Where were you on 29 July 1981? I was glued to the telly, gawping at a 25ft wedding train entering St Paul's Cathedral. Even if the late Princess of Wales wasn’t your thing, there’s no denying she knew exactly how to pull off the kind of look that would be talked about for ever – and ever.
A short life, so many memorable dresses. Like the famous midnight-blue velvet dress she wore to the White House to meet Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Twirled around the dancefloor by John Travolta for 30 minutes straight, “The Travolta Dress” – snug-fitting, deep-plunging, risky, giddy – became an overnight sensation. Females all over the world wanted one, including a very plain six-year-old girl living on the outskirts of Edinburgh…
Obsessed with the Sloane Ranger Princess, I’d fallen for her foofy collars, bows, frills, Laura Ashley florals and fabulous hair flick prior to her engagement to Charles. Diana wasn’t just the modern-day princess of my dreams – she was my very first fashion crush (swiftly followed by Boy George – go figure). I collected Diana-related news clippings like a magpie and glued the cuttings into scrapbooks using UHU soggy glue. I still have the scrapbooks; they’re in a box housed with other bits and pieces of Diana memorabilia, including a set of eight “wedding edition” placemats and a small patch of net someone once told me was a swatch of her wedding veil. (I can hear you laughing!)
Catherine Walker made over 1,000 outfits for Diana in her lifetime, but it’s the so-called “Revenge” dress that sticks in my mind the most. Diana wore the Christina Stambolian design to the Vanity Fair-sponsored Serpentine party in June 1994, the night the world discovered Charles was having an affair with a woman named Camilla. Did Diana look like a woman dumped, betrayed and beaten? Quite the opposite – she looked like a very well-dressed phoenix rising from the proverbial ashes ready to kick some ass. She rose. And she flew.
I worked on the shop floor of Harvey Nichols around that time. Early one morning, as I dusted shelves, trying to look busy, I looked up and darting between rails like a hunted deer was Princess Diana, hurtling towards me at high speed. I remember my outfit – a black pencil skirt and kitten heels – and I remember hers: jeans, blazer, flats, baseball cap. She enquired after a mid-blue Moschino Cheap And Chic suit, said she needed a size-8 skirt and size-10 jacket. She tried on the jacket, which had a small peplum at the waist, and handed it back before dashing towards the escalator. I’d met my idol, fashion icon and girl crush; I’d met the woman who’d been “in” my life since I was a dorky kid living in the suburbs of Edinburgh. It was the strangest feeling. Not as strange as when she died.
There’s no denying fashion’s going through a pie-crust, high-flounce, mega-frill moment, but Diana’s style transcends fashion trends. I sometimes wonder what she’d be like now – who would be her go-to designers? We’re talking about a woman who visited AIDS hospices during a time when the people thought they could catch HIV from shaking someone’s hand; a very public figure with many gay friends, she stood up for homosexuals during homophobic times. Pair that with her post-divorce "you can’t break me" wardrobe and I imagine, if she were alive today, she’d champion new design talent and avoid matching nude tights and nude shoes like the plague. (Dear Kate, please let me take you shoe shopping.)
If you’re in London in the coming weeks, go see the exhibition. Woman sob-snorting into her handbag? That’ll be me. Pass the tissues.
Kensington Palace's exhibition, Diana: Her Fashion Story, will open on 24 February and run throughout 2017. You can find tickets here.