diana: a celebration

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I have to sheepishly admit, I have a soft spot for popular culture. I love it when I am at the gym to half-heartedly ride the exercise bike, and the magazine rack has a People magazine. There are certain famous people that are just fun to to look at. I don't care much for the speculation into their personal lives, I just like to revel in their fashionableness as I toil away in my baggy sweats.

There are those certain few that mesmerize us and make it to icon status. I think of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and, more recognizable worldwide than even Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Diana Of Wales.

I was tickled to receive the book A Dress for Diana for Christmas from my friend Anne, who knows of my secret interest in her. It's all about the making of the most famous wedding dress of all time, Diana's gown for her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981. It's not a gossip book. It is less about Diana than it is about the designers, David and Elizabeth Emanuel, who were rather young themselves, and the whirlwind surrounding the making of the bridal gown, as well as the outfits of the attendants, in just 6 months. Being a designer myself, I like the behind-the-scenes perspective of the book. The book captures how the designers savored every moment of their interactions with Diana and how they felt the full weight of the responsibility attached the honor of being the royal dressmakers. Can you imagine being only 29 and asked to design the gown of the century?

I love the sketches they included of all the not-chosen versions of the dress, some of which I think were actually better than the final dress. But the more fashionable or low-cut versions would not have been a reflection of the shy 19-year-old Diana that met with the designers in a "little cardigan and pie-crust frilled blouse". They were all completely pouffy, though. She rightly picked a version with an unembellished skirt  But those sleeves! It was the 80's, I guess. Elizabeth Emanuel still gets her pouf on today as you can see on her site (go to the wedding dress section).

Flower girl dress sketches.

I've been poring over all the  pictures of the trial muslins, which they call toiles in England (I like that name better, actually), and the nitty-gritty scenes of the workroom in action.

And not only did I get this great book, but I was invited to attend the exhibit, Diana: A Celebration today in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center with my mother-daughter gal-pals Anne and Misha. The choice of venue is a little puzzling: what does a an exhibit about a British Royal have to do with American history or the Constitution? A few people are peeved about that- they think only people like Betsy Ross or Martha Washington should be featured there. Whatever. That didn't stop us from going and enjoying the spectacle.

Boy, was it crowded! We had tickets for a certain time, arrived early, and still had to wait over an hour in line to get in. Shame on you, Constitution Center! Once in, the first alcove was intentionally dark with a spotlight shining on a diamond encrusted tiara. Magnificent! Several rooms of Spencer family memorabilia followed. The case full of Diana's early childhood things, including her favorite stuffed toy, photo albums, pastel portraits, and school things was attracting a lot of interest. But we were really there for THE DRESS.

A whole room was devoted to it.

And it needed it because of the 25 foot train, which wasn't even fully extended. Can you imagine the weight of walking with that much fabric dragging behind, and an equally long veil attached to your head?

It was amazing to see all the details up close, the hand-sewn beading, the intricate antique lace, and the fine silk taffeta . It really looked different to me, though, than in the photos, or the footage, or my memory of watching the wedding on TV as a wide-eyed teen. On her wedding day, Diana looked swallowed up by the pouffiness of it all, the perfect metaphor for what would befall her. The actual dress wasn't all that full on the mannequin, like maybe the crinoline was missing underneath. Still, really neat to have seen it up close.

Equally interesting was the next room, filled with many other recognizable outfits of Diana's. These were on loan from private collections acquired at the  1997 Christies' charity auction just a few months before her death. Collectors and even some regular people paid in the tens of thousands for the dresses and suits, some going for well over $100,000. Now some of the ensembles tour on a rotating basis earning even more proceeds for Diana's pet charities. No one expected her to be gone not even two months later.

What I love about watching Diana over the years is seeing her evolution. In the beginning of her public life, Diana's look was overly coordinated, dowdy, and always with the requisite hat. In the last few years of her life, she had developed a sleek, glamorous, confident style for herself. Barely a hat in sight.

Definitely a fashion don't, even for the 80's. Yikes! Apparently she wore this polka dotted thing on many occasions over a 5-year period. I was surprised how many of her outfits she wore multiple times. She was actually criticized for repeating outfits, but how sensible, I think. She would save the new and exciting outfits for attracting attention to a special charity or to take attention away from something else, like her husband's televised admission of adultery (see the "revenge dress" by Christina Stombolian here).

Most of her official daytime suits and some of the evening wear (like the famous "Elvis" dress) were designed by Catherine Walker. This suit was not in the exhibit, but you get the idea. I can't say I care for Diana's royal matched suit & hat look of the 80's specially designed to make her "stand out in a crowd". She stands out, all right. But then, I'm an American and we just don't get hats. You should see Walker's suits now. Diana would be stunning in them.

Most people agree that Diana looked her best after her separation from Prince Charles. She started wearing non-British designers like Versace and Valentino, but her go-to designer at that time seems to be London-based Jaques Azagury, a designer I'd not been aware of. His flattering evening dresses were our favorites in the show.

Misha's favorite. Worn to a Red Cross gala in Washington DC.

Anne's favorite. Worn to a British Ballet performance of Swan Lake during the time when Prince Charles was being seen publicly with Camilla Parker Bowles.

My favorite. The dress she wore to her last public appearance before her death, a charity event on her birthday (what a drag!).

The rest of the exhibit showed some of her hand-written thank-you notes (she must have spent half her days writing thank-yous), a huge case-full of condolence books, some open and written by children (sniff), and in the last room a blown-up copy of her brother's eulogy with Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" song playing in the background. Ok, time to go!

Thanks, Anne & Misha for a fun day!

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