Princess Diana's language of fashion - behind the scenes of new exhibition of the late princess's clothing
Forced to be guarded in everything she uttered, Princess Diana developed an uncanny ability to communicate through her clothes, writes our fashion editor, who was given a private tour of a new exhibition of the late princess's clothing at Kensington Palace
When Prince Charles started dating her in 1980, Lady Diana Spencer's uninspiring Laura Ashley-meets-Sloane Ranger uniform of flat shoes, voluminous skirts and pearls yielded no clues to any fashion pretensions.
It sounds utterly incredible when you consider Diana's style- icon status at the time of her death in August 1997, but back in 1981 - when the doe-eyed Diana got engaged - she fessed up to owning just three items of clothing. Of course, she had clothes at her disposal, borrowed from friends, two older sisters who worked at Vogue and a mother who was a prolific couture client.
Diana's capsule wardrobe included a shirt and a nice of pair of shoes. The pièce de résistance was a ready-to-wear Regamus frilled 'debs' dress from Harrods (pictured below right). This blue net gown with velvet bow was effectively Diana's "dress zero on her journey to her fashion icon status," explains Eleri Lynn, curator of the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition that runs at Kensington Palace from 2017, the 20th- anniversary year of her death.
Eleri talks me through the exhibition on an exclusive tour before the eager 10am crowds pour through the doors. The young Welsh woman has a wealth of knowledge and years of experience curating royal clothing dating back to the Tudors. Eleri gives clues and insights to how the girl with the mousy hair - 'Shy Di,' as Fleet Street dubbed her - became an international style icon. And how, as she morphed into the most photographed woman in the world, Diana learned the art of speaking through her clothes.
After her 1981 wedding, Diana became a mould breaker and stepped away from traditional royal styling. There were no tiaras or gloves for the Princess, and she strategically used colour - especially if she knew she would be surrounded by men in black suits and wanted her dress to 'pop' for the cameras.
The youngest daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer of Althorp may have spectacularly failed her O-Levels, twice, but she was not stupid. And when it came to clothing, the Princess was impressive in her intuitive use of fabrics, such as making a point of wearing tactile velvet if she was going to meet people with visual impairments.
Diana knew her strengths and she knew the people who could help her achieve her goals, especially as her fairy-tale marriage crumbled and she forged a career in humanitarian work. She has been accused of being manipulative with the press, feeding them stories at strategic times to annoy the royals. Though she could not always speak her mind publicly, she similarly fed us clues about her mindset through her clothing - most memorably when she captured the attention of the world in 1994 by stepping out in a figure-hugging black silk 'revenge dress' on the day that Charles confessed to an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The Kensington Palace exhibition includes 25 outfits in themed display cabinets and illustrations by the designers who dressed her. It was warmly supported by companies and individual collectors who loaned pieces in her anniversary year. The exhibition offers insights into how Diana switched from her early Sloaney tendencies to Emanuel sophistication; the label's cream pie-crust blouse (right) with ribbon which she wore for a portrait in Vogue in 1980 was loaned by the Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons in Co Kildare.
Eleri acknowledges that when Diana first stepped "onto that international stage, she wasn't experienced in high fashion and it was very much a learned process for her".
What's absolutely clear is that Diana didn't leave anything to chance. She poured over newspapers and magazines and clearly read the reviews. If outfits were dissed, we never saw the clothes again. If they were praised, she wore them time and time again, and that was the case with what she called her "caring wardrobe" - those carefully chosen outfits for her many philanthropic visits to hospitals.
Colour was top of her list to convey approachability and warmth, and one of her all-time favourite dresses was a David Sassoon crepe de chine blue floral dress, an outfit that she wore time and time again because children found it so appealing.
"She would cuddle them and they would try and pick the flowers off the print. It showed that, in addition to looking regal and glamorous, she was also very aware of how to look approachable, warm and informal when breaking down barriers."
Eleri explains that Diana seldom wore a hat "because she said you can't cuddle a child in a hat". She also rarely wore gloves. "Her stylist, Anna Harvey (former deputy editor of Vogue), bought her dozens of beautiful gloves and she never wore them because she liked to hold hands," Eleri continues. "There was one very obvious time when she wore gloves and then conspicuously removed them in order to hold hands with a patient suffering from Aids. She was breaking down taboos that way, and using fashion and clothing to really hammer home the point. She always said that she wasn't much of an intellectual but, actually, they talk about the emotional intelligence, and the way she created her image and very carefully thought about all these different things. She was very clever."
Back in the early 1980s, however, Diana didn't realise the 'currency' of her own clothes and gave a lot of them away. "A number of outfits ended up in charity shops, and we've actually bought items from auction that were disposed of in a black bin bag from Sandringham. We tracked down the provenance because they were one-offs made specially for Diana," explains Eleri.
With time, Diana developed a confidence in her dressing. Her Bellville Sassoon black and white tuxedo dress (pictured on page 11) was regarded as quite subversive, an unusual choice for a princess - not least because the royals didn't wear black: that was for mourning. But Diana was, again, breaking the mould.
The designers Eleri spoke to all commented on how charming and charismatic she was and about her "incredible presence". Talking fashion with them, she would sit on the floor going through sketches and feeling the fabrics. Designer Jasper Conran recounted to Eleri how "when the Princess discussed her clothes with me, part of it was always: 'What message will I be giving out if I wear this?' For her, that became the real language of clothes," he said.
Diana constantly returned to her favourite designers such as Catherine Walker, who used a flattering technique called 'elongated torso', which featured incredible tailoring around the waist. "It was a technique that Catherine never deviated from and, in fact, once the Princess realised how well it suited her, she never deviated from it either," says Eleri. "From that point, her dresses are incredibly sleek, fluid silhouettes, and gone are the ruffles and the complicated details."
The exhibition includes some marvellous red-carpet gowns which illustrate her knack at diplomatic dressing, with careful tributes to host nations, such as the cream gown with embellished gold birds down the back for her visit to Saudi Arabia (pictured on page 11). There are also glamorous gowns that were auctioned months before her death to raise money for charity. There are poignant moments, too, in the exhibition, as you glimpse the tiny fingermarks on a velvet evening gown; the theory is they were left by her two young sons.
One of her prettiest gowns (pictured on page 11) was inspired by a dress Grace Kelly wore in Hitchcock's 1955 romantic comedy To Catch a Thief. Diana wore it to the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Just as she had planned, her dress 'popped' in a sea of black tuxedos but, as perfect as it looks in the display cabinet, I later discover that the romantic gown was wrapped up in a tragic moment for the Princess. In Cannes she would learn from Prince Charles that Barry Mannakee, a police bodyguard to whom she was very close, had been killed in a motorbike accident.
Glamorous gowns are not the only clothing we associate with Diana. After her divorce, when she was trying to promote her humanitarian work, Eleri says that Diana "realised she needed the press to concentrate on her work, not her wardrobe. "She said, 'I want to be known as a work horse, not a clothes horse,' and her day uniform became incredibly executive and professional, with shift dresses and suits in cheery colours so she was approachable."
The exhibition has, unsurprisingly, proved to be hugely popular with the public thus far. Eleri says, "We still get so many visitors to Kensington Palace because it was her former home, so we wanted to celebrate her life in style.
"Fashion is such a good way to do that because, although she did not like to be known as a clothes horse, she intuitively understood the language of fashion.
"She was perhaps one of the first people to properly capture that image-making for the new generation of media in the 20th century," Eleri concludes.
"From the time she stepped onto that international stage, the news was changing - tabloids and 24-hour rolling news and the dawn of the digital age. She was a very active participant in the creation of her image."
Diana: Her Fashion Story is running at Kensington Palace. To book, see hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace
Designer elizabeth emanuel One of the design duo behind Diana's wedding dress and 'engagement blouse', which is one of the most beloved pieces in the exhibition
When Irish-born hairdresser Kevin Shanley - from Headlines salon in South Kensington - did Lady Diana Spencer's hair for a Vogue magazine portrait in 1981, he couldn't have imagined that his chin-length bob with swept-back fringe would trigger a worldwide craze for the 'Lady Di' haircut. It was the perfect accompaniment for the silk chiffon blouse (pictured inset), which Diana selected from a rail of clothes in the Vogue offices to wear for her portrait by Lord Snowdon. The shoot was for an article on 'upcoming beauty', but by the time the magazine was published, Diana's engagement to the Prince of Wales had been announced. The romantic blouse, by husband-and-wife team David and Elizabeth Emanuel, shot to fame as Diana's 'engagement blouse'. In 2008, it was bought by Newbridge Silverware for its Museum of Style Icons, which has now loaned it to the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition.
Within an hour of looking at the blouse up close at the palace, I'm sipping tea with designer Elizabeth in her North London studio, where she is relaunching her Emanuel brand and currently looking for investors. "The fabric was originally ivory and we dyed it pale pink in our sink to match a taffeta skirt," she says. "The magazine rang us and asked us if we had something romantic for the shoot. Diana liked the blouse, asked Vogue who made it, and that's how we first started to see her. We were close to her age group. She liked our style and let us get on with it. She was a really easy client for us. She was 19 when we met her, in nursery school teaching and didn't have a need to get dressed up. Her style did evolve over time. She went to different designers; it was never going to happen immediately."
When Diana phoned to make her first appointment with the Emanuels, Elizabeth wrote her name down wrong. "But when she walked in, there had been so much press, we knew immediately who she was. Diana had various names when she made appointments. She was Deborah Cornwall, or anything starting with D, we knew we were talking about Diana." Diana wore an Emanuel black silk taffeta sequinned gown for her first public appearance with Charles, which caused a sensation when she leaned down to get out of the car. Too much cleavage? "We didn't think so at the time, but we learned afterwards that there were certain things we had to watch and be careful not to do. But we were quite naïve then."
Showing me her beautiful scrapbook of photographs and sketches chronicling the journey of the royal wedding dress, Elizabeth concedes that it was quite stressful. "We had only been out of college a year. We didn't have anyone to hold our hand or talk to. We couldn't tell anyone our plan for the dress and we knew this dress was going to be part of history." Diana would come to their studio on Brook Street with her bodyguard, and there would be crowds outside. "We were so worried, we had shutters put on the windows and we left false trails in our rubbish bins and put in false threads."
Designer Paul Costelloe
The Dubliner started dressing Diana after a lady-in-waiting spotted his clothes in Windsor and thought they would suit her. He used to visit her at her apartment in Kensington Palace to do the fittings.
"You couldn't push Diana into something you thought might suit her. Well, I certainly didn't anyway - I stood back and let her choose. Diana had strong opinions and she wouldn't hesitate in saying, 'No, that's not for me.' She knew what suited her and she knew what would attract people's notice.
"When it came to clothing, Diana also knew what was good quality. She came from a wealthy family and was probably shopping in Harrods from the age of four. The Spencers were never short of money, and she was probably never short of wearing nice clothes when she was growing up.
"I always found Diana to be warm, very personable and very unpretentious. She always seemed a little lonely when I visited her at Kensington Palace. She would always offer me a cup of tea and a slice of fruitcake - indeed, she always invited my cab driver into the palace kitchen for a cup of tea, and then she would go off and try on the clothes.
"I would make a selection of what I thought would be appropriate and Diana might say, 'I'm going on tour and I need to cover my arms or make the skirt longer.'
"Diana was a perfect size 10. She was very easy to fit, unlike Fergie, who was slightly more difficult, to put it mildly."
Paul made headlines in 1988 when Diana wore one of his yellow dresses to Australia's Bondi Beach (pictured above) and she didn't know where to look with the half-naked lifeguards beside her.
In India, she wore a pleated, slightly sheer pink skirt and jacket designed by him. Paul's all-time favourite choice was the suit she wore to see Pavarotti sing in Hyde Park. "It was a double-breasted dinner suit with diamond buttons. She looked really gorgeous because she was so natural. She always looked best when she was being true to herself and not posing.
"I always brought flowers to Diana and she would be so thrilled and would send a note the next day.
"We have kept all the Christmas cards she sent to me. I still clearly remember my first visit to her at Kensington Palace and touching the couch and saying to myself, 'I am in fact here.'
"That was a moment in my life that I will never forget. That, and the night she died, listening to it unfold on the radio."
Photographer John Minihan
Dublin-born and raised in Athy, John recalls the day he met the "gracious" Lady Diana Spencer. His iconic backlit photograph of her outside the Pimlico kindergarten where she worked was a world first and introduced Prince Charles's new girlfriend to the world press.
"Diana was lovely, very nice, and I've always said she was the human face of the royal family. I remember the vivaciousness that Diana had - the sparkle of this young woman who had met her prince. She really believed in that whole fairy-tale thing."
Fleet Street photographer John Minihan made front-page news at the Evening Standard in September 1980, and his image was picked up by newspapers around the world after he photographed the teenage bride-to-be outside the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico. "I started work at six in the morning and, that day, in the Daily Mail there was a story by their diarist, Nigel Dempster, that Prince Charles had relinquished his relationship with Lady Sarah Spencer and was now courting her younger sister, who was working in a crèche in Pimlico."
Dispatched to find her, John says, "I was the first photographer on the scene and I asked to speak to Lady Diana Spencer. She came out and she couldn't have been more gracious, and she said, 'What can I do?' She had obviously been primed by the Palace to expect a posse of photographers after the story appeared. I asked to photograph her with the children, and they had to get parents' permission, which one of her colleagues did.
"It was about 7.10am by now; the sun started beaming and I photographed Diana as kind of a Madonna-like mother and child. Looking through my Nikon, I just saw the light illuminating her dress. I took the photograph and we had a dispatch rider to ferry that roll of film back to the office. The picture editor asked me to stick around. Later, other photographers turned up and she wasn't going to come out again. I went and knocked on the door and said, 'Diana, I'm really sorry but is it possible we could reshoot the picture?' I made some corny excuse that there had been a mistake in the dark room but, of course, there wasn't. She came out again and reshot the pictures for the other photographers there. But I think I got the best of the photographs.
"Within a week, every time she came out of her flat in Earl's Court, she was assaulted by a posse of camera crews. It was just awful. I remember one day she drove to Berkeley Square and I followed like everyone else. She got out of her car, walked into the square and burst out crying. I actually refused to take a photograph. Later that day, I got a dozen roses and went back to her apartment. I rang her doorbell. She saw me and came down to the door. It was just me and her talking together. I was dripping with cameras and I said, 'I'm really sorry about what happened today because it was awful; it was just dreadful.' She took the flowers and said something like, 'Oh, I was being silly.' It was clear she felt dejected. She was just a teenager and didn't know what was going to be on the road 17 years on.
"I knew then that her life was going to be surrounded by what I call 'camera assassins'. When I told the picture editor that I hadn't taken the picture of her crying, I was lambasted. I wasn't supposed to make decisions like that but I felt I was an ambassador for my newspaper and you are supposed to make decisions. It's not ethical - it's not right."
John says he didn't try to take a photograph in the moment with Diana on her doorstep. "You know, there are certain moments in everyone's life and career when not everything is photographable. You have to cherish the moment."
Based on his experiences, John penned an article years later entitled The Camera Assassins and, as fate would have it, it was first published in Ireland one week before Diana's death.
"In a sense, the camera - which can be a testimony to innocence - can also do an awful lot of damage," John says.
Clothing Collector William Doyle
The Newbridge Silverware CEO has purchased a number of Diana's pieces, including the toile of her wedding gown, the 'engagement blouse' - both by Emanuel - and the show-stopping Christina Stambolian-designed 'revenge dress' (above) bought from Kerry Taylor Auctions.
Was there ever a more strategic dress worn by a woman in modern times? Lots has been written about the off-the-shoulder silk dress - with its wisp of black chiffon and devastatingly effective horizontal ruching - by Greek designer Christina Stambolian, that she wore the night Charles confessed to having an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Diana used the 'revenge dress', which she actually bought three years previously but had never worn, to exact her revenge and literally moved Charles off the front pages the next morning. She had been all set to wear Valentino to the Vanity Fair party at the Serpentine Galleries that night in 1994, but when the designer issued a press release to that effect, Diana changed into the iconic dress - which was hailed as genius by others who felt wronged in love.
This spring, the 'revenge dress' was loaned by owner William Doyle to another anniversary-year exhibition - A Passion for Fashion: 300 Years of Style - taking place at Blenheim Castle. The dress is due to return home to the Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons in Kildare next week.
William says the toile (an early version of a finished garment made up in calico) of Diana's wedding dress is currently being rested by the museum in Newbridge but it will be going back on show in June.
"The toile comes with a big story," says William. "It was used to do trial runs for Diana getting in and out of the coach before the wedding, and also to measure the width of the aisle in the cathedral. There is a heel mark on the inside of the toile, which was, in fact, worn for longer periods than Diana's wedding dress."
The museum also has little miniatures of Diana's wedding dress and those of her bridesmaids, which were made from off-cuts of materials on the Emanuels' studio floor.
"Diana was a woman who knew the power of fashion and understood that she could communicate various messages through her choice of clothing. The 'engagement blouse' is so different to the 'revenge dress' and both mark two distinct periods in the late princess's life. It's fascinating."
William says he didn't think twice when asked to loan the pieces to Kensington and Blenheim Palaces. "Not at all. It is very much an honour to be able to loan to museums of that calibre. Such visits add value to the garments; it's like a stamp on their passports."