Princess Diana's dresses come to Naples
Preview the exhibit and learn history behind ...
IF YOU GO
What: “Princess Diana: Dresses of Inspiration,” a special exhibit of Princess Diana dresses and British Royal memorabilia. A portion of the proceeds benefit local breast cancer charities. There are other exhibit-related events as well, including a talk by her personal chef, fashion lectures and “Tuesday tea” tours in conjunction with Brambles Tea Room.
When: March 13 through June 27
Tickets: Timed tickets will be sold for the following time slots: Daily except Tuesdays at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., and Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5:30 p.m.
Where: The von Liebig Arts Center, 585 Park St., Naples
Admission: $12 for non-members; $10 for members; $5 for children younger than 10
Information: www.naplesart.org/Diana/ or 262-6517 ext. 101
585 Park Street, Naples, FL
NAPLES — Usually, a dress is just a dress. It’s meant to be worn to work or to parties, seen as stylish for a while and then, ultimately, pushed to the back of the closet in favor of what’s new.
Fashion is notoriously fickle, after all.
But when a dress was donned by the late Princess Diana, it did the opposite: It became more fascinating, not less, despite the passage of years. And from next Saturday through June 27, Naples’ von Liebig Art Center is presenting a rare and unique look at 20 of Diana’s dresses, many of which were purchased as part of a Diana-sanctioned charity auction at Christie’s shortly before her unexpected death in August 1997. It has added some extras: an extensive collection of historical memorabilia relating to Diana and the British Royal family.
The exhibit, “Princess Diana: Dresses of Inspiration” is organized by the Pink Ribbons Crusade, a non-profit organization of Diana dress owners. The owners lend their dresses and memorabilia for charitable purposes, especially breast cancer-related charities. Locally, the von Liebig exhibit will benefit Bosom Buddies Breast Cancer Support and the Naples Community Hospital Mammogram Fund.
Joel Kessler, the von Liebig’s executive director, isn’t bashful about describing the size and scope of the Diana exhibit. Some of the dresses, such as the so-called “Klondike dress,” which Diana wore on a state visit to Canada, have never before been exhibited in the United States. Others are endowed with a special poignancy, such as the “Lady Diana Spencer dress,” a simple, off-the-rack dress Diana bought in 1979 to wear to a party at Althorp, her family’s home.
It’s the first time this combination of dresses has been shown together. That means even Diana fans who may have attended other dress exhibitions haven’t seen all the ones the von Liebig is presenting. It’s also the last time the dresses will be exhibited together, since Suzanne King, the founder of the tour, says she plans to conclude the Pink Ribbons Crusade.
For the arts center, the exhibit is “monumental,” Kessler says — definitely the biggest the von Liebig has ever hosted. Usually, an exhibit draws 5,000 to 6,000 people; he expects some 30,000 to 40,000 will attend Diana’s show.
Then there is the preparation, he adds: “It’s a huge undertaking. I am just mesmerized.”
Preparers from everywhere
In the days before the show, Pink Ribbons crusaders arrived from around the country, while the dresses were delivered from around the world. Those dresses, incidentally, were required to fly first class — no cargo holds for them. The set-up took about 10 days, with 20 people working to stage the exhibition, unpacking what Kessler calls an “I can’t even count” amount of memorabilia, including a collection of 17 Christmas cards sent by Diana through the years.
When Kessler approached King about holding a Diana exhibit at the von Liebig, he knew the result would be big, he says. And he knew it would be emotional; Diana was a British princess, but through her charitable acts, people of all countries grew to love and admire her.
But he didn’t know the show would be quite this big, Kessler adds.
“I had no idea it would grow into what it has grown into,” he says.
Velvet and Versace
Preparing the dresses for exhibition was the task of Muffie Austin, an Amelia Island textile conservator with more than 30 years of experience. She has worked on all kinds of fabrics, from 5th century B.C. textiles to Teddy Roosevelt’s teddy bear.
The von Liebig show is the third time she has worked with Diana’s dresses, she says. And, no, she doesn’t wear white gloves when she tends to them. Not all the time.
“You can’t sew with a pair of white gloves on,” Austin notes.
With some of the dresses, that is what’s needed. Although many of the dresses date from around the same time, they are not all in the same condition. The front of the Lady Diana Spencer dress has deteriorated substantially; Diana spilled perfume on the dress when she wore it, and the chemicals have frayed and yellowed the fabric.
Other dresses simply need a gentle touch-up to ready them for the exhibit.
Diana was famously dressed by the best, but Austin reveals this secret: On some of the dresses, the interiors are not finished as well as on others. It’s as if the designers knew Diana might only wear the dress once or twice, Austin says.
“That’s one thing I have noticed that surprised me,” Austin says.
All the dresses receive individual attention when it comes to how they will be displayed. Diana ranged from a size 4 to 14 during her life, and embraced a variety of styles, from traditional to ultra-chic. She wore dresses of heavy, rich velvet, gorgeous gowns suited for a future queen. But then, after her divorce from Prince Charles, she slipped into something sexy, favoring cocktail dresses by Versace.
Both sorts are in the show, but it’s not enough to just mount them on dress forms. Austin also builds undergarments, then fills them out to help the dress hold its shape. Sleeves are stuffed, and batting is added underneath if a dress needs a little extra oomph.
“They’re all different, and they’re all challenging,” she says.
Those challenges are what occupy her mind as she works, Austin says. She thinks about the infrastructure of the dress, how to make it do what it needs to do, not that it was once worn by the most famous woman in the world.
Occasionally, though, she does let her mind have a glimpse. One of the dresses in the show, the so-called “Spanish Dress,” has a bodice of black velvet, while the skirt is a vibrant scarlet silk. Underneath the skirt is 15 yards of scarlet crinoline, too.
It’s a fun dress, and one of the conservator’s favorites. “You can just picture her,” Austin says.
King who owns six of Diana’s dresses, owns the Spanish Dress. But she didn’t buy it at the Christie’s auction.
She attended that event, but swore to her husband, Jess, she wouldn’t buy anything. She kept her word, but when Diana was killed in a car accident about six weeks later, the auction and her promise were imbued with a whole different meaning.
King didn’t forget the dress auction, and admits she didn’t allow Jess to forget it, either. When he had the opportunity to buy a Diana dress a year later, he did. He also extracted another promise from his wife: She would have to do something positive with the dress. In response, King created the Pink Ribbon Crusade, and Jess eventually bought his wife another five Diana dresses. The crusade has gifted more than $500,000 to breast cancer organizations,
Seeing the 20 dresses all assembled together at the von Liebig, King remarks that they should not be regarded as a memorial to the late princess. Instead, they should be seen as a story, an evolution. It’s a historical document, too, not unlike what it would be to look at Jackie Kennedy’s dresses or, perhaps someday, Michelle Obama’s dresses.
“I’m so glad that we’re preserving them,” she says.
Some of the earlier dresses date from what King calls the “Dynasty period,” that era when fashions worn by television catfight queens Lynda Evans and Joan Collins were influencing us all — for better or worse. But others are unquestionably elegant and timeless, King notes, including the dresses in the show by London designer Catherine Walker.
One of King’s personal favorites is a Walker, a black-and-white dress with extensive ribbon work that Diana wore to the movie premiere of “Hook,” taking her young sons.
“I think this dress is just a showstopper,” King says.
Some of the dresses are well-known, such as what King calls the “Bolero dress,” a crème-colored dazzler created by now-retired designer Victor Edelstein. Others were worn privately by the princess, such as a black velvet dress purchased at the Christie’s auction by a collector who initially planned to wear it.
Another one, a black cocktail dress with blue stars, is being lent to the exhibit by People magazine.
“It’s a pretty amazing dress,” King says. “Every time she was on the cover, People magazine sold out.”
King, who splits her time between Ocala and Austin, TX, is a longtime collector of British royal memorabilia. Her family’s lineage is British, and as a young woman, she was fascinated by Prince Charles. She didn’t know she would develop such a deep affection for Princess Diana, but that’s exactly what happened.
Fashion may be fickle, but Diana — and her dresses — endure.
“She changed what we expected royalty to be,” King says.