A low-cut Versace dress that Princess Diana wore to a 1995 film premiere is drawing crowds to the museum in her London ex-home, which has reopened in the year of Olympic and Paralympic Games after a 12 million pound ($19 million) makeover.
The black silk cocktail dress -- featuring medusa-head buttons -- was sold at a 1997 Christie’s International auction in New York, and is one of five outfits in the exhibition “Diana: Glimpses of a Modern Princess.” Another is a black silk taffeta Emanuel gown that Diana wore on her first official engagement as Prince Charles’s fiancee in March 1981.
“The princess had a strong sense of the power of clothes,” says curator Deirdre Murphy of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages five royal abodes in London. “She developed her own unique style, particularly after the early period, when she was wearing naive, girly clothes.”
Many of her 1990s outfits are classic and wouldn’t be out of place today, Murphy says.
Kensington Palace has drawn swarms of visitors since Diana’s death in a 1997 Paris car crash. It may draw even more next year when Diana’s son Prince William and his wife Catherine Middleton move into the wing once occupied by the late Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s sister). Work is being done to remove asbestos and upgrade the wiring and other amenities.
The palace museum offers a choice of four tours, including the Diana fashion exhibition and another on Queen Victoria, who was born and raised on the spot.
“We want visitors to get to know the woman behind the crown, and to feel that she’s not just the old lady in black who reputedly said ‘We are not amused,’” says Murphy.
The palace has lost the high railings and foliage screening it had while Diana and Margaret were alive. A tree-lined path now leads up to it. There’s a spacious ticketing area in a former courtyard, a quaint family cafe with an outdoor terrace, and a shop with trinkets for all budgets.
The “Victoria Revealed” permanent exhibition brings to life Britain’s longest-serving monarch, who was awakened at the palace one morning in June 1837 to be told -- at age 18 -- that she was queen.
The show opens in the room where Victoria held her first privy council -- previously the museum’s ticket hall. On the carpet is a quote from her journal: “I went in of course quite alone.” On display are the tiny dress she wore that day, and the document she and the more than 90 privy councilors signed.
Some of them found her nervous. “She was in a room full of men,” explains Murphy. “They were a lot older than her, much more experienced.”
The next room illustrates her courtship with Albert before their 1840 wedding. You can see the bracelet and fan that he sent her from Coburg, Germany; the diamond garter she gave him as a wedding present; and her ivory silk wedding gown.
Further along are the couple’s piano -- they were both good musicians -- and the music they played together. Victoria drew well, too; sketches and a paint box are on display. Her doll collection highlights her knack for costume design: She dressed up dolls that she named after famous stage performers.
Albert’s sudden death in 1861 plunged Victoria into lifelong grief. The novel that was being read to him when he died -- “Peveril of the Peak” by Walter Scott -- is marked with a piece of mourning paper where the reading stopped.
The grieving is remembered through the black outfits she and her children wore, a bust of Prince Albert she commissioned shortly after his death, and photographs.
The show ends on a happier note: an audiovisual reconstitution of her 1897 diamond jubilee, and an array of pre- mourning accessories -- jewels from Albert, her Tartan sash, and her dancing slippers.
“It’s to remind people that, before she became a widow, the queen’s wardrobe was luxurious and vibrant,” says Murphy. “She loved dancing and staying up until 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Kensington Palace was originally a country home, bought for 20,000 pounds in 1689 by King William III and Queen Mary II; the king was asthmatic and wanted something less damp than Whitehall. Architect Christopher Wren built new wings, and the royal couple moved in at the end of 1689. Kensington was the royals’ main home for seven decades until Buckingham Palace replaced it in 1760.
“Diana: Glimpses of a Modern Princess” is at Kensington Palace through Oct. 28. Information: http://www.hrp.org.uk.
To contact the writer on this story: Farah Nayeri, in London at Farahn@bloomberg.net.
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