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The story behind Princess Diana’s engagement blouse – back on sale for $100,000

The blouse featured in media coverage about the engagement the world over
The blouse featured in media coverage about the engagement the world over - Getty

When the shy, young nursery teacher Lady Diana Spencer first arrived at British Vogue’s offices in 1981, she was met with a rail of outfits to choose from. She was to be photographed by Antony Armstrong Jones, Lord Snowdon, in a portfolio of London’s pretty young aristocrats.

But the publication of the portrait in the magazine’s February 1981 issue ended up being somewhat eclipsed by Diana’s personal news. Its release coincided with her engagement to the future King Charles. The resulting image was published in newspapers around the world, and used as one of her engagement portraits. Another, also by Snowdon, shows the couple with arms wrapped around each other.

This December, the blush blouse worn by Diana in that Vogue portrait will be sold by Julien’s Auction House in Los Angeles. Its estimate - $80,000 to $100,000 - might be considered modest given that the late Princess’s “sheep jumper” fetched more than $1 million when it was sold in September.

Diana reveals her sapphire and diamond engagement ring alongside Charles in the grounds of Buckingham Palace
Diana reveals her sapphire and diamond engagement ring alongside Charles in the grounds of Buckingham Palace - getty

“Princess Diana’s popularity and glamour, then and now, has never gone out of style and is at an all-time high with her sons now grown up and in the spotlight as the future heirs to the throne,” Martin Nolan, the co-founder and executive director of Julien’s Auctions tells The Telegraph.

“With so many [current] fashion magazines and television shows such as The Crown all celebrating the fashions Diana wore, this is the perfect time to include these iconic and historic items in our auction.”

Nolan describes the condition of the blouse today as “really good, given its age” and shares that it has been kept in a “climate-controlled environment”.

“It has only faded slightly over the years,” he says. “I wore gloves when I touched this blouse but I could instantly picture a young Diana wearing it.”

The pink crepe blouse worn by Diana for her engagement portrait in 1981 will go to auction in California
The pink crepe blouse worn by Diana for her engagement portrait in 1981 will go to auction in California - Julien's Auctions

What is most intriguing about this particular item - more so than others that have come to auction in recent years - is that there are more layers to its fashion story, all of which will ultimately contribute to its value in the eyes of a collector.

There are known facts, such as that the blouse was worn in the Vogue image, as well as featured in media coverage about the engagement the world over. It has already been deemed museum worthy - it was previously on display in 2019 at Kensington Palace as part of the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story.

But this chiffon blouse also represents the first time Diana became familiar with the Emanuel label - design duo David and Elizabeth Emanuel went on to make her wedding dress - one of the most memorable in history - that July.

Then a pair of young fashion graduates, the Emanuels were asked by Vogue to send “high neck” and “romantic” clothes for the shoot.

“One day, we received a phone call from Vogue telling us that they were doing a feature on upcoming beauties and wondering … whether we could help them out with any suitable clothes for the photoshoot,” the pair explained in their book A Dress For Diana.

Design duo David and Elizabeth Emanuel
Design duo David and Elizabeth Emanuel - Philip Hollis

Another client had recently asked for a pale pink skirt to be custom made for her. When she had tried it on, she managed to get mascara on it and rather than clean it the Emanuels made her a new one. They salvaged the stained skirt and made a blouse to match it - said blouse ended up being the sample that was sent to Vogue.

“When Diana saw our blouse on the rack she fell in love with it, asked who had made it, and was directed to us,” the Emanuels said. “That was the beginning of our relationship with Diana.”

As to who at Vogue had made the call out for “romantic” clothes, it was down to a fashion department run by Anna Harvey, the fashion editor who would go on to become Diana’s wardrobe whisperer, stylist and confidante, from her engagement until the day she died.

Harvey and her colleagues pulled plenty of options from a range of designers for all of the subjects being profiled to choose from - Diana had felt comfortable in their company, because both of her older sisters had worked for the magazines.

Harvey, who went on to become a fashion columnist for The Telegraph until she died in 2018, said that her most famous client first came to her with nothing in her own wardrobe aside from a few Laura Ashley blouses and some bobbly jumpers.

Philip Hollis
Diana in her Emanuel wedding dress at Buckingham Palace - PA

Speaking to The Telegraph in 2017, she explained why she thought Vogue’s then-editor Beatrix Miller first formally asked her to put together some outfits for the newly engaged Diana.

“I think probably in choosing me, Vogue was playing it quite safe. The editors could see the danger of turning her into a fashion plate, and the criticism Vogue would get for that, and I think they thought the risk was less with somebody like me.

“I was unbelievably excited and nervous and terrified that people would say, ‘My God, why is she wearing that?’”

The Emanuel blouse, with its distinct ruff collar and satin pussy bow, straddled that line of stylishness and appropriateness perfectly. The English romantic look suited her, Harvey would say.

The fact that the Emanuels went on to earn the wedding dress commission, and that Harvey was ultimately hired to help style Diana on a permanent basis, shows that the Princess was truly pleased with the result. Elizabeth Emanuel sold the blouse from her archive in 2010 for £22,000 via Kerry Taylor auctions.

As to who will now choose to buy this piece of fashion history at auction remains to be seen. Previous garments that belonged to the princess have been sold to collectors and enthusiasts as well as to museums and archivists. Julien’s also has another item - a Jacques Azagury evening dress - which Diana wore in 1985 for sale. Perhaps the right buyer could snap up both in a two-for-one special.