Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Royal Review: Diana, The Life of a Royal Icon

It was so close I could have touched it.

Dress by Catherine Walker
Circa 1992
I didn't but I could have. One of the famous dresses auctioned by Diana, Princess of Wales. A dress that I had seen countless times in books, was now two feet in front of me. It was one of my favorites. The burgundy velvet dress with the striking embroidery by Catherine Walker was stunning. Diana had worn it to the premiere of Steel Magnolias in 1990. It had travelled the world and now it stood on a mannequin in a corner of the Design Exchange gift shop.The dress itself possibly cost more than all of the artisan items in the store combined, thus making everything look rather cheap by comparison.

Dress by Catherine Walker
I thought back to the last time I had seen this dress. It had been 1998 and the exhibit Dresses for Humanity had come into town. I was very excited to see the famous dresses. Auctioned only the year before, here was a chance to actually see them in person. At the time, the exhibit had included a few loaner dresses - ones Diana wore to the Christie's preview galas in London and New York. This time round it was just the 14 dresses that belonged to Maureen Rorech Dunkel. Previously the dresses had been protected in their own glass case with built in lighting to show its contents to full effect. Now only three of the 14 were behind glass. The famous ink blue velvet 'Travolta' dress Diana had worn to the White House in 1985, and two dresses by Catherine  Walker, a long dress with an embroidered bolero and a chic sarong evening dress embroidered with pearls and sequins.

Various dresses by Catherine Walker
The remaining dresses were placed in another room, where they stood lined up in a rectangle, with signs offering background information on where Diana had worn them. To get to this section you had to pass a room filled with photographs of trees and bark. No rhyme or reason to it. Is this really how far the cachet of the collection had fallen? Previously, no photography had been allowed. Now almost everyone was taking photographs, myself included. A predictable film of Diana's life played as people walked through the exhibit.

By Catherine Walker
Circa 1993
Thankfully this was only a temporary home for this collection. The dresses are set to be auctioned off by the Canadian auction house Waddington's on June 23.  Reading about Ms Rorech Dunkel's experiences with the collection, the care she had taken to preserve it, and then seeing the dresses out in the open for anyone to touch was a disappointment. Hopefully the new owners will continue to treat the dresses with the respect that they deserve.

© Marilyn Braun 2011

Thank you for enjoying this article. If you use the information for research purposes, a link to credit the work I've put into writing it would be appreciated.


sweet harvest moon said...

Great post!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I went to see this exhibition about 2 years ago, when it was down at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Afterwards, I stayed to hear Tina Brown talk about Diana. She said nothing new but I did get an autographed copy of the paperback version of her biography of Diana.

What Kate Wore said...

It is amazing you were able to get that close *and* take photos, wow! I wish I could see some of these in person as well, the construction and fabrics have to be amazing closeup.

Marilyn Braun said...

The original exhibit was wonderfully done.In all honesty I was quite disappointed by it this time around because it was very bare bones. That one dress really should not have been in a corner of the gift shop. I was standing 2 feet from it. After all of these years it will be interesting to see what the dresses go for at auction.

Yes, when looking at the these dresses up close the details are absolutely amazing. Gives me far more appreciation for the work that goes into producing them. Just stunning.

The Court Jeweller said...

Seeing the dresses in Earl Spencer's traveling Diana exhibit a few weeks ago was the highlight of that experience for me ... I can't imagine what it would be like to be as close as you were to these gowns! Too bad that the quality of the exhibition was lacking. Hope they find good homes/exhibition spaces after the auction!