Remembering Princess Diana:
Her Fashion Legacy
By IVOR DAVIS
N the third anniversary (Sept 1.) of the death of Princess Diana, some people have a special stake in remembering her elegant fashion legacy. Maureen Rorech in Florida, nursing professor Linda Sarna (who has a special Diana room in her Los Angeles home) and Fontaine Minor, wife of a wealthy businessman in Richmond, Virginia, will get out their souvenirs and remember the beautiful woman who died so young.
They are among the elite who own designer dresses that once hung in the Princess' closet.
Their motives in acquiring the dresses are chronicled in an intriguing documentary, Princess Diana's Dresses, airing Sept. 25 on Cinemax.
In June l997 at the Park Avenue offices of Christie’s auction house, some 79 gowns belonging to the Princess were put on the block with proceeds going to charity. It was one of the most spirited auctions in decades, maybe because before the bidding began Diana showed up in person to get the sale off to a flying start.
Two months later she was dead and the new owners realized they had in their possession something not only beautiful but with serious historical significance.
Some had simply wanted to own a very expensive piece of the woman they idolized; others wanted dresses as an investment or to raise money for charity. The film details who bought what dress for how much, and why they paid from $25,000 to $200,000 for something that Diana had worn.
Critics of the princess maintain that her obsession with clothes indicated a shallow mind, but the designers she patronized don't agree.
David Sassoon, one of her favorite British couturiers, said Diana was by no means obsessed with clothes in the years she made a practice of being photographed in dozens of stunning outfits.
“She really didn't take clothes that seriously. We'd send her sketches of outfits and she'd write us little notes in the margin alongside those drawings that said, ‘Yes please,’ or ‘This one in pink please,’ or ‘Can you change the neckline to this?’ She’d often come in and ask us to provide her with an outfit at the last minute. And it wasn't that difficult. We could take a dress off the rack because she was the perfect size ten.”
Many of the new owners of the dresses have fascinating stories to tell about what went into their decision to bid for Diana’s threads.
For Graeme Mackenzie of Gourock, Scotland, it was the desire to help a charity with which he was involved. He acquired one of the centerpieces of the show – the short pleated black silk off-the-shoulder number with the dipping panel at the back and the short snappy skirt for which he paid $65,000.
“It's the dress everyone's interested in,” notes Mackenzie. “Diana wore it to the opening of a gallery in London the night Charles admitted on TV that he had committed adultery with Mrs. Camilla Parker Bowles.”
Designer Christina Stambolian, from whom Diana bought that particular dress, recalls, “Two years went by and she hadn't worn it. I was very disappointed. Then I realized she had been waiting for the right occasion. She looked like a beautiful black bird in it.”
Gourock says he now keeps the dress in a bank vault, bringing it out as a big draw for major Scottish charity fundraisers.
Fontaine Minor, of Richmond Virginia, the Southern Belle wife of a wealthy businessman, goes one better. “Wherever the dress goes a bodyguard goes with it,” she says.
Minor spent $25,000 – a bargain she says – for the white “fairy princess” Russian style evening gown embroidered in silver and gold, made for Diana by Elizabeth and David Emanuel, which she wore at the London premiere of a James Bond film.“I wanted to have part of royalty,” says Mrs. Minor, “and I would say that next to my marriage and my children, buying that dress was one of the most thrilling moments I can ever remember.”
Then there was the famous long black gown Diana wore when she danced at the White House with John Travolta. Maureen Rorech from Tampa, Florida, picked that one up for a mere $200,000. She bought 12 more dresses, which she takes on tour across America raising money for charity.
The motives of some of the bidders were patently commercial. Kate McEnroe, president of Romance Classics cable channel, snapped up three dresses as a promotional campaign for her company.
She sent the dresses on a shopping center tour called “Dresses to Die For.” Halfway through the tour Diana was killed in Paris. “That day we stopped the tour. Later we sent the dresses out again under a new title, “Legacy of Love.”
Barbara Jordan, a Boston businesswoman, says she used part of her divorce settlement to buy Diana dresses as a boost for her new fashion boutique.
“I felt we had a lot in common,” says the striking redhead. “I’m six foot tall and Diana was five foot ten. We both had two boys and marriages that fell apart. It was a binding experience.”
She put three of the gowns, which cost her over $100,000, in the store window.
“The place became a shrine. People came from all over and left flowers and messages outside the window.”
Marilyn Hoffman, a Virginia horse breeder, bought a heavy blue cocktail dress with diamante buttons for $30,000 and remembers, “After Diana died, my daughter wore it for the first time to present prizes at a horse show. We read a tribute to Diana and there was total silence. Grown men were in tears.”
Pat Kerr Tigrett, a top bridal designer in Memphis, paid $48,000 for Diana's famous Navy blue dress with gold stars and a big full tulle dance skirt. She bought four dresses and displays them at charity benefits.
But that blue dress comes with a controversy attached about who actually owns it.
A businessman in England claims to have the original but Tigrett says no way. The original is hers and she's threatening to sue, but she may be on shaky ground.
The designer says he made a dozen of the same model. “It was a very successful dress,” he notes. “The princess never came to us and said, ‘Are you sure this is the only one,’ or demanded, ‘You must never make it for anybody else.’”
New York art dealer Zondra Foxx, who tried but failed to buy a dress, is a flamboyant transvestite who notes, “Diana has become some sort of secular saint. Even back in the middle ages young women made the best secular saints.”
Indeed some of the Diana costumes have become almost religious relics. Says the film's writer/director Christopher Sykes: "Wherever the dresses are put on display people line up to see them, examine them and wonder about the royal life and tragic death of the woman who wore them."