They were the gowns that defined a royal style trailblazer… but what happened to them? Claudia Joseph follows their remarkable journeys – from ending up in a charity shop to being bought by this very magazine
She regularly topped the best-dressed lists and was posthumously named by Time magazine as one of its All-Time 100 fashion icons. And now her iconic Emanuel wedding gown and Belville Sassoon going-away outfit, which belong to Princes William and Harry, are drawing crowds at the Orangery in Kensington Palace.
But many of Princess Diana’s memorable gowns – auctioned by Christie’s in New York just months before her death in 1997, raising a staggering $3.25 million (£2.29 million) for Aids and cancer-related charities – ended up scattered around the globe. Some have had exciting adventures and a few almost lost entirely.
In an attempt to save them for future generations, Historic Royal Palaces have been gradually acquiring Diana’s outfits – they have 13 to date – to display at Kensington Palace. And this week, Jorge Yarur, the founder of the Fundación Museo de la Moda, a fashion museum in Santiago, Chile, has pledged to donate his collection of dresses to them as a legacy for Britain.
Speaking to YOU Magazine, Jorge said: ‘I have always been a fan. Everybody could relate to her. She was an icon. I remember her getting out of the car in that Emanuel black dress in 1981. She was 19 years old at the time and I fell in love with her.
‘The first dress I bought was the Hachi gown in 2001. We now have 26 dresses in the museum and I have an agreement with Kensington Palace that one day they will return to Britain. Chile is not the right place for the royal collection; it belongs in Britain. It has to be saved for the country. I’m not doing it for the money – it’s the history that’s important.’
The dress bought by YOU magazine
Created for the Princess by Japanese designer Hachi for her first official tour of the Commonwealth in 1983, this one-shouldered gown (below) – which became a hallmark of Diana’s wardrobe because it emphasised her shoulders – was one of her favourites. She wore it for two James Bond film premieres: Octopussy in 1983 and Licence to Kill in 1989, as well as a Vanity Fair fashion shoot with Mario Testino just weeks before she died.
YOU bought the dress for $75,100 (£53,000) at the Christie’s sale to offer as a reader prize in a competition, which was won by Yorkshire farmer’s wife Margaret Thompson. Devastated by Diana’s death, she deposited it in a bank vault before deciding to sell it. ‘I’ll give some of the money to one of Diana’s charities, then buy something to keep,’ she said at the time. The gown was re-auctioned in 2001 for $60,000 (£42,300) by Doyle in New York, and was the first dress bought by Jorge Yarur’s Fundación Museo de la Moda.
The dress that danced with John Travolta
Designed by Victor Edelstein, this midnight blue silk velvet ballgown (above) became Diana’s most famous – and expensive – dress after she wore it to dance with John Travolta in 1985 at a state dinner hosted by President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy in the White House. She teamed it with a sapphire and pearl choker, converted from a brooch given to her by the Queen Mother. ‘I asked if she would care to dance,’ Travolta said afterwards, ‘and she said she’d love to and we danced for 20 minutes to a medley of Grease and Saturday Night Fever. I was on cloud nine. She had great rhythm. We did spins and turns. We did a kind of modern foxtrot and she followed me very well. “Maybe some day we’ll get to do this in a less-watched situation,” I said near the end. “That would be great,” she replied.’
The dress was one of Diana’s favourites. She wore it for the final time in 1997 for her official portrait by Lord Snowdon – teaming it with the same necklace she had worn 12 years earlier. It has changed hands many times since. Maureen Rorech Dunkel, from Tampa, Florida, bought it for $222,500 (£157,000) at the Christie’s sale – along with another 12 dresses – to take on tour and raise money for charity. But the tour drew criticism as she paraded the dresses through locations such as Disney World in Florida and the Flying Monkey Movie House in New Hampshire. She was forced to put them up for sale, including the Travolta number, when she went bankrupt. The dress was sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions in the UK in 2013 for £240,000 – an anonymous businessman bought it as a gift for his wife. It was sold again by the auction house in 2019 for £275,000 to Historic Royal Palaces.
The dress that got sold to an American TV station
When Diana wore her pale blue Catherine Walker gown to the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 (above), she sparked comparisons to movie star Grace Kelly. She wore the dress the same year for the premiere of Superman IV, the opening of Miss Saigon in 1989, and a 1987 photo shoot with Terence Donovan. However, Diana fans were appalled when US cable TV station Romance Classics bought it at Christie’s for $70,000 (£49,500), along with two other dresses, and took it on a ‘Legacy of Love’ tour after Diana’s death. As a mark of respect, they charged visitors a dollar to view the dress and donated the money raised, which was matched by the company, to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. The dresses were finally sold in 2011 by Julien’s in Beverly Hills, California, at a Hollywood Legends Auction. The Fundación Museo de la Moda paid $132,000 (£93,000) for the gown and matching stole and it is now on display in Chile.
The dress that languished in a box in the corner
When Diana wore this ivory silk moss crêpe evening gown (above and below), designed by the Emanuels, on her six-day tour of the Gulf in 1986, she captivated the Emir of Bahrain, who met the royal couple at the airport, took them out on his yacht and hosted a lavish banquet in their honour.
The Emir later recounted a conversation with the Princess, who teamed the dress with the glittering Spencer tiara. She asked him what he would think if his son were to marry a tall, blonde English woman? He replied that he would be very jealous!
Diana is believed to have given the dress to her childhood friend Caroline Twiston-Davies, who lived at Mynde Park in Herefordshire. Diana was a regular guest at the estate, which had a cottage in the grounds specially reserved for her use, and was godmother to Caroline’s daughter Antonia. Her housekeeper Mrs C Brinton took the dress into the Chameleon secondhand shop in Hereford where one of the part-time sales assistants bought it, intending to wear it to a hunt ball.
Instead it remained unworn, packed away in a box, until the sales assistant realised its significance and took it to the auction house Kerry Taylor. It was sold for £161,000 in 2018 to the Fundación Museo de la Moda.
The ‘revenge dress’ no one has seen for years
Diana wore this £900 black silk crepe cocktail dress with a ruched bodice, asymmetric hem and side sash to a Vanity Fair dinner at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1994 (left), on the night that Prince Charles admitted, on national TV, that he was having an affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. It became known as the ‘revenge dress’. She had bought it in the Christina Stambolian boutique when strolling down Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge in 1991, and was waiting for the right moment to wear it.
‘Three years went by,’ the designer said afterwards. ‘I was very disappointed. Then I realised she had been waiting for the right occasion. She looked like a beautiful blackbird in it.’ The dress was one of the 79 that went under the hammer at Christie’s in 1997, bought for $65,000 (£45,900) by Graeme Mackenzie and his wife Briege, who owned The Body Shop franchise in Scotland. They planned to exhibit it to raise money for Scottish charities.
After the Princess’s death, the couple put it in a bank vault. ‘The only noble thing to do was not to use it,’ he said at the time. ‘It would have been inappropriate.’ Since then it has appeared fewer than a dozen times in public and raised more than £40,000 for the charity Children 1st: it has graced luncheons in Aberdeen, balls in Stirling, evening functions in Elgin and fashion shows at Bo’ness and Edinburgh.
‘We were lucky enough to meet the Princess at the auction preview in Christie’s in London and told her our intentions of using the dress to raise money for charity. At the time charities were complaining that the National Lottery was impacting on their donations. I thought the dress would be a way of attracting people to events and that its fame could only help that aim,’ said Graeme. But it has not been seen in public for many years.
The dress with its own bodyguard
Inspired by Léon Bakst, a Russian painter and costume designer who worked for the Ballets Russes, this white silk and organza dress appealed to Diana’s love of ballet. It was designed by the Emanuels and decorated with pearls and gilt beads. She wore it to the Royal Opera House in 1986 for a performance of Ivan the Terrible by the Bolshoi Ballet and to the premiere of the Bond movie The Living Daylights the following year (below).
American society hostess Fontaine Minor from Richmond, Virginia, bought it from Christie’s for $25,300 (£17,800) to raise money for charity and invited David Emanuel to a fundraiser that October in aid of the Richmond ballet. Her daughter Heather wore the dress, which had its own bodyguard.
‘David came over for a week,’ she recalled. ‘He sang at the Saturday night dinner at the Commonwealth Club. He could have been as successful a singer as he was a designer. America just loved him. He’s got a beautiful voice.’ After her husband Philip died in 2008, she sold it through Kerry Taylor’s auction house for £102,000 and it is now in the Fundación Museo de la Moda in Chile.
The dress that was lost for two decades – in a garage
When the newly engaged Lady Diana Spencer joined Prince Charles on their first official public appearance at Goldsmiths’ Hall, on 9 March 1981, she chose a black taffeta evening gown with a plunging décolletage (above). It was designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, creators of her iconic wedding dress. She emerged from her limousine in a frenzy of flashbulbs and ended up on all the front pages, upstaging her fiancé and scandalising staid palace courtiers, as royals only wore black for mourning. ‘I thought it was OK,’ she said afterwards. ‘I hadn’t appreciated that I was now seen as a royal lady, although I’d only got a ring on my finger as opposed to two rings. Black to me was the smartest colour you could possibly have at the age of 19. It was a real grown-up dress.’
In the weeks before her wedding, Diana returned the dress for altering as she had lost so much weight, but the Emanuels made another version and shoved the original in a black bin bag. There it remained for 19 years until they discovered it in their garage. It was sold for £192,000 by Kerry Taylor Auctions to the Fundación Museo de la Moda in Chile, complete with its black tulle petticoat, original Elizabeth Emanuel pencil sketch and invoice for £517.50.
The dress with 20,000 pearls and sequins
The Catherine Walker sheath and matching bolero (above) that Diana wore to the British Fashion Awards in 1989 sparked comparisons to Elvis.
She wore the dress on an official visit to Hong Kong soon afterwards and a state visit to Hungary the following year. ‘Whenever I saw the Princess in this dress, I couldn’t help but feel that it would not be possible for anyone else ever to wear it,’ the late designer said afterwards. ‘She shone in the dress and the dress shone around her in a shimmering column of glistening pearls.’
It was bought for $151,000 (£106,400) at the Christie’s auction by the American memorabilia company The Franklin Mint, which created a portrait doll, featuring her wearing a replica. They donated the dress to the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Diana’s crowning jewels
It was one of the Princess’s most poignant legacies: the ‘letter of wishes’ accompanying her will, which bequeathed her entire jewellery collection to Princes William and Harry, ‘so that their wives may, in due course, have it or use it’. Since then her boys have shared out her jewellery and her daughters-in-law have worn some of her most memorable pieces…
The engagement ring
Originally Harry chose the ring – an oval Ceylon sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds – as a keepsake. But when William got engaged he generously handed it over to his brother, who took the £300,000 ring on holiday to Kenya where he proposed to Kate.
The sapphire set
A wedding present from Crown Prince Fahd, Diana wore the ‘Saudi Suite’ – a sapphire watch, earrings, bracelet, ring and necklace – on many royal tours, as well as wearing each piece independently. She wore the chunky studs – without the detachable drops – to mark Harry’s birth, while Kate refashioned them into drop earrings for her 2011 tour of California.
The precious pearls
A lover of pearls, Diana repeatedly wore these drop earrings (which were gifted by jeweller Collingwood), most famously to the Serpentine party in 1994 on the day Charles admitted his infidelity. Kate later wore them at a state banquet in Sweden.
The sapphire brooch
Originally a gift from the Queen Mother, Diana refashioned the sapphire and diamond brooch into a choker, which she then memorably wore with the Travolta dress and the ‘Revenge Dress’. Two diamonds from the choker now sit either side of the central stone in Meghan’s engagement ring.
The divorce gift
To mark Diana’s divorce, her friend Lucia Flecha de Lima gave her an Asprey square-cut aquamarine cocktail ring that Diana wore on a tour of Sydney the year before her death. Despite its origins, Meghan wore the ring – a wedding gift from Harry – for their evening reception.
The butterfly earrings
Diana first wore these in 1986 on a royal tour to Canada when Harry was just 18 months old. So it was unsurprising that he chose to give Meghan the earrings as a thoughtful gift when she became pregnant with their son Archie. She was seen wearing them during their tour of Australia.