Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  September 1, 2017

Diana: Her Fashion Story (Part 1)

Victoria Haddock


Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997) is the focus of a sold out exhibition at Kensington Palace that celebrates her life and style twenty years after her death. Diana: Her Fashion Story features twenty-five garments, photographs and original sketches in six themed displays that chart the evolution of Diana’s style from Sloane debutante, to glamorous princess, to confident humanitarian. Warning: be prepared to queue at busier times for entry into the exhibition space - the route through the exhibition is one way and staff only allow a certain number through at a time so that everyone gets the chance to see the items on display. I would recommend advanced booking.


The first dress that you see is Diana’s debutante ball gown by Regamus, a brand popular with young aristocratic women, which she wore to an autumn ball at Althorp House in 1979. This and the now iconic pink chiffon blouse with ‘pie-crust’ collar by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, which Diana wore for a feature on ‘Upcoming Beauties’ in Vogue in 1981, defined the early English-Rose, ‘Lady Di’ look. The Vogue publication coincided with Diana and Prince Charles’ engagement announcement and the ‘Lady Di’ blouse was immediately copied on the high street, selling out within days.  Princess Diana’s Emmanuel designed wedding dress is not featured in the exhibition, but the Bill Pashley tweed wool suit worn on her honeymoon at Balmoral is. The Princess asked the designer for two differently sized versions of the suit, eventually taking the larger suit to allow room to participate in country pursuits.


As the new Princess of Wales, Diana would have had to attend numerous yearly public engagements that would require different practical and aesthetic requirements from her clothing. In 1985 Diana explained some of the rules to Royal dressing that she had learnt; ‘you’d be amazed what one has to worry about, from obvious things like the wind… and you’ve got to put your arm up to get some flowers, so you can’t have something too revealing and you can’t have hems too short’.(1) She began to create a working wardrobe with British designers, many of whom she would stay loyal to, helping to shape her image from ‘Lady Di’ to a proud ambassador for the British fashion industry.


Catherine Walker (1945-2010) became one of The Princess of Wales’ favourite designers, their professional relationship starting three months after Diana’s wedding and lasting until her death. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Catherine Walker designed many of Diana’s tailored silhouettes to flatter her 5’10” figure, and together they developed what Walker would call Diana’s ‘royal uniform’.(2) The exhibition featured a number of Catherine Walker’s designs (she is noted for having created 1,000 for the Princess of Wales during her lifetime). My favourite piece was a cream silk crepe dress decorated with sequined falcons, which the Princess wore during a 1986 official visit to Saudi Arabia. The dress was designed to be regal and respect local customs, with long sleeves and a high neckline, while the embroidered falcons conveyed a diplomatic message by referencing the hosts’ national bird. Another Walker outfit on display was the pearl encrusted dress and bolero-style jacket, that became known as the ‘Elvis’ dress. Diana wore the glamorous creation to the British Fashion Awards in 1989 and on a visit to Hong Kong, looking every inch the modern royal.


One of the most popular dresses on display, and probably her most famous evening gown, was the midnight-blue velvet Victor Edelstien gown worn to a state dinner at the White House in 1985. On a mannequin the dress looked a little stiff, yet images of the twirling ruched velvet filled newspapers and TV screens the next day after The Princess of Wales was snapped dancing with John Travolta.


The final room of the exhibition contains a selection of the seventy-nine dresses Diana sold at Christie’s in New York in June 1997. The sale raised $3.25 million for Aids and cancer charities and can be seen as a symbolic act, following the end of her royal duties and the start of her new life focusing on humanitarian work. The ice-blue Versace beaded dress that Diana was photographed in by Patrick Demarchelier and the black silk crepe and beaded Catherine Walker evening dress worn at a UNESCO charity event in 1994 reflect Diana’s decision to wear continental as well as British designers following her divorce. Diana’s evolution into an international fashion icon saw her learn ‘the power of her own image and how to use it to help others and raise awareness of a good cause’ (Lynn, 2017, p. 12).


Diana: Her Fashion Story is showing at Kensington Palace until 28th February 2018.


Catch up on Princess Diana's Dresses: The Auction online. The story behind some of Princess Diana's most memorable looks, told through the couture dresses that recently went to auction at Kerry Taylor Auctions in the biggest ever UK sale of her clothes.


(1)   Lynn, E. (2017). Diana Her Fashion Story. Pitkin Publishing.

(2)   Lynn, E. (2017). Diana Her Fashion Story. Pitkin Publishing.


Further Reading:

Hoey, B. and Lynn, E. (2017). Diana Her Fashion Story. Pitkin Publishing.

  • ‘Elvis’ dress, Victoria Haddock
  • Catherine Walker red suit
  • Catherine Walker pink ballgown
  • Catherine Walker Falcon dress
  • Bruce Oldfield dress
  • Bellville Sassoon sketch