Twenty years after their flower-covered gates became her unofficial shrine, an exhibition at Kensington Palace reframes Diana’s story, from the tale of a tragic princess to that of an empowered modern woman who shaped her identity.
Diana: Her Fashion Story casts her not as a victim, but as independent-minded and active in championing her personal goals and the causes she supported.
A unique lineup of dresses charting her journey from teenage ingenue to international star makes the case for the princess as a pioneer of visual messaging.
Curator Eleri Lynn, who collaborated with Diana’s favoured designers and photographers in staging the show, said: “Everyone who worked with her recalls that she knew what she liked and was very active in her own image-making.”
Diana’s success as an image maker was reflected in the fact that “many of us have the impression that we knew what Diana was like, in some way”, said Lynn. “When I got into the research, it was a surprise to discover how little footage there exists of her speaking. The Diana that we think we know comes to a great extent from still photographs.”
Lynn said the emotional power of Diana’s style narrative came from the fact that to some extent, this was “a journey most women go on – from being a hesitant teenager, to maturity and confidence. But she did it on the international stage.”
In 1980, Lady Diana Spencer was so guileless that the first published images of her as Prince Charles’s love interest are best remembered for her backlit transparent skirt, but she quickly learned the style ropes and, having done so, began to use them to her advantage.
“Fashion is a great medium to talk about the princess, because it is a language which she herself mastered in order to communicate with others,” said Lynn.
A wall of sketches includes one of a brightly coloured Bellville Sassoon floral dress and wide-brimmed hat. Diana ordered the dress, and it became a favourite on her visits to children’s hospitals, always teamed with chunky jewellery that gave nervous children something to focus on and play with. (She never ordered the hat because, she said, “you can’t cuddle a child if you are wearing a hat”.)
Quick to master the rules of a public wardrobe, she then learned to bend them. She used fashion creatively, dressing with deliberate informality to convey approachability and break down barriers, especially when she visited patients with HIV.
Diana’s weaponisation of fashion during her divorce has been well documented. The cocktail frock she wore the night in 1994 when her husband was admitting his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles to Jonathan Dimbleby on ITV became known as “the revenge dress”. But as the point of view of the palace establishment – and staged at a time when Charles and Camilla have been married for 12 years – this exhibition focuses instead on the use of Diana’s style for public causes.
Nonetheless, is it notable that after her wedding day, few of the most famous images of Diana feature Charles. Although she came into public life as a shy fiancee and was single for only five years before her death, her persona is very much as a single woman in the spotlight.
One of the most enduring images of her marriage is of Diana poignantly alone in front of the Taj Mahal, on one of her last overseas trips with Charles. The Victor Edelstein dress in which she danced at the White House – with John Travolta, rather than her then husband – in 1985, which featured in the exhibition, sold for £240,000 at auction four years ago.
The many visitors to Kensington Palace who are drawn by their emotional connection to Diana will be charmed by a gown worn for private entertaining in the palace in the mid-80s, the silk velvet skirt marked by hundreds of tiny indents the curators believe to be fingerprints made by her sons Princes William and Harry, who would have been around knee-height at the time.
But the exhibition is also likely to attract younger visitors whose knowledge of the princess comes largely through her style influence.
Her status as a fashion muse can be seen in the recent trend for pie-crust collar blouses, revived by Alexa Chung, and in a collection for Asos designed by Sharmadean Reid MBE last year in direct homage to Diana’s style, which featured hot-pink sheath dresses, pearl-trim cocktail wear and Sloane ranger kilts.
The exhibition also reflects the development of Diana’s relationship with the media. A boxy green coat worn on an early trip to Venice was criticised in the press, and never seen again. (“She read her reviews,” said Lynn.)
Her early passion for ruffles faded after she learned that they photographed badly, and she began to move toward a more sleek aesthetic, exemplified in the exhibition by a pearl-beaded Catherine Walker two-piece from 1989 whose high collar, while Elizabethan in inspiration, earned it the nickname of the “Elvis dress”.
Diana became highly sophisticated in the detail of her public wardrobe, sometimes ordering a suit with alternate jackets in two sizes so she could wear the larger size for more active days and the slimmer for photographs. “You’d be amazed what you have to think about,” she once said.
Designer Jacques Azagury, who has lent two dresses to the exhibition, remembers that the young woman he first met “had a Knightsbridge Sloane ranger look which was very particular to the English”.
As Diana grew up and travelled, she developed a more international attitude which was reflected in her dress. “She loved coming to my shop, because she loved fashion. She was excited to see what was new, but she already knew exactly how she wanted to look.”
Diana: Her Fashion Story opens on 24 February at Kensington Palace and runs throughout 2017
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