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.
The tweed suit she wore on honeymoon in Scotland will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who can remember back to 1981. Even the least assiduous follower of the Royal Family will have this ensemble in their mental baggage. The image of the couple looking radiantly happy by a burn on the Balmoral estate is as emblematic of their "fairy tale" marriage as the Emanuels' spectacular baroque wedding dress (not in this show), while the baggy cut of the jacket inflects classic "county" style with a touch of that most reviled of Eighties garments, the bomber jacket. It was an early example of Diana's patronage of "high-low" fashion: the marriage of haute couture and street style.
From these relatively demure beginnings, Diana rapidly developed a more personal identity that stood decorous royal sartorial traditions on their head, working with a number of carefully chosen British designers to bring out a strain of wayward theatrical fantasy. Belville Sassoon's tight-fitting glass-bead encrusted black cocktail dress brings a touch of kinkiness to the princess fairytale, with its severe white collar that appears to have been sliced off across the top, while Diana's decision to wear Murray Arbeid's striking black and red flamenco-themed dress on an official visit to Spain – and with odd gloves – took chutzpah.
The idea that the style of the modern royals is pretty much the same as our own, but maybe a couple of rungs higher in terms of quality, is given the lie in a roomful of spectacular gowns created for state visits. Anyone who commissions forty designer outfits for a single foreign tour, as Diana was obliged to do - one of them embroidered with 20,000 pearls - doesn't exist in the same dimension as the rest of us.
A masterpiece of the dressmaker's art, Victor Edelstein's so-called Travolta dress should by any normal reckoning have been stiff-as-a-board with its dense velvet rouching, but proved superbly supple when Diana danced in it with John Travolta at the White House in 1985, in one of those electric moments that seemed to come naturally to the princess.
Catherine Walker's strapless pearl-encrusted, white crepe sheath with stiff-collared jacket, was dubbed the "Elvis dress" for its Vegas-style overkill. Walker became Diana's leading designer because, focusing entirely on couture, she was able to give the princess the time and concentration she needed, both on a practical and emotional level. Her green sequinned evening dress, worn on an official visit to Austria in 1986, is a big-shouldered, art-deco fantasia that shone a blazing turquoise under the press lights. A relic of Diana's "Dynasty" period, it's a reminder that her royal career ran parallel not only to a huge explosion of interest in fashion, but the great monetarist boom of the Eighties and Nineties.
Paradoxically, though, when she reined in on the excess following her separation from Charles in 1992, so that the focus would fall on her charity work – for Aids-related causes, children's hospitals, land-mine removal and much more – her look if anything was even more luminous, as embodied by Walker's perfectly simple, pale pink day suit.
The exhibition finishes with a selection of the 79 dresses sold at Diana's sale at Christies in New York in June 1997, which raised $3.4 milion for Aids and cancer charities. They include a sleeveless, backless green silk-velvet ball gown, with "smoking jacket" lapels referencing the style of some her key rivals, who weren't by this time other royals and aristocrats, but super models such as Cindy Crawford and pop stars of the order of Madonna. An ice-blue silk Versace ball gown with Ancient Egyptian-style beading immediately evokes Elizabeth Taylor in the film Cleopatra, and reflects Diana's decision to wear continental as well as British designers following the end of her royal duties.
This display is surrounded by blown-up photographs of Diana wearing some of these garments, taken for Vanity Fair by Mario Testino, the great glamour portraitist of the era, who aimed to give her a relaxed and natural look as though she'd "just come from a party". Yet behind the radiant smile there's a faint sense of unease: the fairy tale princess is already, you feel, the tragic heroine. Diana's New York sale, dispensing with so many extraordinary era-defining garments, seemed to presage a new stage in her life and career.
What that would have been, we'll never now know. But one thing is certain: you couldn't have made Diana up. Now that she's begun to recede into history, her story seems almost more extraordinary than it did when it was happening. Renaissance grandeur? The Gonzaga couldn't have got near this level of magnificence not even if, like Diana, they'd had all the world's media permanently at their beck and call.