Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Journey of Princess Diana's 'Elvis' Dress that launched a legal battle

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After her wedding dress and the John Travolta dressDiana's Elvis dress might be the third most well known of her outfits. Designed by Catherine Walker it is a remarkable example of craftsmanship and elegance, adding to the allure of an iconic princess.

The strapless sheath dress, in tinted white crepe silk, is embroidered with simulated pearls and white sequins. The jacket, with a stand up collar inspired by Elizabethan ruff, is edged in pearls. Designed for an official visit to Hong Kong in November 1989, the embroidery was by S. Lock Ltd. It was also worn for the British fashion awards in Albert Hall, London in 1989, in Budapest, and film premieres. Despite the original Elizabethan nod, it was nicknamed the 'Elvis dress.' It is estimated there are 20,000 hand embroidered pearls, and according to the designer, “What is not apparent from the pictures is the weight of the dress, which was immense“ 

Diana included the gown in her DRESSES from the Collection of Diana, Princess of Wales auction in June 1997. Prince William, who came up with the idea for the auction, thought the dress was ugly and reportedly said, "Mummy, it is too awful to sell." Thankfully Diana did not listen to him as the dress turned out to have the second highest bid. A Terrance Donovan photograph of Diana, wearing the gown and Lover's Knot tiara, is featured in the auction catalogue opposite a personal letter from Diana. 

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The dress was lot #78 at the auction. It sold for $151,000 to Lynda and Stewart Resnick, owners (at the time) of the Franklin Mint, as well as POM Wonderful and Fiji Water brands. According to court documents, when Lynda Resnick bought the dress at auction, ‘she did not intend to commercially exploit it.’

Nonetheless, the Resnick’s filed a trademark application on August 8, 1997 to produce “Diana - A forever Princess”, a 12-inch porcelain doll in a replica outfit. To ensure authenticity, Ms. Resnick had her staff count the beads so buyers would know the exact number on the original (22,000). The doll's dress was designed to scale with 2,000 hand-beaded fake pearls. The doll was an immediate hit and can still be found on eBay. 

In September 1997, the Resnicks made further trademark applications to use various product titles, including ‘Diana, the People’s Princess,’ Diana, Queen of Hearts,’ Diana, Angel of Mercy' and more. The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fund, authorized by Diana's Estate as the only charity authorized to use Diana's name, likeness and marks, refused permission. Despite this, the Franklin Mint continued to use Diana's image, resulting in a trademark/right of publicity infringement lawsuit.

The case was settled out of court in 2004, but caused the Fund to freeze several grants. The Fund continued operations until 2013, when it was merged into The Royal Foundation. The irony of the situation is the Fund was hardly protective custodians of Diana’s image, squandering it by licensing several tacky items, including lottery scratch cards, scented candles, perfumes, memorial tartans and tubs of margarine. 

Regardless of the controversy, it helped raise the profile of the dress and permanently ensure Diana’s connection to it. Unlike Diana's other gowns, which have come up for auction multiple times, the Elvis dress remained with the original owners. The Franklin Mint donated the dress to the Victoria and Albert museum in 2006, where it is currently in storage. 

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© Marilyn Braun 2020

Thank you for enjoying this article. If you wish to use it for research purposes, a link to credit my work would be appreciated.


DRESSES from the Collection of Diana, Princess of Wales. Christie's auction catalogue
The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown
Catherine Walker: An Autobiography by The Private Couturier to Diana, Princess of Wales

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Journey of Princess Diana's 'John Travolta' Dress

US Federal Government - Public Domain

Aside from her wedding dress, few dresses from Diana, Princess of Wales, are as iconic as Victor Edelstein's ink blue silk velvet dinner dress. Inspired by Edwardian dinner dresses, the lightly boned bodice velvet dress is intricately draped with a bow at the waist and a slight bustle at the back with stiffened off-the-shoulder straps. The designer originally made the dress in burgundy, but Diana requested a change to midnight blue. Worn during a 1985 State dinner at the White House, where she famously danced with John Travolta. Accessorized with a sapphire and pearl choker and long satin gloves, it has been dubbed the 'John Travolta dress' ever since.

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Diana wore the dress on at least five major occasions after that, including a State dinner in Germany in December 1987, the premiere of Wall Street in April 1988, and the Royal Opera House in 1991. Inspired by her son Prince William, the Travolta was one of seventy-nine dresses included in the Christie's DRESSES from the Collection of Diana, Princess of Wales auction in New York City on June 25, 1997. The catalogue included a photo by Lord Snowdon of her wearing the dress and her sapphire and pearl choker.

The Travolta dress, lot #79, sold for $222,500 (before the 15% Christie's surcharge), with the highest bid at the auction. At the time it was also one of the most expensive dresses ever sold at auction and the highest bid for an auctioned item of clothing. That record was previously held by John Travolta's famous white suit costume from Saturday Night Fever. Today it is held by Marilyn Monroe's iconic, 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' dress she wore to serenade John F. Kennedy, at a 1962 Democratic fundraiser. Monroe's dress was bought by Ripley's Believe it or Not! in 2016, for $4.8 million. Diana's dress, for the most part, has avoided that kitschy fate.

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The auction, catalogue sales and special events raised approximately $5.7 million. The seventy-nine dresses sold for $3,258,750. Proceeds from the auction were directed towards charities personally chosen by Diana. These charities were AIDS Crisis Trust and The Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund, AIDS Care Centre, New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, The Harvard AIDS Institute and The Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Centre of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Fourteen of the dresses, including the Travolta dress, were purchased by an anonymous bidder, who was later identified as Maureen Rorech (later Maureen Rorech Dunkle). She purchased the dresses over the phone, as an investment; the largest collection for a single bidder. Because of the amount of dresses, Ms. Rorech had to charter a private jet to transport her collection from New York to Tampa, storing them in a vault.

After Diana's death, Ms. Rorech, set up the People's Princess Charitable Foundation, creating a global travelling exhibit called Dresses for Humanity, eventually raising more than $1.5 million for AIDS, cancer and children's charities. The exhibit toured the world in a variety of venues, including major museums and some less than glamorous locations. I have seen the collection of these dresses twice - when it originally came to Toronto in 1998 and at an exhibit at the Design Exchange, prior to its controversial sale at Waddington's Auction House in 2011. In March 2013, it was sold for the third time, selling for $311,000. It was purchased by an anonymous bidder as a gift for his wife.

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It was included in the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibit at Kensington Palace from February 2017-February 2019. In December 2019, Kerry Taylor Auctions included the dress as part of its Passion for Fashion sale. The dress was expected to sell for $450,000 but did not receive its reserve bidding price. It was eventually bought, post auction, for $290,000, by Historic Royal Palaces to join the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Thus returning, after 22 years, to its original home at Kensington Palace.

© Marilyn Braun 2020

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.