The Untimely Death of Diana’s Dresses

Flanked by overexcited white haired women with large digital cameras and cute cardigans, I found myself at the Toronto Design Exchange’s newest exhibit, “Diana, The Dresses,” a collection of 14 gowns Diana, Princess of Wales once owned and wore. The 14 now belong to a woman named Maureen Rorech Dunkel from Tampa Bay, who purchased them at Diana’s famous charity auction at Christie’s in 1997, just two months before Diana was killed. On June 23, the dresses will again find new owners: Waddington’s, a Canadian auction house, will be selling the famous gowns, from designers like Victor Edelstein and Catherine Walker, with prices estimated as high as $1,000,000. Until then, the dresses are available for public viewing at the Design Exchange building.

Knowing all of this ahead of time, I had prepared myself to be amazed. The exhibit promised an inside look at the wardrobe of the most photographed woman in history, and one of the 20th century’s most notable fashion icons. The chance to get up close and personal with Diana’s customized dresses sounded like a dream, especially in the midst of the fever produced by the recent royal wedding. But arriving at the small room, where lines of white, faceless mannequins modeled the floor-length frocks and a biography video illuminated the back wall, I felt an emotion I had not expected: sadness.

The gowns hung like ghosts on their plastic wearers, lifeless and still like the woman they once belonged to. Gazing at the intricate patterns, rich royal fabrics, and delicate details, I couldn’t help but wonder, will these dresses ever be worn again? The answer, sadly, is most likely no; the dresses themselves signify something far too personal. The off the shoulder midnight blue silk velvet evening gown by Victor Edelstein was worn to a Reagan state dinner, at which Diana danced with John Trovolta. The black silk crepe halter dress by Catherine walker was worn in a famous photoshoot with Mario Testino for Vanity Fair. The deep green silk velvet dinner dress with buttons down the back was worn only at state dinners, and has a child’s handprint mid thigh, most likely from a young prince. Although Lady Diana is dead and gone, these dresses hold her memories. My concern is: Can a life be held in fabric and threads?

For me, the answer is no. The collection was educational, beautiful and interesting, and the pieces included showed a sort of evolution of Diana, moving from whimsical airy white day dresses worn early in the princess’ life, to dark velvet creations with shocking necklines worn after her divorce. But as much as I looked and read, something was missing: Princess Diana wasn’t there, and her dresses were nothing without her 5’10 figure to don them. Patrons of the exhibit, like me, surely visited to feel they were coming closer to Diana, an unattainable public figure so many admired but few got to meet. Sadly, the exhibit only made me feel farther from the humanitarian “people’s princess” who once grabbed the entire world’s attention. The dresses have lost their grandeur, offering lists of memories that aren’t ours to keep, and metres of beautiful fabric we will never wear. The dresses themselves, like Diana, Princess of Wales, have suffered an untimely death.

Alyssa Garrison

Photos courtesy of the Toronto Design Exchange