Princess Diana was a style leader during her lifetime and has become a fashion icon since her untimely death in 1997.
From Sloane Ranger to Dynasty Di and beyond, the princess went through a series of style evolutions which saw her transform before the eyes of the public.
Newsweek looks back at ten of Diana’s most famous dresses—elements which she used to help convey messages, signal strengths and mask weaknesses.
The most significant dress commissioned in Diana’s life was that of her wedding dress. She had said that up until her engagement, she owned only one ball dress suitable for parties and that was a 1970s blue tulle dress by her mother’s dressmakers, Regamus.
For a royal wedding dress, and the wedding dress of a future queen no less, the design had to be something special. The then Lady Diana Spencer sent off to various dress designers around London for sketches of proposed wedding dresses but in the end, she settled on the relatively young and inexperienced couple, David and Elizabeth Emanuel.
The couple made the dress in secret until it was debuted in front of the millions of people across the world who tuned in to watch the wedding.
The large bell shaped dress with enormous puffed sleeves and longest train in royal wedding history caused a stir when it was first seen. The paper taffeta had crumpled in the carriage on the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral and it looked as if a creased bride would be making her way down the aisle. Luckily for the Emanuels, the creases fell and the beautiful Diana set a visual standard for the rest of her tenure as Princess of Wales.
Diana never parted with her wedding dress and it was still among her possessions when she died. It has been inherited by her two sons, Princes William and Harry.
A midnight blue velvet evening dress worn by Diana to the White House in November 1985 has gone down in history under the name “The Travolta Dress.”
It is so called because that evening at the White House, Diana danced with Hollywood actor John Travolta who spun her around the dancefloor to the best advantage of the dress that fanned out in a dramatic twirl.
The dress was designed by London based dressmaker Victor Edelstein and was sold in 1997 for a record-breaking $222,500.
In 2019, the dress was offered for auction again and was sold for over $346,000, being acquired for the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection owned by the charity Historic Royal Palaces. The dress has since been on display at Kensington Palace, Diana’s former home.
Princess-in-Pink Ball Dress
This pink ball dress was designed for Diana by her close friend and favored dress designer, Catherine Walker.
Walker would hold the distinction of making more dresses for the princess than any other designer and the pair formed a strong working relationship which lasted over two decades.
Diana wore this pink and white ball dress during an official visit to Germany in 1987. The princess also wore the dress on a visit to Turkey in 1988 and for a formal portrait sitting. The dress was included in the 1997 Christie’s auction of her dresses and was sold for $28,750.
Grace Kelly “To Catch a Thief” Dress
This simple blue chiffon dress by Catherine Walker was worn by Diana on a visit to the South of France in May 1987 with Prince Charles. For the visit to the Cannes Film Festival, Diana paid a special tribute to one of the most iconic princesses to grace the silver screen, Grace Kelly. The Walker dress was a tribute to Kelly’s Edith Head designed costume in the Alfred Hitchcock classic movie, To Catch a Thief.
This pearl encrusted evening dress and bolero jacket was designed for Diana by Catherine Walker in 1989, intended to be worn on an official visit to Hong Kong.
In true Diana style, she couldn’t keep the dress locked up in a wardrobe until then so she decided to debut it at the British Fashion Awards at the Royal Albert Hall that same year.
Writing in her autobiography, Catherine Walker: An Autobiography by the Private Couturier to Diana, Princess of Wales, Walker wrote: “Whenever I saw the princess in this dress I could not help but feel that it would not be possible for anyone else to wear this dress and bolero. She shone in the dress and the dress shone around her in a shimmering column of glistening pearls.”
The dress sold in 1997 for $151,000 and was acquired by London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
White Chiffon, Rio Dress
This romantic one shouldered evening dress with an asymmetrical neckline and hem was worn by Diana during a visit to Brazil in April 1991. The dress was designed by Gina Fratini under the label of the house of Hartnell. Sir Norman Hartnell had been a favorite dressmaker of Queen Elizabeth II and had been designing for her from the 1930s up until his death in the 1970s.
The Hartnell brand continued under several new design proteges and Fratini’s dress for Diana caused a flurry of headlines in the fashion press as the princess entered the new decade of the ’90s on a simpler more elegant footing.
The Rio dress was included as lot no.1 in the Christies auction of the princess’ dresses and raised $85,000 for charity.
The revenge dress got its name from the circumstances surrounding its wearing. The cocktail length black dress with floating chiffon tail was designed by Christina Stambolian and purchased by Diana with no set occasion in mind for which to wear it.
According to the princess’ butler Paul Burrell in his book A Royal Duty, the princess decided to wear the dress on the evening a television interview with Prince Charles was airing in which he admitted that he had been unfaithful to his wife during the course of their marriage.
Diana wore the black dress to an opening at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1994 and her jaw-dropping appearance ensured that her image was on the front pages of newspapers the next day.
The dress sold for $74,000 in 1997.
John Galliano Met Gala Dress
In 1996, Diana paid a visit to New York and attended the world famous fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, the Met Gala.
For the occasion, Diana wore a sleek black silk evening dress by British designer John Galliano for the Parisian fashion house, Christian Dior. Diana’s appearance in the dress was praised by the fashion press who were covering the gala.
The princess changed her attitude towards her wardrobe in 1996 after she filed for divorce from Prince Charles. Before then, Diana’s wardrobe was sourced mainly from British designers. In 1996 and 1997, her fashion outlook changed to take in Paris, Milan and New York based designers as well as her established relied upon British designers.
36th Birthday Dress
For her 36th birthday, the one that would tragically be her last, Diana attended a red cross gala fundraiser at London’s Tate Gallery wearing a shimmering black evening dress by young designer Jacques Azagury.
The dress was a column cut evening gown with bow detailing on the shoulder straps and was accessorized by some of Diana’s most important jewels, emeralds, which were a wedding present from Queen Elizabeth II.
The Auction Dress
For the London auction preview of the sale of her dresses at Christies in 1997, Diana appeared in-person alongside a host of the designers whose work was represented in the sale.
For this event the princess wore a now iconic ice blue dress with floral embroidery from the designer Catherine Walker.
Writing in her autobiography of the auction, she said: “I was delighted to know that my designs, through the princess’ charity work, were now to be used to save lives.”