The Life and Fashion of Diana, on display at Cincinnati Museum Center

By Joe Kucharski - July 10, 2014

My sister was that unique phenomenon:

a glamorous humanitarian.

-Charles Spencer

 

Diana, A Celebration, a gorgeous exhibit that chronicles the life of the late Princess of Wales has been touring the globe since 2003, and is now in its final showing at the Cincinnati Museum Center. A mix of personal mementoes, paintings, as well as rare home movies and photos, but at the center is a stunning collection of designer clothing, including the famed royal wedding gown.

Diana, A Celebration. Stewart tiara, c. 1840.

 

It is sadly beautiful to see such a passionate life as Diana’s reduced to a select grouping of garments, but it is in these exceptional pieces that we are able to catch a glimpse of the remarkable life she lived, and experience the tactile reality of her life. So often the idea of celebrity, especially of one who lived her life as publically as Diana did, is abstract. We view them on TV, read about them in magazines, and make assumptions about their lives. But we are no closer to them than fictional characters in a movie. This exhibit wonderfully removes that distance. Face to face with the items of this great woman’s life, her humanity is palpable.

Diana, A Celebration. Stewart tiara, c. 1840.

 

Visitors first encounter items related to the aristocratic lineage of Diana and the Stewart family. Through priceless tiaras, authoritative portraits, and other family treasures, we see the rich history that came before her. This may be eye opening for many. The media often painted Diana as an outsider, and the idea of a simple pre-school teacher being whisked away by a prince was romanticized to sell magazines, but this version diminishes the woman she was before she met Charles.

Diana, A Celebration. Collection of childhood items.

Diana, A Celebration. School uniform, Silfield school blazer, 1968.

 

A tailored Silfield school blazer and knit-scarf speak to the formality and rigor for which she was educated. Not an exceptionally strong student, Diana excelled at music. She was an accomplished pianist, and studied dance for many years. On display is a selection of her dance shoes, as well as wonderful childhood home videos.

Diana, A Celebration. Dance shoes, tap and ballet.

 

There are few mementos of Diana’s early adult life, or engagement period, save for a few photographs.

Diana, A Celebration. Charles and Diana.

 

The next room features the centerpiece of the exhibition, the royal wedding gown. The dress itself is beautifully arranged, with the full train, in a large glass case in the center of the room. Adding to the awe and grandeur are giant photograph displays and video highlights of the ceremony looped on screens on the walls. Being in the space fills you with an overwhelming sense of reverence at the sheer importance of this gown in our collective social conscience.

Diana, A Celebration. Royal wedding gown, 1981.

Diana, A Celebration. Royal wedding gown, 1981.

What is striking, however, is the simplicity of the gown. Yes, it is fitted with a 25-foot train, the longest design in royal history. And it features a variety of custom fabrics, including specialty woven taffeta by Stephen Walters of Suffolk, cream lace panels made from a flounce of Carrickmacross lace presented to the Royal School of Needlework by Queen Mary and dyed a shade lighter than the dress, trimmed at the waist and hem with embroidered lace from Nottingham company, and a veil that is hand-embroidered with tiny mother of pearl sequins and pearls. While these rich details were no-doubt costly, and the silhouette of the dress is quite striking, the materials are fine and the details quite restrained.

Diana, A Celebration. Royal wedding gown, 1981.

Diana, A Celebration. Royal wedding gown, 1981.

Diana, A Celebration. Royal wedding clutch and shoes, 1981.

 

An un-credited quote marks the transition to the room that features a large collection of Diana’s day and evening looks through the years:

 

"Diana once observed that she wanted to be thought of as a workhorse not a clotheshorse. Diana loved clothes; they were a passion and a public duty."

 

Diana, A Celebration. Clothing display.

An exquisite display of cocktail and evening dresses line on wall and fill center displays, which allow for 360-degree views of the incredible details. A mix of photographs and video footage give wonderful representation of Diana in each of the featured garments. Gowns by such talented designers as Jacques Azagury, Valentino, and Christian Lacroix are works of spectacular artisanship, and represent the remarkable elegance with which she lived her life.

Diana, A Celebration. Scarlet cocktail dress with bow, Christian Lacroix, 1995.

More personal than the famous wedding gown or even the stunning evening gowns, is the display of casual clothing and daywear that Diana wore for traveling and public appearances. These garments represent more thought as to comfort and practicality for days that involved long hours on her feet, flights, and stressful travel.

Diana, A Celebration. Clothing display.

Diana, A Celebration. Blue and white flecked suit, Karl Lagerfield for Chanel, 1997.

Diana, A Celebration. Pink suit, Gianni Versace, 1997.

A collection of mainly suits and coat dresses, the ensembles perfectly capture Diana’s taste for balancing high-end, exceptional custom clothing, in practical fabrics with moderate décor. They represent the best of conservative-chic. London-based fashion designer Catherine Walker created many of the pieces on display. Other designers represented include Armani, Versace, and Chanel.

Diana, A Celebration. Pale blue coat-dress, Catherine Walker, 1987. Matching coats for princes.

Diana, A Celebration. Clothing display.

Diana, A Celebration. Red suit, Ronit Zikha.

Diana, A Celebration. Stone Safari suit, with culottes, Catherine Walker, 1990. Worn on trips to Nigeria and Brazil. 

Of the most meaningful garments, and capping off this section, are the pieces Diana wore on her many international trips related to her humanitarian and philanthropic passions. A simple outfit of khaki capris, chambray shirt, loafers, and a protective visor and vest worn in Angola on a trip with the Red Cross to raise awareness and funding for land-mine removal reveals the humility with which she lead her life.

Diana, A Celebration.

Diana, A Celebration. Shirt, stretch trousers, protective vest & visor. Ralph Lauren & Giorgio Armani, 1997. 

Diana became known for taking on causes that were “difficult” or “unfashionable.” She used her unique position not to pamper herself, but to help those around the world without hope, or a voice of their own. The garments on display represent only a small selection of the items she wore during her very public life. She used even her iconic wardrobe as a source of charity to others. In 1997 at the suggestion of Prince William, the Princess gave 79 dresses to be auctioned in New York, raising $7.6 million for cancer and AIDS charities. It is with this view, that even such personal items as one’s clothing were not something she held so dear as to not be willing to share with someone in desperate need, that we encounter her true, selfless beauty.

Diana, A Celebration. Condolence books.

The exhibit includes a somber overview of her death and funeral, but beautifully ends with a celebration of the outpouring of love and condolence books created by adults and children the world over.

 

Diana, A Celebration runs through August 16th as a special exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center.