It was a warm summers evening as a limo pulled up to the Vanity Fair Summer Party held at the Serpentine Gallery. The year was 1994 and as Diana, Princess of Wales stepped forth from her car, the evening quickly turned even hotter.
Wearing a Christina Stambolian black knee-high dress with a plunging neckline, it rapidly became Diana’s most risqué fashion choice, and yet she had never looked better. Plagued with years of depression, bulimia, incessant media scrutiny and feelings of abandonment, this new Princess stood taller and beamed like never before.
Some have described the Stambolian dress as Diana’s most iconic, and that’s a feat within itself. Diana’s fashion sense consistently adapted throughout her life, each dress, suit and piece of jewellery in someway told her story. From the pure virginial bride stepping out in respectable dresses, fully defining the “Disney Princess” stereotype, to the freeing outfits that pushed the boundaries of royal fashion forever; they showcased a transformation that would come to define the late Princess of Wales.
That dress, aptly nicknamed Diana’s “revenge dress”, wasn’t just for show. Like most of her outfits there was a meaning behind each hemline and stitch of fabric that screamed anything but subtlety. The very same night, her husband Prince Charles – of whom she was separated from at the time – openly admitted to Jonathan Dimbleby in a documentary aired on the BBC that he had in fact had an affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
Diana knew the admittance would garner the front page of every newspaper going – or would it?
Contacting her fashionable advisors, Diana had hatched a plan to “show what her estranged husband was missing out on” and chose the daring ensemble, which has since become a landmark moment in the Princess’ short life. But perhaps what is most remarkable as we look back at the iconic moment, is that the “revenge dress” wasn’t even the first choice.
Valentino had been the original designer picked to dress the Princess. That was until they boastfully released a press release revealing Diana would be wearing one of their dresses. This irritated the Princess to the point that she opted against wearing it. Instead she was advised to choose another knock-out number, one which would both make her point to Charles, and hammer home her newfound sex-appeal.
It would be fair to say that Diana had never looked better. Her gym-honed physique alongside her sun-kissed complexion and dazzling smile was a drug to the many cameras who just couldn’t get enough of the mother-of-two. And it would be fair to say that both sides achieved what they had hoped for that evening.
The photos would be worth a fortune to the media and added to the “war of the Wales’” narrative that was causing newspapers to fly off the shelves. And the front of the newspapers wouldn’t have the photo of Charles and his attempt at a PR move to restore his reputation. No, instead a million-dollar Diana would replace him looking as defiant, confident and stunning in a way the public had never seen her before.
The dress would come to define a pinnacle moment in Diana’s life. That feeling of taking back some control. With each fashionable footstep she took a piece of her life back, with every mega-watt smile and twinkling look of those big-blue eyes, here was a woman finally comfortable in her own skin, destined to break free from the constraints of the royal fish-bowl and head out into the big wide world.
It has been 25 years since that fateful summer’s night in 1994. And its importance cannot be understated. For here was a staple of a confident woman setting out her own agenda, ideals and ambitions. It was moments like this that perfectly demonstrate why Diana became the People’s Princess. Like any woman scorned, subjected to torment or publicly humiliated, she fought back in a way Charles never could. She met him on the royal battlefield, fought him toe-to-toe, hit a homerun and she owned it.
For 25 years, Diana’s “revenge dress” has been mislabelled. Yes, it humiliated her husband. Yes, it garnered the attention away from what should’ve been his landmark interview. But what that black dress’ legacy has become is an emblem of Diana’s freedom. It became the starting gun to a new chapter of the Princess’ life, one where she would dominate all on her own.