History at The Athenaeum : Dawn Geddes
This months Mayfair Insider series features Freelance Journalist Dawn Geddes, who tells of her family stay at The Athenaeum
16th June 2017
An icon of 20th-century glamour, Princess Diana was instinctively aware about how she could communicate with the world simply by what she wore. Her dazzling wardrobe is the focus of a major new exhibition staged in her former home, Kensington Palace, which traces the evolution of the Princess’s style, 20 years after her tragic and untimely death.
Through her clothes, the exhibition examines an extraordinary life, from the demure, romantic outfits of her first public appearances to the assured elegance of her later life as a divorcee keen to step away from the confines of her royal role. It reframes Diana’s story, from the tale of a tragic princess to that of an empowered modern woman who shaped her identity not as a victim, but as independent-minded and active in championing her personal goals and the causes she supported.
Eleri Lynn, curator of the exhibition is quoted as saying:
“Diana, Princess of Wales, was one of the most photographed women in the world, and every fashion choice she made was closely scrutinised. Our exhibition explores the story of a young woman who had to quickly learn the rules of royal and diplomatic dressing, who in the process put the spotlight on the British fashion industry and designers. We see her growing in confidence throughout her life, increasingly taking control of how she was represented, and intelligently communicating through her clothes. This is a story many women around the world can relate to.”
The exhibition brings together an extraordinary collection of garments that contributed to her role as a leading image maker, ranging from glamorous evening gowns to tailored Catherine Walker suits that made up Diana’s wardrobe in the 90s. Highlights include the Victor Edelstein dress she wore at the White House in 1985 when she was pictured dancing with John Travolta. The dress sold at auction four years ago for £240,000.
Quick to master the media, an outfit once seen and criticised by the press was never to be seen again. The first images published of Diana in 1980 on the announcement of her relationship with Prince Charles are fondly remembered by the public for her transparent skirt. Her early choice of floaty dresses and ruffles evolved to become sleek and tailored styling which is beautifully portrayed in the collection by a pearl-beaded Catherine Walker two-piece from 1989 whose high collar earned it the nickname of the ‘Elvis dress’. One notable omission is her famous wedding dress. Surprisingly, is not on show due to the size and to avoid too much focus on ‘one day’ of her royal life.
Diana was determined to portray herself as the new softer side of royalty, dressing informally to be approachable and break down barriers. Refusing to follow the royal convention of wearing gloves – she shook hands with HIV patients in what was just the beginning of her work with Aids charities. A thoroughly modern princess, Diana was the first female royal to wear trousers to a public event.
The Princess’s relationship with her favourite designers is depicted through a display of original fashion sketches created for her during the design process. A sketch of a brightly coloured Bellville Sassoon floral dress and wide-brimmed illustrates her vision for the role she was destined to fulfill. Diana ordered the dress but not the hat. 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 did not choose the hat because, “you can’t cuddle a child if you are wearing a hat”.
Many visitors to the exhibition will be charmed by a gown worn for private entertaining in the palace in the mid-80s. The silk velvet skirt is 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.
The display area stands in stark contrast to the historic surrounds of the 16th century royal place. Modern, airy and light the atmosphere is more central London art gallery than exhibition and perfect to depict the story of a thoroughly modern princess.
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