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It remains Princess Diana’s—the silhouette of her ivory taffeta gown and its 25-foot train against the backdrop St Paul’s Cathedral as she walked down the aisle on her wedding day. And now, the detail within this key piece of can be seen up close as part of a new exhibition in the grounds of her former home Kensington Palace.
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The exhibit Royal Style in the Making explores the relationship between five significant royal designers and the clothes they made for the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana from 1930 to 1990. Also on show are sketches, letters, prototypes and interviews which tell the behind the scenes story of the collaborations leading up to some of the biggest royal fashion moments.
Diana’s dress, which was, is first approached from the back, with the train laid out in full. It is set against an image of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Kensington Palace curator Claudia Acott Williams notes that designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel measured the nave “so the width of the train is dictated by the width of the nave.” Acott Williams also shared how the hand-embroidered silk taffeta of the train was taking so long to create that Elizabeth Emanual brought her mother in to help with the embroidery.
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“We’re all so familiar with the silhouette, but what is so evident when you are in close contact with the dress is the level of detail and the love that’s in the detail,” Acott Williams said. “Obviously it was deigned to be seen on television from a distance and so the silhouette is a huge part of that that the over the top theatrical silhouette is about visibility. But for us what is much more special, and for me the real mastery of the dress, is actually in that minute detail of the embroidery that you can only see at close quarters.”
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Described as “heavy taffeta,” the dress is kept under low lighting for limited periods of time while on display. “Something like this will never go on display more frequently than say every ten years,” Acott Williams notes, in order to preserve the delicate fabric. The dress includes a piece of Queen Mary’s lace embroidered into the design, which Acott Williams described as a “something old.” “The Emanuels were very much drawing on traditional royal imagery and that’s the theme that runs throughout this—the way in which contemporary couturiers have looked back in order to create something that’s contemporary that gives that image of stability and continuity across generations. Royal women are rarely the leaders of fashion and that’s a deliberate choice, it’s to give that visual continuity across the generations and that’s why they often use the same designers that their predecessors have used.”
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This is the first time that the dress, which is usually kept in storage in Windsor Castle, has been shown at Kensington Palace since Diana died. It is also the first time it has been shown alongside her going away outfit, which was designed by David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon. Despite the fact that Diana went on to work alongside Sassoon many times throughout her royal life, Acott Williams shared how her initial encounter with the fashion house did not go quite so smoothly. “She was sent to them initially after her engagement...Apparently she went to the shop one evening...didn’t quite know what she was looking for.” Acott Williams shared how the sales assistant manning the shop was “keen to get home...and because she didn’t really know what she was looking for, she said why don’t you go down to Harrods they’ll probably have something that’s more what you’re after. And then it turned out that outfit that she bought was the outfit that she wore for the official engagement photographs. I think Sassoon has never quite forgiven that sales woman.”
The designer did, however, become instrumental in helping Diana shape her wardrobe in her years as a working royal. “She understood how what you are wearing could really covey a warmth, intimidation, it could reinforce hierarchy or it could undermine hierarchy and create more of a relationship,” Acott Williams said. “Never with a hat because she said you can't cuddle a child in a hat. Often with big costume jewelry because she would pick children up and they would play with it.”
Also on display is a prototype garment of the Queen Mother’s intricate dress for her husband’s coronation in 1937. Society designer Madame Handley-Seymour was described as a “deliberately strategic choice” as she was a favorite of Queen Mary and accustomed to designing for court but also fashion-forward. A Georgian-style dress designed by theatrical designer Oliver Messell and worn by Princess Margaret to a ball in 1964 is also on display.
The exhibition is open until January 2022. For more information and to book tickets,.
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