Fashion historian reveals secrets of Princess Diana's wardrobe

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·6-min read
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Diana became a fashion icon as a royal. (PA images)

Princess Diana was a master of dressing to communicate, according to an historical fashion expert, who looks after the royal’s clothes.

Eleri Lynn was the curator of 'Diana: Her Fashion Story', an exhibition which was held at Kensington Palace, the princess’s former home in 2018.

Lynn said: “It can seem frivolous talking about somebody’s fashion as if it’s all that defines them.

“But fashion is an important way into history.

“Diana was a master of using clothes as a form of language, as a form of communication.

“She very famously said to Jasper Conran, ‘what message am I giving out?’”

Lynn was in conversation with historian and Historic Royal Palaces' joint chief curator Lucy Worsley in an event on Thursday evening, and revealed a secret about one of the most recent acquisitions of the late Princess of Wales’s wardrobe.

The palace has acquired a hacking jacket which was worn by Diana as a teenager in the 1970s. It even has an ‘Althorp’ label stitched into the back, suggesting she may have taken it to school (her father was the Viscount Althorp).

 In this photo provided by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Princess Diana dances with John Travolta in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, D.C. at a Dinner for Prince Charles and Princess Diana of the United Kingdom on November 9, 1985. (Photo by Pete Souza/Ronald Reagan Library/CNP) *** Please Use Credit from Credit Field ***
Diana dancing with John Travolta in 1985 at the White House. (Photo by Pete Souza/Ronald Reagan Library/CNP)

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Lynn said: “I always check the pockets of the items in my care, I’m hoping to find a love letter from Wallis Simpson in jacket belonging to Edward VIII.

“In the pocket of the hacking jacket I found three little hankies, very soft pastel hankies, a little blue one, a little pink one, a little yellow one.

“It’s very evocative, because it’s the sort of thing a teenage girl would do, grab a handful of hankies and shove them into her pocket.

“It’s quite moving to be responsible for things like that, because the last hand that might have been in that pocket might have been Diana’s, so there’s a real connection to the past and it’s one reason fashion is such a good link to our palaces and the people who lived in them.”

Lynn also revealed the answer to one question many royal fans may have - when they could see the wedding dress Diana wore when she married Prince Charles.

The curator said the dress is “part of the private collection of the Dukes of Sussex and Cambridge”.

So it’s unlikely to be on public display unless Princes William and Harry decide to do so.

29th July 1981:  Charles, Prince of  Wales, with his wife, Princess Diana (1961 - 1997), on the altar of St Paul's Cathedral during their marriage ceremony.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Diana's wedding dress is now part of William and Harry's private collection. (Getty Images)
24/02/1981: On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement  PRINCE CHARLES AND LADY DIANA SPENCER AT BUCKINGHAM PALACE AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THEIR ENGAGEMENT.  Picture by PA Court Photographer Ron Bell
Diana bought her suit from Harrod's after a bad experience at the couturier. (PA Images)

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While Diana is thought of as a fashion icon now, the princess was not always so confident. Lynn recalled her first visit to a couturier, before her engagement to Charles.

“Her mother said ‘you must go in by yourself’, so she went in unannounced, David [Sassoon, the owner] wasn’t there, and neither was his business partner.

“All the shop assistants could see was a very shy young teenager looking through the clothes, so they said we don’t think there’s anything here for you and sent her on her way,” Lynn said.

She added: “A very young shop assistant then said ‘isn’t that the girl who is going to marry the Prince of Wales?’”

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 15: David Sassoon attends a private view for Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, featuring more than sixty designs from 1950 to the present day, at The V&A on May 15, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart Wilson/Getty Images)
David Sassoon became good friends with Diana. (Getty Images)

Diana instead visited Harrod’s where she bought the blue suit which she wore in the photographs of her engagement to Charles.

The relationship was recovered and Diana became good friends with Sassoon, and he was a favourite designer.

Lynn explained how Diana pushed boundaries with her fashion, being the first female member of the Royal Family to wear trousers to an evening engagement.

And in her maternity wear, she made a feature of the bump, which was unusual at the time she was pregnant.

PA NEWS : 15/1/97 : DIANA, PRINCESS OF WALES, WEARS A PROTECTIVE MASK AND JACKET AS SHE STANDS NEXT TO A WARNING SIGN ON THE EDGE OF A MINEFIELD IN ANGOLA, DURING HER VISIT TO SEE THE WORK OF THE BRITISH RED CROSS. (PHOTO BY JOHN STILLWELL ). Clare Short, struck a similar pose when she stood in the midst of a mock-up mine field on Brighton Beach as part of the Government's heightened campaign to ban landmines which was announced during the Labour Party Conference. See PA story LABOUR Landmines.   The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which came to prominence following the Princess's death, and campaign coordinator Jody Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace prize on 10/10/97. See PA story NOBEL Mines.   Photo by John Stillwell/PA  The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, called on the US and British governments to halt the use of cluster bombing in Afghanistan. The fund's chief executive, Andrew Purkis, warned that the weapons, recently deployed against Taliban forces on the front line with the Northern Alliance, represented a serious long-term threat to civilians, similar to that posed by landmines.
The logo on her jacket was drawn on with pen by a Halo Trust representative. (PA Images)

As Diana went on in royal life, she used her clothes to help her look approachable to others, wearing one bright floral dress at least five times on visits to children’s hospitals.

Lynn said 1985 marked a turning point for Diana, because she stopped “being fashionable”.

She said: “She stops following seasonal shifts and changing trends, and develops a timeless elegance.

“She realises the frills and ruffles and bows and clutter wasn’t working and develops a style of a sleek silhouette, which works well for the cameras, and she sticks with it for the rest of her life.”

One of the most famous dresses of that time became known as the Travolta dress, because she wore it to the White House, where she danced with John Travolta.

Diana’s fashion went through changes as she shifted away from royal life and duties after her separation from Prince Charles.

She continued her focus on literal dressing, but didn’t solely stick to British designers, expanding her wardrobe of names to include the likes of Chanel and Versace.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: A 1990 Bruce Oldfield cream satin dress (C) worn by Princess Diana during a visit to the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1990 and a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace in 1991(C) on display next to a 1987 Catherine Walker pink satin evening gown (R) worn by princess Diana for an official portrait in 1987 as well as during official visits to Germany  at a press preview at Kensington Palace on February 22, 2017 in London, England. The exhibition 'Diana: Her Fashion Story', which showcases a number of the Princess' dresses and outfits, opens to the public on February 24 as part of events commemorating the life of Princess Diana to mark the 20th anniversary of her death in Paris on August 31st, 1997.  (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A 1990 Bruce Oldfield cream satin dress (C) worn by Princess Diana during a visit to the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1990 and a State Banquet at Buckingham Palace in 1991(C) on display next to a 1987 Catherine Walker pink satin evening gown (R) worn by princess Diana for an official portrait in 1987 as well as during official visits to Germany at the exhibition. (Getty Images)

Another key outfit she is remembered for is the practical shirt and trousers she wore in Angola when she walked through a landmine field to raise awareness of mines.

Lynn said of the flak jacket Diana wore: “There’s a white square, it’s very faint but it says Halo Trust.

“It was not a well known charity at the time, so Diana was promoting a cause that was not well known, and the Halo Trust representative on the ground when preparing for Diana’s visit, thought ‘well I guess there might be some press, maybe I should put the logo on the front of the jacket’.

“He cut up a pillowcase and drew the logo on with a felt tip pen, which is why it’s so faded.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: A 1991 Atelier Versace silk gown worn by Princess Diana at a Harper's Bazaar photoshoot with Patrick Demarchelier on display at a press preview at Kensington Palace on February 22, 2017 in London, England. The exhibition 'Diana: Her Fashion Story', which showcases a number of the Princess' dresses and outfits, opens to the public on February 24 as part of events commemorating the life of Princess Diana to mark the 20th anniversary of her death in Paris on August 31st, 1997.  (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
A 1991 Atelier Versace silk gown worn by Princess Diana at a Harper's Bazaar photoshoot. (Getty Images)

Diana’s former home, Kensington Palace, is now the main residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Historic Royal Palaces is reopening Kensington Palace on 30 July, following closures because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prince William and Kate remain in Norfolk, where they are staying at their home, Anmer Hall.

Earlier this week it was revealed that William and his brother Harry have agreed to split the future proceeds of the fund which was set up in Diana’s memory, and continues to take in about £20,000 a year in legacies and donations.