The Diana we knew: The Princess remembered as new exhibition opens
As a fascinating exhibition on Diana, Princess of Wales, opens in Kensington Palace, Bairbre Power meets up with a photographer and two top designers who got up close and personal with her.
The wedding dress designer: Elizabeth Emanuel is one of the design duo behind Diana's wedding dress and 'engagement blouse', which is one of the most beloved pieces in the exhibition.
When Irish-born hairdresser Kevin Shanley did Lady Diana Spencer's hair for a Vogue magazine portrait in 1981, he couldn't have imagined that his chin-length bob with swept-back fringe would trigger a worldwide craze for the 'Lady Di' haircut.
It was the perfect accompaniment for the silk chiffon blouse which Diana selected from a rail of clothes in the Vogue offices to wear for her portrait by Lord Snowdon. The shoot was for an article on 'upcoming beauty', but by the time it was published, Diana's engagement to the Prince of Wales had been announced.
The romantic blouse, by husband-and-wife team David and Elizabeth Emanuel, shot to fame as Diana's 'engagement blouse'. In 2008, it was bought by Newbridge Silverware for its Museum of Style Icons, which has now loaned it to the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition.
Within an hour of looking at the blouse up close at the palace, I'm sipping tea with designer Elizabeth in her London studio.
"The fabric was originally ivory and we dyed it pale pink in our sink to match a taffeta skirt," she says. "The magazine rang us and asked us if we had something romantic for the shoot. Diana liked the blouse, asked Vogue who made it, and that's how we first started to see her. We were close to her age group. She liked our style and let us get on with it. She was a really easy client for us. She was 19 when we met her, in nursery school teaching and didn't have a need to get dressed up. Her style did evolve over time."
When Diana phoned to make her first appointment with the Emanuels, Elizabeth wrote her name down wrong. "But when she walked in, there had been so much press, we knew immediately who she was. Diana had various names when she made appointments. She was Deborah Cornwall, or anything starting with D, we knew we were talking about Diana."
Diana wore an Emanuel black silk taffeta sequinned gown for her first public appearance with Charles, which caused a sensation when she leaned down to get out of the car. Too much cleavage? "We didn't think so at the time, but we learned afterwards that there were certain things we had to watch and be careful not to do. But we were quite naive then."
Showing me her beautiful scrapbook of photographs and sketches chronicling the journey of the wedding dress, Elizabeth concedes it was quite stressful. "We had only been out of college a year. We didn't have anyone to hold our hand or talk to. We couldn't tell anyone our plan for the dress and we knew this dress was going to be part of history."
Diana would come to their studio on Brook Street with her bodyguard, and there would be crowds outside.
"We were so worried, we had shutters put on the windows and left false trails in our bins and put in false threads."
The photographer: John Minihan
Dublin-born John recalls the day he met the “gracious” Lady Diana Spencer. His iconic backlit photograph of her outside the kindergarten where she worked was a world first and introduced Prince Charles’s new girlfriend to the world. He says:
Diana was lovely, very nice, and I’ve always said she was the human face of the royal family. I remember the vivaciousness that Diana had — the sparkle of this young woman who had met her prince. She really believed in that whole fairy-tale thing.”
Fleet Street photographer John Minihan made front-page news at the Evening Standard in September 1980, and his image was picked up by newspapers around the world after he photographed the teenage bride-to-be outside the Young England Kindergarten in Pimlico.
“I started work at six in the morning and, that day, in the Daily Mail there was a story by their diarist, Nigel Dempster, that Prince Charles had relinquished his relationship with Lady Sarah Spencer and was now courting her younger sister, who was working in a crèche in Pimlico.”
Dispatched to find her, John says, “I was the first photographer on the scene and I asked to speak to Lady Diana Spencer. She came out and she couldn’t have been more gracious, and she said, ‘What can I do?’
She had obviously been primed by the Palace to expect a posse of photographers after the story appeared. I asked to photograph her with the children, and they had to get parents’ permission, which one of her colleagues did.
“It was about 7.10am by now; the sun started beaming and I photographed Diana as kind of a Madonna-like mother and child. Looking through my Nikon, I just saw the light illuminating her dress.
“I took the photograph and we had a dispatch rider to ferry that roll of film back to the office. The picture editor asked me to stick around. Later, other photographers turned up and she wasn’t going to come out again. I went and knocked on the door and said, ‘Diana, I’m really sorry but is it possible we could reshoot the picture?’
“ I made some corny excuse that there had been a mistake in the dark room but, of course, there wasn’t.
“She came out again and reshot the pictures for the other photographers there. But I think I got the best of the photographs.
“Within a week, every time she came out of her flat in Earl’s Court, she was assaulted by a posse of camera crews. It was just awful.
“I remember one day she drove to Berkeley Square and I followed like everyone else. She got out of her car, walked into the square and burst out crying. I actually refused to take a photograph.
“Later that day, I got a dozen roses and went back to her apartment. I rang her doorbell. She saw me and came down to the door.
“It was just me and her talking together. I was dripping with cameras and I said, ‘I’m really sorry about what happened today because it was awful; it was just dreadful.’
She took the flowers and said something like, ‘Oh, I was being silly.’ It was clear she felt dejected.
“She was just a teenager and didn’t know what was going to be on the road 17 years on. I knew then that her life was going to be surrounded by what I call ‘camera assassins’.
“When I told the picture editor that I hadn’t taken the picture of her crying, I was lambasted. I wasn’t supposed to make decisions like that but I felt I was an ambassador for my newspaper and you are supposed to make decisions. It’s not ethical — it’s not right.”
John says he didn’t try to take a photograph in the moment with Diana on her doorstep.
“You know, there are certain moments in everyone’s life and career when not everything is photographable. You have to cherish the moment.”
Based on his experiences, John penned an article years later entitled The Camera Assassins and, as fate would have it, it was first published in Ireland one week before Diana’s death.
“In a sense, the camera — which can be a testimony to innocence — can also do an awful lot of damage,” John says.
Diana: Her Fashion Story is running at Kensington Palace. To book, see hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace
The designer: Paul Costelloe
Designer Paul Costelloe started dressing Diana after a lady-in-waiting spotted his clothes in Windsor and thought they would suit her. He used to visit her at her apartment in Kensington Palace to do the fittings. He says:
You couldn’t push Diana into something you thought might suit her. Well, I certainly didn’t anyway — I stood back and let her choose. Diana had strong opinions and she wouldn’t hesitate in saying, ‘No, that’s not for me’. She knew what suited her and she knew what would attract people’s notice.
“When it came to clothing, Diana also knew what was good quality.
“She came from a wealthy family and was probably shopping in Harrods from the age of four. The Spencers were never short of money, and she was probably never short of wearing nice clothes when she was growing up.
“I always found Diana to be warm, very personable and very unpretentious. She always seemed a little lonely when I visited her at Kensington Palace. She would always offer me a cup of tea and a slice of fruitcake — indeed, she always invited my cab driver into the palace kitchen for a cup of tea, and then she would go off and try on the clothes.
“I would make a selection of what I thought would be appropriate and Diana might say, ‘I’m going on tour and I need to cover my arms or make the skirt longer’.
“Diana was a perfect size 10. She was very easy to fit, unlike Fergie, who was slightly more difficult, to put it mildly.”
Paul made headlines in 1988 when Diana wore one of his yellow dresses to Australia’s Bondi Beach and she didn’t know where to look with the half-naked lifeguards beside her.
In India, she wore a pleated, slightly sheer pink skirt and jacket designed by him. Paul’s all-time favourite choice was the suit she wore to see Pavarotti sing in Hyde Park.
“It was a double-breasted dinner suit with diamond buttons.
“She looked gorgeous because she was so natural. She always looked best when she was being true to herself and not posing.
“I always brought flowers to Diana and she would be so thrilled and would send a note the next day. We have kept all the Christmas cards she sent to me.
“I still clearly remember my first visit to her at Kensington Palace and touching the couch and saying to myself, ‘I am in fact here’.
“That was a moment in my life that I will never forget. That, and the night she died, listening to it unfold on the radio.”