Princess Di exhibition: Diana was a true style icon

At a new exhibition of Princess Diana’s clothes charts her style evolution. Rachel Marie Walsh meets the curator of the collection at Kensington Palace.

Beautiful women of few words can inspire a ridiculous number. 

In I Like It When You’re Quiet, by far Pablo Neruda’s least sexy poem, his muse’s “silence is star-like, so distant and so simple” and this sentiment is exactly why so much celebrity journalism threatens no passing aircraft, standards-wise. 

Reams of copy can be conjured in that silent space, with relatively little fear of reply. 

It needn’t even be complex or thoughtful, just relevant to her photo.

But while career celebrities can exploit this attention with products or provocative song lyrics, royal women are constrained by their love for people married to an institution. 

Any marriage, I imagine, takes work but those Windsor women take real jobs with their vows. 

As though the media still believes in God’s mandate, those chosen by His chosen ones apparently deserve our relentless judgment. 

The Catherine Walker ‘Grace Kelly’ dress, left and above.

Hilary Mantel broaches this dehumanising presumption in Royal Bodies, published in the February 2013 London Review of Books, making Diana seem especially vulnerable to the toss of tabloid waves because “something in her personality, her receptivity, her passivity, fitted her to be the character of myth”. 

People’s love for her is as real as our complicated relationship with celebrity gets, though. 

So how do you square a desire to embrace her memory with the soap-operatic circles in what you read?

I really enjoy reminiscences by fashion writers like Justine Picardie, who grew up admiring Diana and offers affectionate thoughts on her legacy in this month’s Harper’s Bazaar, but reading biographies makes me sceptical and restless. 

Andrew Morton’s is blatantly agenda-driven, Tina Brown’s gossipy and self-regarding; even Sarah Bradford’s endlessly reasonable Diana, which I’d actually recommend, is an occasional irritant. 

Because too great an element of all of them is potential spin, not fiction but faction. 

There is too much talk from corners and the subject is so infrequently quoted that even picking these titles up with historical curiosity leaves you feeling pointlessly voyeuristic. 

Just a bit icky, really, and not much closer to understanding the lady herself.

The engagement blouse, on loan from Newbridge.

Diana: Her Fashion Story’s tracing of her life through fashion does, at least, allow visitors to dwell on her fondly — a desire I genuinely believe roots the public’s enduring interest, if not the tabloids’ — without the nagging suspicion of being somehow duped. 

The story has a plot familiar to most people: the journey through youthful fashion experiments to personal style, and I’ve snapped it into stages here. Thanks to the cooperation of lenders like the Museum of Style Icons at Newbridge, the exhibition is also a lesson in recent fashion history.

Clothes that wear you: “Shy Di”

The piece visiting from Kildare is what Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri Lynn calls her “Shy Di” blouse, chosen for a Vogue society editorial in 1981. 

Pussy-bow blouses are more closely associated with Baroness Thatcher, who famously had quite big bows, but the young Diana did wear delicate versions that generated sell-out copies. 

The Lady’s choice of David and Elizabeth Emanuel as wedding dress designers is said to have been inspired by this early encounter with fashion, a world she knew little about. 

Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta.

The oldest piece in the exhibition — called her ‘Debutante Dress,’ though Diana Spencer never had a formal ‘season’ — is emblematic of this. 

“Very new romantic, lots of ruffles and lace. It was actually one of a mere handful of clothes she owned when she got engaged. 

"She wasn’t an experienced fashionista by any stretch of the imagination,” says Lynn. 

The curator also notes that, as with many aristocratic young women of the time, clothing selections were heavily influenced by her mother. 

The ‘Travolta dress’.

“She really had to learn a lot quite quickly and there were some mistakes. Most women make them, just not in front of the world’s media.” 

The notes on a boxy tartan wool-suit worn on a visit to Italy in 1985, above, describe a fashion-forward choice that was covered with criticism. 

The Victor Edelstein dress she donned for a White House dinner (during which she danced with John Travolta), on the other hand, was an early hit.

Clothes as armour: “Dynasty Di”

The princess was dubbed “Dynasty Di” in the mid-Eighties. 

The power-shoulders and backcombed blow-dries of the day conveyed a robustness I doubt every young woman who worked them — including Diana – actually felt but hey, fake it till you make it. 

Armani did some great armour. 

The Emanuel blue tartan suit is an example of ‘Dynasty Di’.

Historic Royal Palaces.

“Diana was really moving with the fashion of the time. She had lots of gold and silver accessories, huge shoulder-pads and big hair,” said Lynn. 

A green sequinned Catherine Walker dress with large leg-of-mutton sleeves, worn in 1986, is an exhibition example of a time when the young royal was still experimenting with her style. 

“She slowly toned down bold details as the decade progressed, swapping them for surface embroidery.” 

The Emanuel blue tartan suit is an example of ‘Dynasty Di’.

Historic Royal Palaces.

A stunning white silk crepe dress detailed with pearls was paired with a high-collared bolero for a trip to Hong Kong in 1989. 

The look was jokingly termed her ‘Elvis’ dress, but the photos show the epitome of a celebrity princess.

Clothes that communicate: Work

“Diana definitely grew to understand the language of clothes and use it to convey messages,” says Lynn. 

Bright colours were essential for her engagements with children and the sick. 

The silhouettes became simpler as her children grew, more body-con and chase-friendly. 

For the “executive working mother look” she worked in the early Nineties, British designers like Catherine Walker created simple shift dresses and skirt-suits. Historic Royal Palaces.

For the “executive working mother look” she worked in the early Nineties, British designers like Catherine Walker created simple shift dresses and skirt-suits. 

“She attended hundreds of events annually and on foreign tours could require up to forty different outfits. 

Diana would brief designers on what she needed and then make notes on their sketches, several of which are exhibited and bear her handwriting. 

For the “executive working mother look” she worked in the early Nineties, British designers like Catherine Walker created simple shift dresses and skirt-suits. Historic Royal Palaces.

The evening-wear became a little more provocative, with Walker citing a black velvet-halter Diana wore to the Palace of Versailles in 1994 as “her first sexy” commission.

Clothes that liberate: ‘Wow’ Dressing

Gianni Versace’s twentieth anniversary is also this year. 

My favourite exhibition piece is a heavily-beaded dress in ice-blue from his Spring 1991 collection. 

Diana wore it for a Patrick Demarchelier portrait that Harper’s used to cover her November 1997 tribute issue. 

“Diana was a proud ambassadress for British fashion during her marriage but after separating wore a lot of major international designers, and a lot of Versace in particular,” says Lynn. 

You are always super-feminine in Versace but you can’t be shy, it demands too much attention. 

The combining of the Italian’s designs with the height of her star wattage generated some serious ‘wow’ moments. 

More risqué choices coincided with the auction of some of her frothier wardrobe at Christies in June 1997, and the start of a new phase.

Lots of people detest fashion but its most virulent haters, I find, are those concerned that what they wear says something about them they don’t want said. 

Social or financial status, personal taste, physical flaws…their resentment at having judgments made, even subconsciously, by complete strangers based on their clothes is completely understandable. 

But imagine you couldn’t speak or write to disabuse anyone of their notions of you. What recourse would you have?

Now say your husband went on national television and told Jonathan Dimbleby he’d been unfaithful (the feared inference being, of course, that you’re somehow inadequate), and you knew it was happening. 

Wouldn’t it make sense to go out looking a TKO the same evening (see ‘The Revenge Dress,’ a black silk Christina Stambolian mini)? 

A dress is not redress and the subject is distasteful — I don’t care to sound partisan at all — but I like that she showed moxy when the night would have been written up as tragic for her otherwise. 

A woman cannot be summed up by her wardrobe but Diana’s was as vital to her charm offensive as gazing through lashes or being more tactile than royal reserve allows. 

The Welsh journalist Meredith Etherington-Smith, interviewed for Diana, recalls remarking to her in 1996 that: “‘Your problem is you’re too damn charming […] it’s a weapon isn’t it, charm? You can convert people.’ And she said ‘You’re quite right, but I haven’t had many weapons in my life. What you’ve got you use.’”

“Diana: Her Fashion Story” opens on February 24 at Kensington Palace.


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