Alicia Healey

Princess Diana and the art of diplomatic dressing

Princess Diana and the art of diplomatic dressing
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On 9 March 1981, a 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, then fiancé of the future king, stepped out in a black strapless taffeta gown by David and Elizabeth Emanuel for her first official engagement with Prince Charles – a Gala charity concert at Goldsmith’s Hall, marking the beginning of her royal life and setting the stage for the style icon she was to become. The ruffled dress trimmed with sequins on its sweetheart neckline introduced Diana to the perils and pitfalls of royal dress. Prince Charles criticised her for wearing black (a colour the royals traditionally reserved for mourning) and the low neckline caused a sensation amongst the press, with tabloids dubbing her ‘daring Di’. In a later interview, she described how she chose the dress because she thought, at the time, that black was the smartest, most sophisticated colour a lady could wear. Her royal debut outfit was sold in 2010 by Kerry Taylor Auctions for £160,000, reflecting its importance in the history of her style.

Sixteen years on from the ‘daring Di’ debut, Diana, Princess of Wales carried out her final evening engagement before her untimely death, just two months later, appearing on her 36th Birthday, 1 July 1997, at a charity function at the Tate Gallery, wearing another striking black gown – a long beaded dress with a low square neckline, given to her on the day as a birthday gift by the designer Jacques Azagury. This dress was equally bold in the décolletage department, but closer-fitting and worn with much more confidence, at a time of her life when she was no longer constrained by the protocol of royal dress. It was her first birthday post-divorce, with no one to criticise her choice of colour or neckline and no one to answer to. She was a free single woman and it showed.

These two black dresses, worn at the beginning and at the end of Diana’s public life, frame a colourful and iconic royal wardrobe that defined her image and left a lasting legacy, still influencing the style of subsequent royal ladies and the public 40 years after her debut on the world stage. Here are some of the other key dresses in the evolution of Princess Diana’s style metamorphosis, from ‘shy Di’ to global fashion icon.

The Wedding Dress, 1981

Only Diana could have pulled off such a gargantuan dress. The 1981 wedding dress designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel overwhelms Diana’s slight frame with its voluminous sleeves and ruffles, but somehow it works on her and it influenced a decade of ‘meringue’ wedding dresses. This was a dress made for the setting as much as for the wearer: it filled the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral with its 25-foot train (the longest of any British royal bride in history). The Emanuels’ wanted to create a historic Royal wedding gown for a fairy tale princess bride, and they certainly achieved that.

The ‘Travolta’ dress, 1985

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One of the most memorable pieces in Diana’s fashion history is the midnight blue velvet Victor Edelstein ‘Travolta’ dress, which gained iconic status after she was photographed wearing it while dancing with John Travolta on a visit to the White House in 1985. It is the most valuable of all Diana’s dresses sold at auction – reaching £250,000. It was the first of several visits to the White House. She danced with Ronald Reagan on the same night and, through subsequent visits, later became friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton. 

David and Elizabeth Emanuel teal dress worn with headband, 1985

On a state visit to Melbourne in 1985, Diana demonstrated how she could push the boundaries of traditional royal style and modernise her image by boldly wearing an emerald choker as a headband, to accessorise her teal satin one-shouldered dress by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. This small twist signals the spirit with which she approached dressing: willing to be innovative rather than predictable or stuffy, subvert expectations, take risks and have fun.

Japan tour, 1986

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Diana was an expert at diplomatic dressing, wearing outfits that honoured local dress codes and paid homage to the host nation. On a tour of Japan in 1986 she wore a dress featuring large red polka dots, overtly referencing the red circle central to the flag of Japan – the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. It was a gesture that went down well with her hosts and made for a great photo opportunity.

Blue chiffon ‘Grace Kelly’ dress by Catherine Walker, Cannes, 1987

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Inspired by Grace Kelly’s blue dress in the film To Catch a Thief, this beautiful ice blue chiffon strapless gown with matching scarf by Catherine Walker combined elegant royal style with old-school Hollywood glamour – perfect for Diana’s arrival at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.

Pink and purple Catherine Walker, Thailand, 1988

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The vibrant fuschia pink and purple combination of this silk gown by Catherine Walker perfectly suited the tropical climate of Thailand, where Diana wore the dress for a state dinner in 1988. The asymmetric, draped sari-style was a nod to the Thai Chakkraphat, a traditional dress worn in Thailand, while the lotus flowers in her hair were a tribute to their national flower. This look is another great example of Diana’s thoughtful, diplomatic dressing abroad.

Pink and white dress, Catherine Walker, Bolshoi Ballet, 1989

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From the mid 80s onwards, London based Catherine Walker was Diana’s go-to designer for formal occasions – the concept and craftsmanship of her elegant designs perfectly met the requirements of a royal working wardrobe. This sleek white and salmon pink dress, worn by Diana to attend the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake in 1989, is one of my favourite looks on her. By the late 80s, she loses the froth and frill of the early 80s, preferring a sleeker column style in her eveningwear, which ideally complements her statuesque figure.

The ‘Elvis’ dress, Hong Kong, 1989

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Diana was never afraid to make a style statement – this pearl-encrusted white strapless gown with matching bolero jacket by Catherine Walker was dubbed the ‘Elvis’ due to the upturned collar on the jacket. The dress was originally commissioned for a trip to Hong Kong in 1989 – ‘the Pearl of the Orient’ – and she also wore it to the British Fashion Awards in 1989.

The ‘Revenge’ dress, London, 1994

The LBD by Christina Stambolian is one of the most famous in Diana’s wardrobe and an example of how Diana used fashion to communicate her feelings, and make more than just a fashion statement. She wore this dress to the Serpentine gallery in 1994 on the night that her husband appeared in a TV interview admitting his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles; hence its nickname, the ‘revenge’ dress. It was a daring, stunning look for a princess, and worn with aplomb: form-fitting, short and off the shoulder, and surely worn with intent to show Prince Charles what he was missing, and, more importantly, that she was surviving and thriving without him.

Versace, Australia, 1996

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This is one of the most memorable dresses from Diana’s final year – a one-shouldered turquoise gown by Versace, worn to a charity dinner in Australia in 1996. Post-divorce, Diana was more free to wear non-British designers and she frequently wore Gianni Versace in the mid 90s, who became a close friend and tragically died just one month before Diana. Asymmetric shoulders were a popular feature of her eveningwear throughout the 80s and 90s and I love the fresh turquoise colour of this one on her, which perfectly complements her colouring.

Princess Diana’s influence and legacy stretches well beyond her wardrobe, of course, but she knew that part of being a Princess was to dress for the role, to maximise her impact and create an image that communicated and resonated with the public. She did this by both adhering to royal protocol to respect her position, whilst also having fun with fashion to redefine what a royal wardrobe could be: vibrant and inspiring, less formal and intimidating. Had fate taken a different course, there is little doubt that Princess Diana would have continued to dazzle with her style right up until today – the eve of what would have been her 60th birthday – and beyond.

Written byAlicia Healey

Alicia Healey is the author of Wardrobe Wisdom from a Royal Lady’s Maid

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