|Green sequin dress by Catherine Walker featuring mermaid-like shaping, which Diana wore to an event in Austria in 1986, as well as to a film premiere in 1993. Dresses worn by the late Princess of Wales will be on display at the Design Exchange in Toronto until June 10, 2011. (Kate Kennedy/QMI Agency)
For Canadians whose appetite for resplendent regalia was only whetted by the royal wedding, a visit to Toronto’s Design Exchange may be in order.
Fourteen of the late Diana, Princess of Wales’, iconic dresses are on display as part of “The Life of a Royal Icon," exhibit, showing her style journey from a young princess to sophisticated style siren, including the famous “John Travolta” ink blue velvet off-the-shoulder gown she wore to the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 1985, before taking a turn on the dance floor with the fancy-footed actor.
“She wore it six times, I think,” says Maureen Rorech Dunkel, owner of the collection. “Which says a lot about her. She was aware as a member of the royal family and an ambassador of the British design community, she had to be sensitive to the economic climate of her country.”
Dunkel purchased the dresses in a 1997 Christie’s auction for charity, which sold 79 of Diana’s gowns just eight weeks before her death. Dunkel, a businesswoman from Tampa Bay, Fla., was motivated to pay US$870,000 for the gowns as an investment and because of her interest in textiles. As a last-minute buyer, Dunkel purchased them without a catalogue, bidding only by an associate’s description over the phone, carefully checking off elements she wanted – such as velvet and sequin – to depict Diana’s style transformation.
“Her style changed so dramatically from her early days as a princess to the mid-to-late ‘90s,” says Dunkel. “There was almost a naivité about the way she dressed in the early days - that’s not the way it was at the end. She was spot on, she was Versace, Chanel - sleek, sexy, but appropriate.”
The first dress on display, a scoop-necked pink satin gown with ornate embroidery of glass beads and sequin, says “Cinderella,” to Dunkel, while the final gown is the sleek and sexy ivory twist-front gown Diana wore on the cover of Vanity Fair for her now infamous tell-all article that ran one month before she died.
The “style journey” includes a number of velvet, silk and sequined gowns in rich, deep hues, with long hemlines appropriate for the princess's statuesque frame, by designers such as Zandra Rhodes, Bruce Oldenfield, Victor Edelstein and Catherine Walker – who designed more than 1,000 outfits worn by her friend, including the black velvet dress in which she was buried.
Toronto is the final stop for the exhibit, which has toured throughout the U.S., New Zealand and spent 10 years in Diana’s London residence, Kensington Palace. Canadian auction house Waddington’s will be auctioning the pieces on June 23, donating part of its commission to the National Ballet School. With the royal wedding fresh in people’s minds, the timing is right to make the sale, says Dunkel, who expects Kate Middleton – now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge – to someday have her dresses exhibited for the world.
“She’s another real person of interest; she’s relatable, she’s a commoner, she married her prince - and I think that’s going to drive her to be endeared by many people.”
Kate’s capacity to live a regal life that’s also ordinary in many respects is what created such fascination with Diana’s style and the woman herself.
“It was the collision of fantasy and reality,” says Dunkel. “Her life was a royal princess but she was also a normal woman whose pain and challenges were born out on a very global stage. That fuelled the relatability to her, and that relatability is what endeared her to so many people.”
Dresses will be on display at the Design Exchange until June 10.