Diana: Her Fashion Story
At the end of February, I visited Kensington Palace with my mum to see Diana: Her Fashion Story. As entry to the exhibition is included with a ticket for the palace, there is no timed entry and so we spent thirty minutes queuing to be let into the small exhibition space. I was struck by the fact that almost every outfit was accompanied by a short anecdote regarding its design or use, plus a photograph of Diana wearing it. Even before you reach the room where Diana gazes down at you from several large and extremely beautiful Mario Testino portraits, she felt very… present.
I was six years old when Lady Diana Spencer married the Prince of Wales at St Paul’s Cathedral. It was like a fairy tale come to life. A few years on from the national celebrations surrounding the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977 – there are photos of me at a street party dressed as Little Bo Peep! – their engagement was a mesmerising tale of an ‘ordinary’ girl marrying into royalty, and Diana’s naïve innocent demeanour struck a chord with ordinary folk across the country.
My only clear memory of the wedding day was my mother’s disappointment at the overly fashionable, rather than timelessly elegant, Emanuel designed wedding gown. In particular, how dreadfully creased it was when she got out of the carriage! Their wedding was so iconic a moment that it captured the nation in myriad ways. I recall keeping a scrapbook of press cuttings about the engagement and the wedding, my grandparents collected anything commemorative they could get their hands on, and the tiny television set in my dolls’ house had an image of the carriage procession, which (as it was later passed on to my younger sister) perhaps outlasted the fairy tale itself.
By the 1990s, the truth about this poor match was starting to emerge: everyone knew something about affairs on both sides and speculation was rife, especially once Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton was serialised in The Sunday Times to much shock and excitement. The resulting media storm was so huge, that even a grumpy teenager like me with very little interest in the Royal Family couldn’t fail to miss it. Diana’s extremely frank TV interview with Martin Bashir gripped the nation in 1995 and divorce, unsurprisingly, followed less than a year later. She was no longer Her Royal Highness and became simply Diana, Princess of Wales.
If she thought that she could escape the spotlight once she’d escaped that family, Diana would have been in for a shock. I don’t know if anyone could have predicted just how fascinated the press would become in her life post-divorce. The world watched as she continued her charity work and dated heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, followed by Dodi Fayed (son of Mohamed Al-Fayed, the former owner of Harrods) with whom she died in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997. I remember where I was when I found out about her death. It was a Sunday and my sister and I had slept in as late as we could before my parents returned home after a two-week holiday. They opened the door and we expected smiles, but were greeted with sad confused looks. “Have you heard the news? Diana’s dead.”
The national outpouring of grief which followed was unprecedented and will probably never be replicated. I’d say that only the reaction to Bowie’s death came vaguely close. Respect for the Royal Family was perhaps at its lowest in a century and Diana was perceived as being badly treated by them, then shunned. Those who cared about the monarchy and those who didn’t all had feelings and opinions about Diana. Fence sitters were few and far between. Her life, death and funeral all have Wikipedia pages. People still talk about Lady Di, Princess Diana or, simply, Diana.
This small but perfectly formed exhibition covers many key moments from Diana’s public life through the clothes she wore. It doesn’t feature her wedding dress, but has many designer sketches and magazine covers which nod to a much broader collection than what’s covered. This was a woman who was more than a royal; more than a celebrity. We empathised with her every step of the way, and her loss was keenly felt. Twenty years on from her death, there are many who still remember her impact on Britain: its Royal Family, press and people. Overall, I’d recommend the exhibition only to those with a particular interest in royal or celebrity fashion, or a fascination with Diana’s lasting legacy. If you visit, I highly recommend getting there early to try and beat the queue!
UPDATE: For more in-depth analysis, check out Hettie Judah’s fantastic review for artnet.