Here's the Secret Story Behind Diana's Famous "Revenge Dress"
You'll never guess who encouraged her to wear it.
It's very clear from watching Meghan Markle's physical transformation from B-list television star to the Duchess of Sussex, that the women in the royal family use the language of clothes to convey powerful messages. Meghan has given up short skirts and revealing necklines in exchange for downright demure dresses, sheer hosiery, and, of course, ladylike hats. The duchess is telegraphing to the world that she very much wants to fit into "The Firm," and is willing to dress the part in order to do it. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, did the same thing when she married Prince William in 2011 and has, for years, been the model of royal propriety.
But it was Markle's late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, who perfected the art of using clothes to communicate to the world. She created a style template that clearly inspires her daughters-in-law today. Having long been the unofficial ambassador of British fashion during those early years of her marriage to Prince Charles, Diana sent a decidedly different message to the world's press one night in June of 1994—24 years ago, to the date.
The daring black dress designed by Christina Stambolian will be forever known as the "Revenge" dress, when Diana wore it to a party at the Serpentine Gallery in London the same night Charles was confessing to being unfaithful in their marriage during a television interview with the BBC. But unlike most of Diana's wardrobe choices, her decision to wear that particular dress, on that particular night, happened quite by accident.
Diana had already visited Valentino's London boutique where she mentioned she was looking for something to wear to the Serpentine gala. Days before the event, Valentino's press office announced the princess would be wearing one of his dresses for the event. Whether she was annoyed by the design house's premature press release or simply just changed her mind, Diana opted instead to wear Stambolian's unforgettable dress. The anything-but-basic LBD fired a shot at Charles—and anyone who dared to underestimate her—seen and heard around the world. While the prince was making his stunning disclosure about his personal life, Diana had managed to upstage him and knocked him off the front pages of all the London newspapers as she had done throughout their marriage simply by showing up dressed to thrill.
When I interviewed Stambolian for my book, Diana the Secrets of Her Style, she shared exclusive details about how her brother, Charles, Earl Spencer convinced the princess to buy the sexiest dress she ever wore. "One Saturday, Diana and her brother came into my shop on Beauchamp Place," Stambolian told me. "She had a look around and bought a short red wool dress and a sleeveless silk blouse. Then she said she wanted something for a special occasion and we sat down and talked about it."
When the designer suggested the short black dress with deep décolletage, Diana didn't think the revealing style was appropriate. "She told me it was too short and too bare. I thought that there should be less dress and more Diana because she was so beautiful," Stambolian told me. "She was always wonderfully dressed, but a lot of the time I felt the dresses looked too heavy and too old for her."
That's when Diana's brother Charles weighed in. "After a great deal of laughter and a nod from her brother, who thought she should do as she wanted, we convinced her the dress would be sensational. I can still picture him leaning against the door frame smiling at his sister when she tried it on."
There was one detail left to decide. "We deliberated on the color—off-white or black. She thought off-white was too pale. We decided on black, which was perfect for her because everything was black and white with Diana anyway." Stambolian specially ordered a silk jacquard fabric which was flown in from Italy. The black dress had a subtle floral pattern on the bodice and silk chiffon skirt with an attached scarf. The designer made the dress according to Diana's exact measurements and delivered it to Kensington Palace the day before the Serpentine party.
Stambolian was surprised—and thrilled—when she saw Diana had chosen to wear the now iconic dress to the party. "I'm sure she didn't have in mind to wear that dress at that particular time, but her instincts about what to wear and when were always perfect. They certainly were that night."
And for more top-secret tales about Princess Diana's wardrobe, Here's Her Secret Jewelry Trick That Fooled Everyone.
Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana and Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.
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