Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews | September 26, 2017
Diana: Her Fashion Story Exhibition Review (Part 2)
‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’, currently showing at Kensington Palace, explores the development of the late Princess from shy debutante to confidant woman through her wardrobe. Diana in many ways shaped the modern monarchy, using her status to address complex social issues. For Diana, her visual appearance was not a choice, a method of self expression, but a carefully constructed marketing strategy to present the Princess to the world as the world wanted to see her.
The first room centres on her clothes in the early years of her marriage and engagement; the shy romantic Diana who loved frills and ruffles. As you enter the exhibition the first object you see is a dress designed by Regamus for a ball at Althorp House - the starting point of her journey. This iconic garment shares a cabinet with a pink dress Diana wore for her official portrait in 1987 and together these pieces promote her fairytale 1980s princess aesthetic. Set in contrast to these two pieces are a number of her later dresses, including a white pleated Grecian-style dress worn to a ballet in Rio de Janeiro in 1991. These have been carefully selected to show a maturing and mastering of style; the later dresses being much more fitted, elegant and sophisticated by comparison, in pale greys, creams and soft silk organza, in contrast to the crisp silk taffeta and tulle net of her early marriage.
That is not to say that the Princess could not also be dramatic in her dress sense, with the next room bringing the visitors’ attention to her love of the arts and theatre. Set in a cabinet with complementary scenery (as if to evoke a stage set) are two of her more theatrical dresses. One of my personal favorites is a striking flamenco inspired dress Diana wore to a ball in Spain with one black and one red glove - particularly fun and dramatic, intended to get people talking. Her ability to cause a sartorial stir was something that I noted quite strongly while walking through the exhibition; Diana knew how to use clothes to make a statement, creating a language through her visual appearance, particularly as she grew into her role of a royal.
This ability was displayed clearly in the next room, the heart of the exhibition, celebrating the height of her influence through a collection of her most striking and iconic evening dresses worn for state occasions and visits. Highlights included the white ‘Elvis dress’ with exquisite beading. This is also the dress that gives you the best sense of her stature as it is displayed on a mannequin with a neck (most are mounted so that the dress appears to stand on its own, hollow of a body). Another standout piece is an ivory silk dress designed by Catherine Walker, worn on a visit to Saudi Arabia. The silk crepe dress is embellished with beaded falcons, the national symbol of the country. The beading is exquisite, a work of pure craftsmanship, while the design reflects the Princess’ care to honour the host nation in her dress. It is these dresses which feel the most personal, created for specific occasions to project a certain message, nodding to (rather than following) fashion trends of the 1980s and 1990s.
In the same room as these gowns is a small square cabinet showcasing three daywear outfits. One of these is the only piece in the exhibition not worn for official engagements, but instead for a trip to the shops (the other two suits from informal daytime meetings). They help to communicate her role as a working royal, keen to deflect attention onto the causes she fought for, as illustrated in the short film playing on the projection screen in front of the cabinet. These outfits reflect how her style choices have shaped the modern monarchy’s approach to dressing for the public; from discarding gloves and hats when meeting children to her smart but plain suits, projecting an image of approachability not seen before.
The final room showcases the dresses worn in the photographs from the famous Mario Testino photo shoot, taken after Diana’s divorce from the Prince of Wales. The room has a very different feel to it; much brighter with a central cylindrical case. The soft lighting and subtle dress colours create a serene atmosphere. The dresses in this room show a Diana once again crafting a new identity for herself, away from her past, through the colours and cut of her clothes. The five dresses with their more neutral colour palette, lower cut necklines and sleeveless styles, project the image of a woman embracing a new chapter in her life.
The exhibition is many things: it is a showcase of couture design and modern royal fashion but, more than this, it is the personal story of one woman’s growth and maturity in the public eye from shy girl to confidant, impactful royal. In my view Diana’s clothes are more akin to costume design, for although they reflect the fashions of the time they were designed for her, each one to make some statement about her character, beliefs, presence. Catherine Walker described her clothes for Diana as her ‘royal uniform’ and Jasper Conran described Walker’s relationship with Diana as a designer ‘who would concentrate on her’ - her clothes tell the story of both a unique time in British fashion and the woman who wore them.
A truly fascinating exhibition offering very personal insight into the late Princess. Well worth a visit!