In the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was one clear choice when it came to deciding what should be her final outfit. She was buried wearing a black dress by Catherine Walker, the fashion designer associated with most of the princess's most important public appearances -- both joyful and joyless.
It was announced yesterday that she had died from cancer at the age of 65. Her family said: "Catherine Walker overcame young widowhood and fought cancer twice with enduring bravery. She built one of the most successful British couture brands and at the same time raised a loving family."
Intensely discreet, she never attempted to capitalise on her association with the princess, for whom she designed hundreds of outfits between her first pregnancy in 1981 and her death in 1997. Her stand-out creations included the princess's 'Elvis Dress', a favourite red, military-style suit, and the outfit in which she was photographed sitting disconsolately by the Taj Mahal at the time of her official separation from the Prince of Wales in 1992.
Walker was born in France and moved to Britain after falling in love with an English solicitor, John Walker. She was widowed in 1975, aged 30, and began studying fashion design the following year, juggling the demands of night school with raising her two daughters. Once in business she graduated from childrenswear to maternity wear after observing that there were no high-end designer lines for affluent mothers-to-be. It was this that led her to cross paths with the princess.
Anna Harvey, fashion director of British Vogue, was assigned to give Diana sartorial guidance as she felt her way into life in the public eye. Speaking yesterday at Milan Fashion Week she recalled being called on during the princess's first pregnancy. "I knew about Catherine Walker so I introduced the two of them, and it was a liaison that lasted almost until the end. They always remained professional colleagues, if you like, rather than personal friends. Catherine was too discreet and quiet to presume to be a friend. But they had a very trusting relationship."
Diana often deployed Walker's work for her most symbolically laden appearances. "You could trust Catherine never to send out the princess of Wales inappropriately dressed," added Harvey.
Alexandra Shulman, the present editor of British Vogue, emphasised that although it was her association with the princess that won her the most renown, Walker was a highly effective dresser of everywoman -- albeit a well-funded everywoman. Shulman said: "She combined making you look very professional and elegant, but with femininity. When I first came to Vogue and I had nothing smart, one of the first things I did was go to Catherine. She made me a black shift dress with a matching coat. It was probably the most expensive thing I had bought. But every time I put it on I thought, 'yes, I look like the editor of Vogue'."
Catherine Ostler, editor of Tatler, said of the relationship with Diana: "She took this very naive, innocent Sloane who didn't know how to dress and turned her into this amazingly sleek person who then had the confidence to go on and wear Versace."