The Revenge of Princess Di


June, 1994: enter Lady Diana. Emerging from a sleek black limousine, the Princess of Wales gave us arguably the most pivotal moment in fashion history. In every way, Diana’s ensemble was an eye-opening event, both for those attending London’s Serpentine Gallery that night and the royal family themselves. Although Diana’s fashion had long sustained royal uproar and public affinity, her ensemble on this crisp evening reflected a far broader message than in years past. As such, allow me, as many have done before, to unpack what began as a black dress on a sketchpad and concluded in quenching revenge. 


Before I unthread the dress itself, it is only just that I lay the foundation with the events of Lady Di’s past. Born in 1961, Diana Spencer spent her early years surrounded by the young sons of the late Queen Elizabeth: Charles, Andrew, and Edward. In 1975, when Diana was 14, her father –  previously Viscount Althorp – succeeded to earldom, bestowing her with the title we all know her to be: Lady Diana. After a limited education in Switzerland, Diana reconnected with the English royal family. By 1980, her friendship with the eldest son, Charles, had blossomed into an illustrious romance, and the two tied the knot at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. At her wedding, Diana was practically still a shy child at just 20 years old. Forever swooning the English, Diana bore two sons and quickly became an icon of style, grace, and elegance. After aiding numerous charities, foundations, and hospitals, ‘Shy Di’ became the ‘People’s Princess,’ and all eyes were glued to her every move. 


However, in 1991, young love was ruptured as Prince Charles and our beloved Princess Diana filed for divorce. This event was tragic, yet not a surprise, given that the pair’s relationship had been plagued by argument, miscommunication, and the issue to be avenged: extramarital affairs. While mere rumors circled the split in 1991, the tabloids lacked evidence of the affair. That is, until June of 1994. 


Two things happened on this fateful night: Vanity Fair’s Serpentine Gallery and the publishing of Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role, a tell-all documentary about the Prince of Wales and future King Charles III. It was in this film – which aimed to paint the prince in a more sympathetic light after the split – that Charles confirmed having an affair, stating it had occurred when the marriage had “irretrievably broken down” (Reader’s Digest). As tumultuous and tragic as the marriage was for both, this quote, confirming the grievance cast upon ‘their princess,’ was all the public needed to inflame Charles in a sea of hatred and slander. 


Three years prior to the release of the documentary, Diana tasked Christina Stamboulian with the creation of what would become the ‘Revenge Dress.’ After purchasing several of Stamboulian’s pieces, Diana had told the designer that she needed a dress for a special occasion (of course, Stamboulian had little knowledge of what her handiwork would become). However, while crafting the dress, it was Stamboulian who pushed Diana to be ‘daring’ and accentuate her best features (Entertainment). After much deliberation, Diana agreed to the creation of an off-the-shoulder, form-fitting, black (Diana had previously pushed for cream), silk dress. However, Stamboulian’s creation would not see the light of day for several more years. 


It was not sympathy that Diana craved on June 29, 1994. While Diana was a girl whose mid-twenties began in a fairytale romance and ended in despair, this storyline that was not evident on the summer evening. While the public cooed at her, imagining that she would choose to seek recluse for several weeks if not months, Diana defied expectations. Casting aside her Valentino outfit for the night, Diana dusted off Stamboulian’s handiwork with the intentional notion of showing her husband what he was missing. With the debut of this dress came a new, fearless, and powerful woman. It is hard to give this dress its due credit without remarking on its color. While the dress typically accredits its public shock to the short hemline, the stark black fabric marks the death of Diana’s marriage and place in the royal family – a family who spent countless hours documenting and belittling her every move. However, this dress was far from a symbol of loss, as black often represents; it portrays Diana’s evolution into a new role and place in life. It was through a single piece of fabric that Diana rewrote her storyline. She was no longer the scorned woman, but rather a pearl that shone alone, without needing to be fastened to a royal crown. Years later the dress was auctioned off and sold for $600,000, the proceeds benefiting a number of charitable causes.


A short three years later, the world said goodbye to their beloved princess in a fateful car crash. With this passing, the revenge dress of 1994 became even more iconic, the likes of which are replicated even to this day. With the recreation of the dress making its debut on Netflix’s The Crown, I must emphasize what this dress truly represents. Daring and scandalous, this dress is so much more than a page in Diana’s lookbook. It is a symbol of a woman taking back her power from those who wronged her, and in doing so, rewriting the life that many attempted to write for her. In following Diana’s lead, I urge you to stay tuned and stay you.