Princess Diana’s personal designer on Hong Kong ‘Elvis’ dress, her other wardrobe highlights and her fashion legacy
Pearl-encrusted, high-collar white gown Diana wore on 1989 visit one of many memorable looks created for her by Catherine Walker and Said Cyrus, who tells us about her evolution from fairy tale vision of femininity to global style icon
One of the most memorable images of Princess Diana is of her wearing what became known as the “Elvis” dress during an official visit with the Prince of Wales to Hong Kong in 1989.
The white gown had a high-collar bolero, shimmered with 20,000 pearls and illustrated how, after eight years of marriage, the awkward society beauty had become established as a global fashion icon. The princess had created a powerful, ethereal image that now, as we mark 20 years since her death, still resonates.
The princess was something of a renegade when she married into the royal family. She dared to buck the established royal view that fashion was mildly suspect and should be avoided wherever possible.
Queen Victoria’s remark, “fashionable dressing – anything but that” had echoed sternly through the generations. The family policy had always been to appear suitable, but never glamorous.
However, the moment Diana stepped out of a limousine for her first public engagement in 1981, wearing an off-the-shoulder, plunging black taffeta ball gown by the Emanuels, all that changed.
A new era in fashion had begun. With this gesture she declared that she did care about glamour and how she looked. She set about cutting a figure that nobody could ignore, and immediately had the fashion world, the media and the public in her thrall.
The Princess and the Duchess of York became the liveliest royal indicators of British fashion during the 1980s, captivating a generation of girls brought up on scruffy ’70s fashion who suddenly wanted to dress up in taffeta and jewels. This was perfect timing for designers such as Jasper Conran, Jacques Azagury, Victor Edelstein and Bruce Oldfield, who were all trying to establish their brands.
She evolved from a fairy-tale vision of femininity in her Emanuels’ wedding dress into a glamorous young woman wearing a sophisticated midnight blue velvet gown to dance with John Travolta in 1985.
By this time she had discovered the power of a great frock. She realised that clothes were not only an accessory, but part of her ammunition. There were shoulder pads and spangled fabrics and lots of experimentation.
Initially her wardrobe wasn’t very sophisticated: she liked fashion and was open to ideas, championing many British designers. However, there came a point when she started to find the glamour tag irksome, but an introduction to Catherine Walker, the French-born couturier, changed that and together they forged some of Diana’s most memorable looks.
The Elvis dress, which is one of the highlights of the current exhibition “Diana: Her Fashion Story”, at her former home Kensington Palace, was one of Catherine Walker’s designs. According to Said Cyrus, Walker’s widower (who took over the creative helm when Walker died of cancer in 2010) the outfit had nothing to do with Elvis.
“We wanted to design something that symbolised the ‘Orient’ and that she was a British princess,” he explains. “We chose pearls and inspiration for the collar came from Elizabethan court dress.”
Cyrus and Walker, who launched their fashion house in London in 1977, were party to many of the style secrets that transformed Diana into one of the most photographed women in the world.
They were introduced just after the birth of Prince William. “We had a very small operation then, just ourselves and maybe one or two members of staff,” he recalls. “I remember the princess coming in, and that it was warm and touching.”
Walker, a tall, rangy figure like Diana, developed a refined style of tailoring that suited the princess well. She crafted lean suits and coats with a strong shoulder line and no waistline, and a series of glamorous embroidered evening dresses that were slender and flattering.
After Diana’s divorce, the look became more streamlined and somehow athletic, albeit constructed from the most exquisite fabrics and embroideries. The trust was such that the princess was only “minimally” involved in the design process, says Said.
“The briefs got shorter and shorter. I would do dyeline drawings for the presentation to the clients and the princess would write notes on the back of hers,” he says.
The couple were incredibly discreet and never talked about their friendship with Diana; only now 20 years after her death is Cyrus speaking for the first time about those days when photographers would lie in wait outside the shop, unaware that the princess who became a regular visitor used one of the private side entrances.
“In fact, I remember the last time I saw the princess, it was in the hallway between Catherine and my studios just by the door as she was leaving,” says Cyrus. “Catherine was working on her book, marking the business’ 20th anniversary and the princess was going to write the foreword, but she was about to go away, so we said it would be fine if she wrote it when she came back. She never did.”
The final gown Catherine Walker designed for the princess was the dress that she was buried in.