemorations on the 20th anniversary of her death, an exhibition tracing the evolution of the princess’s style — and featuring some of her most memorable outfits — will open at Kensington Palace, her former home. The pieces include a demure tweed suit by Bill Pashley worn on her Balmoral honeymoon in 1981, and the midnight-blue Victor Edelstein velvet dress she wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House in 1985.
“Diana: Her Fashion Story” explores how the princess learned to master her own image and use fashion to champion the causes she cared about. And as the first exhibition on the princess by the palace in a decade, its unveiling also poses a question: Why are we still so obsessed with her clothes? Perhaps the answer is that they help explain how we got to where we are now in fashion.
Here are comments from five people who knew the princess on what made Diana, and her sense of style, so memorable.
“I recall the princess’s first visit to us in the early ’80s as a shy 20-year-old. She had a peaches-and-cream complexion with big blue eyes under a fringe. By the ’90s she had worked hard on her body because of the scrutiny it was under. She was tanned, fit and muscular.
“Throughout the 16 years that we dressed the princess, it was perhaps the foreign tours that stand out in my memory because of the immense amount of research we undertook. In some cases, my wife (Catherine Walker, who died in 2010) and I actually visited the countries in advance.
“I don’t think it was normally expected of designers to go this far, but we just took it upon ourselves. Over the years, I don’t think the nervousness of watching the results diminished. I recall my wife saying that each occasion was like taking an exam.
“We were always mindful of the tension between the dress and the woman who wears it: Who’s the star, the woman or the dress? In the case of the princess, my wife and I had a self-imposed brief that we should tone down the ‘fashion statement’ in the designs. We saw her clothes as a supporting role. They were tools for her to do a job. I think the princess will always be known and remembered for her humanitarian work. In the end she used her dresses to save lives.”
“I first met Diana on a British Vogue shoot of young royals in 1990. I was working with the photographer Patrick Demarchelier and the magazine’s deputy editor, Anna Harvey, in a Hackney studio. Diana was the last one to arrive. And she just bounded up the stairs, all long-limbs flying and beaming. She was so good with people that everyone felt at ease straight away.
“We had her sitting on the floor in a white strapless ball gown in a tiara, and I had pinned her hair right back to make it seem shorter. I suppose the timing of our meeting was serendipitous, because once she had put her ordinary clothes back on, she asked me what I would do with her hair if I was given the choice. And I said instantly that I would cut it very short. She just said, ‘Do it then,’ and that’s what we did, a plastic bag on her shoulders and locks falling to the floor. The world went mad about what we had done.
“I think Diana felt that short hair liberated her, and made her life easier because it always looked great, whether it was wet, or styled or straight out of the gym. She was actually rather low-maintenance when it came to her looks, and I think she would be very embarrassed at all the fanfare around this exhibition. She was no fashion victim and always did her own makeup.
“But with hair, she would often get a stylist to come before a formal or charity event. I asked her why once — she looked gorgeous either way. And she said: ‘It’s not for me, Sam. It is for the people I visit or who come to see me. They don’t want me in off-duty mode, they want a princess. Let’s give them what they want.’ That mind-set didn’t come from a place of vanity. You must believe that she was very selfless. She respected people’s fantasies — their expectations — she didn’t ever want to disappoint anyone.”
“I became a good friend of Diana’s once she broke up with Charles. I was writing the Atticus column in The Sunday Times and thought she was trying to break up the royal family. Naturally she was anxious to get her side of the story across. She sent a man to bring me to her at a ball we were both at, and I was so drunk that when I sat down I completely missed the table. She popped her head under the cloth and said, ‘Do you think I’m completely mad?’ And I replied, ‘I’m mad about you.’ And that was that.
“In those early days she was so young — so shy and naïve. And the way she held herself reminded me of a frightened animal. She didn’t have any distinctive sense of personal style. But she always had a wicked sense of humor. How she could laugh. And over the years she became far more self-assured. That was clear in what she wore.
“The funny thing is that if you looked very close, I’m not sure she was ever naturally extraordinarily pretty. She certainly never thought she was especially sexy or glamorous herself, although I think she knew she photographed beautifully. Which she did. But then so do giraffes. She reminded me of one in a way.
“No, what Diana knew was never to let her clothes wear her. She let her powerful magnetism shine through always, and I think people admired that in her. They saw her great smile. The way she knew how to tilt her head. The way she worked a crowd. People loved her for it.”
“Diana became truly interested in fashion for the first time following her separation from Prince Charles. I noticed from then on she was curious about why designs were the way they were. I vividly remember that with Gianni (Ms. Versace’s brother), she constantly asked him about why things had been designed in a certain way.
“For my brother and me, her gradual evolution was completely fascinating. We were watching the fashion revolution of a princess. And Diana went on to make fashion fashionable. I don’t think that anyone, before or after her, has done for fashion what Diana did.
“I think that my most vivid memory of Diana’s reinvention — into a style icon — was when she was on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1991. Sam (McKnight) had cut Diana’s hair short, and she wore this skintight dress designed by Gianni — blue with gold studs and her hair completely slicked back — and just posed. It was if she was liberating herself, and affirming her newfound sense of freedom and liberty. She was showing the world that she was strong and able to take her life into her own hands. ‘The Firm,’ as she called the royal family, took away her title, but she proved that she never needed it.
“I also remember an occasion when Gianni and I went and had lunch with Diana and the boys at Kensington Palace. That was the day I realized how compassionate she was and passionate about helping others in need. After fittings, I remember she would hug all of our seamstresses goodbye, like old friends.”
“The princess learned to make her wardrobe say what she could not, and worked closely with designers like Catherine Walker to curate her personality through clothes. The fashion house Versace really helped amp up her image in the 1990s, and then there was the infamous ‘Revenge Dress’ by Christina Stambolian that she wore to the Serpentine Summer party in 1994, the day Prince Charles confessed his affair to Camilla Parker Bowles. There may have been three people in the marriage, but only one looked like a bombshell.
“Bravery springs to mind when it comes to her style legacy. She was fearless with fashion and created many trends which are still followed today. She was loved for her triumphs and mistakes (see-through skirts and Bruce Oldfield mega shoulder pads). That’s the pure joy of Diana and her style: When it was wrong, it was right as she was a proper one-off, and she gave her image her all. She’ll always be an icon, not only because of what she wore but how and why.”
Original post can be found in New York Times.