On November 4th, 1981, barely three months into her marriage to Prince Charles, Princess Diana fell asleep on stage during the opening reception of an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum entitled Splendours of the Gonzaga – while wearing, as it happens, a spectacular floral gown by one of her favourite designers, David Sassoon. All aspects of this incident are telling. Her snooze at this august moment was an example of the naturalness and unpretentiousness which were to humanise, not to say revolutionise the image of the Royal Family. The dress represents her lifelong passion for fashion. And the theme of the exhibition, while it might appear incidental, couldn’t be more relevant as you walk around Kensington Palace's much-anticipated, riveting new show of some of her most iconic dresses.
The Gonzaga, the ruling family of Renaissance Mantua, patrons of Leonardo, Raphael and Titian, paraded their magnificence to inspire awe and admiration among their subjects. But while Diana, with her fondness for baseball caps and George Michael's music, might have, on the one hand, been the most modern of royals, her image, as demonstrated here, was founded on the same historical traditions of princely grandeur: traditions which Diana updated and brilliantly, if sometimes unwittingly, manipulated to her own ends.
Featuring 25 dresses each of which tells a story in its own right, the show charts Diana's fashion progress in six themed displays. Your impression on entering the first room is of how long ago it all now seems; there's little here to indicate that we're in the second half of the 20th century. In the late Seventies, upper class young women still tried to emulate their mothers' style, and Diana's 1979 debutante coming-out ballgown by Regamus, a label popular with Sloane Rangers, has a sort of female fogey look, with a Jane Austen-style high waist and a nylon net-lace overlay lending a touch of New Romantic frilliness.
The story behind the famous floppy-collared "Lady Di" blouse exemplifies how her royal career was a carefully managed spectacle, though one that was to take unpredictable turns. The epitome of English-rose ingénue style, the pale pink chiffon blouse with its satin neck ribbon, by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, was worn by Diana in a Vogue feature on up-and-coming beauties – in a now iconic photograph by Lord Snowdon – which hit the newsstands on the very day that her engagement to Prince Charles was announced. The blouse, meanwhile, was immediately copied up and down the high street and sold in millions within days.