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How Diana broke mould to become a self-made style icon of the world


Forced to be guarded in everything she said, Diana developed an uncanny ability to communicate through her clothes, writes Bairbre Power, who was given a private tour of a new exhibition of the late princess' clothing at London's Kensington Palace.

When Prince Charles started dating her in 1980, Lady Diana Spencer's uninspiring Laura Ashley-meets-Sloane Ranger uniform of flat shoes, voluminous skirts and pearls yielded no clues to any fashion pretensions.

It sounds utterly incredible when you consider Diana's style icon status at the time of her death in August 1997, but back in 1981 - when the doe-eyed Diana got engaged - she fessed up to owning just three items of clothing. Of course, she had clothes at her disposal, borrowed from friends, two older sisters who worked at Vogue and a mother who was a prolific couture client.

Diana's capsule wardrobe included a shirt and a nice of pair of shoes. The piece de resistance was a ready-to-wear Regamus frilled 'debs' dress from Harrods.

This blue net gown with velvet bow was effectively Diana's "dress zero on her journey to her fashion icon status", explains Eleri Lynn, curator of the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition that runs at Kensington Palace from 2017, the 20th-anniversary year of her death.

Eleri talks me through the exhibition on an exclusive tour before the eager 10am crowds pour through the doors. The young Welsh woman has a wealth of knowledge and years of experience curating royal clothing dating back to the Tudors. Eleri gives clues and insights to how the girl with the mousy hair - 'Shy Di' as Fleet Street dubbed her - became an international style icon. And how, as she morphed into the most photographed woman in the world, Diana learned the art of speaking through her clothes.

After her wedding in 1981 Diana became a mould breaker and stepped away from traditional royal styling.

There were no tiaras or gloves for the princess, and she strategically used colour - especially if she knew she would be surrounded by men in black suits and wanted her dress to 'pop' for the cameras.

The youngest daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer of Althorp may have spectacularly failed her O-levels, twice, but she was not stupid.

And when it came to clothing, the princess was impressive in her intuitive use of fabrics, such as making a point of wearing tactile velvet if she was going to meet people with visual impairments.

Diana knew her strengths and she knew the people who could help her achieve her goals, especially as her fairy tale marriage crumbled and she forged a career in humanitarian work.

She has been accused of being manipulative with the Press, feeding them stories at strategic times to annoy the royals. Though she could not always speak her mind publicly, she similarly fed us clues about her mindset through her clothing - most memorably when she captured the attention of the world in 1994 by stepping out in a figure-hugging black silk 'revenge dress' on the day that Charles confessed to an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The Kensington Palace exhibition includes 25 outfits in themed display cabinets and illustrations by the designers who dressed her.

It was warmly supported by companies and individual collectors who loaned pieces in her anniversary year.

The exhibition offers insights into how Diana switched from her early Sloaney tendencies to Emanuel sophistication; the label's cream pie-crust blouse with ribbon which she wore for a portrait in Vogue in 1980 was loaned by the Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons in Co Kildare.

Eleri acknowledges that when Diana first stepped "onto that international stage, she wasn't experienced in high fashion and it was very much a learned process for her".

What's absolutely clear is that Diana didn't leave anything to chance. She pored over newspapers and magazines and clearly read the reviews.

If outfits were dissed, we never saw the clothes again.

If they were praised, she wore them time and time again, and that was the case with what she called her "caring wardrobe" - those carefully chosen outfits for her many philanthropic visits to hospitals.

Colour was top of her list to convey approachability and warmth, and one of her all-time favourite dresses was a David Sassoon crepe de chine blue floral dress, an outfit that she wore many times because children found it so appealing.

"She would cuddle them and they would try and pick the flowers off the print. It showed that, in addition to looking regal and glamorous, she was also very aware of how to look approachable, warm and informal when breaking down barriers."

Eleri explains that Diana seldom wore a hat "because she said you can't cuddle a child in a hat".

She also rarely wore gloves.

"Her stylist, Anna Harvey (former deputy editor of Vogue), bought her dozens of gloves and she never wore them because she liked to hold hands," Eleri continues.

"There was one very obvious time when she wore gloves and then conspicuously removed them in order to hold hands with a patient suffering from Aids. She was breaking down taboos that way, and using fashion and clothing to really hammer home the point.

"She always said that she wasn't much of an intellectual but they talk about the emotional intelligence, and the way she created her image and very carefully thought about all these different things. She was very clever."

Back in the early 1980s, however, Diana didn't realise the 'currency' of her own clothes and gave a lot of them away.

"A number of outfits ended up in charity shops, and we've actually bought items from auction that were disposed of in a black bin bag from Sandringham. We tracked down the provenance because they were one-offs made for Diana," explains Eleri.

With time, Diana developed a confidence in her dressing. Her Bellville Sassoon black and white tuxedo dress was regarded as quite subversive, an unusual choice for a princess - not least because the royals didn't wear black: that was for mourning. But Diana was, again, breaking the mould.

The designers Eleri spoke to all commented on how charming and charismatic she was and about her "incredible presence". Talking fashion with them, she would sit on the floor going through sketches and feeling the fabrics. Designer Jasper Conran recounted to Eleri how "when the princess discussed her clothes with me, part of it was always: 'What message will I be giving out if I wear this?' For her, that became the real language of clothes," he said.

Diana constantly returned to her favourite designers such as Catherine Walker, who used a flattering technique called 'elongated torso' that featured incredible tailoring around the waist.

"It was a technique that Catherine never deviated from and once the princess realised how well it suited her, she never deviated from it either," says Eleri.

"From then, her dresses are incredibly sleek, fluid silhouettes, and gone are the ruffles and the complicated details."

The exhibition includes some marvellous red carpet gowns which illustrate her knack at diplomatic dressing, with careful tributes to host nations, such as the cream gown with embellished gold birds down the back for her visit to Saudi Arabia.

There are also glamorous gowns which were auctioned months before her death to raise money for charity. There are poignant moments, too, in the exhibition, as you glimpse the tiny fingermarks on a velvet evening gown; the theory is they were left by her two sons.

One of her prettiest gowns was inspired by a dress Grace Kelly wore in Hitchcock's 1955 romantic comedy To Catch A Thief. Diana wore it to the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. Just as she had planned, her dress 'popped' in a sea of black tuxedos but, as perfect as it looks in the display cabinet, I later discover that the romantic gown was wrapped up in a tragic moment for the princess. In Cannes she would learn from Prince Charles that Barry Mannakee, a police bodyguard to whom she was very close, had been killed in an accident.

Glamorous gowns are not the only clothing we associate with Diana. After her divorce, when she was trying to promote her humanitarian work, Eleri says that Diana realised she needed the Press to concentrate on her work, not her wardrobe. "She said: 'I want to be known as a work horse, not a clothes horse', and her day uniform became incredibly executive and professional, with shift dresses and suits in cheery colours so she was approachable."

The exhibition has, unsurprisingly, proved to be hugely popular with the public thus far. Eleri says: "We still get so many visitors to Kensington Palace because it was her former home, so we wanted to celebrate her life in style.

"Fashion is such a good way to do that because, although she did not like to be known as a clothes horse, she intuitively understood the language of fashion.

"She was perhaps one of the first people to properly capture that image-making for the new generation of media in the 20th century," Eleri concludes.

"From the time she stepped onto that international stage, the news was changing - tabloids and 24-hour rolling news and the dawn of the digital age. She was a very active participant in the creation of her image."

Diana: Her Fashion Story is running at Kensington Palace. To book, see

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