NEW YORK — More than two decades after her death, the public’s enduring fascination with Princess Diana shows no signs of abating. On July 1 — what would have been her 60th birthday — a statue honoring her legacy will be unveiled in Kensington Palace’s Sunken Garden. An exhibition, Royal Style in the Making, on view from June 3 to January 2, 2022 at Kensington Palace, features a variety of royal fashions, including Diana’s iconic wedding dress.
As a member of England’s royal family, everything the Princess of Wales wore was studied by millions of eyes, admired, coveted, and widely photographed by news media. From wispy silks to dresses with deep layers of taffeta — a style she popularized in the early 1980s — to pearl-encrusted gowns, she was a fashion trendsetter, and her clothes continue to appeal to collectors. Many of her iconic fashions have been sold, often to benefit charities, both during her lifetime and after. In June 1997, a year after divorcing, she cherry-picked her couture-crammed closet to sell as a way to signify the transition to a new chapter of her life. This, reportedly, was at the suggestion of her son, William, but it was in keeping with her long-held passion for using her position to help others. She sold 79 of her best-known dresses at Christie’s New York to raise more than $3 million for cancer and AIDS charities. Tragically, she died in a car accident in Paris two months later.
Gowns and fashions worn by the late princess generally bring top dollar at auction, with most achieving six-figure prices. While many of the most beloved have made their way to museum collections, it’s not uncommon to see some dresses that remain in private hands sold at auction, and resold years later. In December 2019, a gown Princess Diana wore to a gala dinner at the White House in 1985, in which she was photographed dancing with actor John Travolta in a widely-published image, sold post-auction by Kerry Taylor Auctions to Historic Royal Palaces, ensuring the public can continue to enjoy this dress.
While Princess Diana’s closet was legendary, other members of royalty are also admired for their fashions, items of which are coveted both by collectors and museums. Among them are the late Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco (who inspired the Hermes Kelly handbag); Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; and the Duchess of Cambridge.
The special exhibition at Kensington Palace provides an overview of the distinctive relationship between fashion designers and their royal clients. It includes never-before-seen items from the archives of some of the most renowned royal couturiers of the 20th century together with fashions worn by three generations of British royal women.
“The exhibition will offer visitors a sneak peek into the rarefied world of the atelier, unpicking how some of Britain’s finest designers rose to the challenge of creating clothing destined for the world stage,” according to a press release on the exhibit. Highlights include an extant toile for the 1937 coronation gown of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, and Princess Diana’s wedding dress complete with its 25-foot long sequin-encrusted train. The train holds the record as the longest in royal history.
When it comes to royal couture, gowns tend to bring the highest prices, but even casual items can interest collectors if they have an interesting backstory. Such was the case with Princess Diana’s personally -owned and -worn Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt given to her by the airline’s owner, Richard Branson. She later gave the garment to her longtime personal trainer, Jenni Rivett. It sold at RR Auction for $42,826 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019.
Even everyday royal clothing, which was saved in keeping with a “waste now, want not” mentality by those who had lived through economic hardship and war, appeals to collectors. A pair of circa-1937 Liberty print cotton day dresses worn by then-Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth when they were girls, sold at Kerry Taylor Auctions in December 2018 for $12,755 plus the buyer’s premium. After the princesses outgrew the dresses, their nanny sent them to her nieces to wear.
Clothing has long been a key part of material culture and understanding where society and style was at any given point. Royal couture certainly fits the bill by transforming fabrics into historically important clothing that holds appeal and fascination for decades.
See the Historic Royal Palaces’ web page on the Royal Style in the Making exhibit.
# # #