Beginning next week, St. Louisans will have the unique opportunity to take an in-depth look at the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as view five of her signature gowns. Diana, The People’s Princess exhibit owner/curator Maureen Dunkel, who purchased 13 of Diana’s dresses months before her death in August 1997, will be in town for a reception and book signing (hosted by Mary Strauss), as well as a private pre-opening tour and presentation to VIP Plus ticket holders. The exhibit, held in conjunction with the St. Louis 35th Annual Home & Garden Show at America’s Center, takes place Feb. 23 to 26. For tickets, call 573-450-6340 or visit stlcares.com. For the Strauss reception, click on the ‘Strauss Event’ tab on the website. Proceeds from the reception and VIP events benefit Angels’ Arms in St. Louis through the Southeast Missouri University Foundation.
LN: What made you decide to purchase Diana’s gowns?
MD: In early 1997, I began looking for an important collection for investment purposes and had looked into well-assembled textile collections. Someone brought to my attention that Diana was going to auction some of her dresses at Christie’s. I really thought about it but decided to pass because of the recent divorce and the loss of ‘Her Royal Highness’ title. Then about five days before the sale, I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair magazine, and Diana was on the cover. After reading about her unique position in the royal family, I thought, Well, she may not technically be a royal any more, but she will always be the mother of a future king of England.
So I did some more research and discovered that the world really watched Diana grow up through her fashion. Her look had changed so dramatically from the early ’80s to what was now 1997, and I believed it would be a good story to tell. And with Christie’s guidance, I purchased 13 dresses in June 1997.
LN: And then, months later, her untimely death occurred.
MD: I remained fairly anonymous, but I received an inquiry about doing a short local piece, and I said I would do it. So that aired at 11 p.m. on Friday night (Aug. 29), and 25 hours later she was dead. So my situation went from almost complete secrecy to then having this TV piece that was now running up the national and international wires. It was really quite overwhelming!
It felt so surreal that I now had these dresses. I just felt very moved to do something different with them. Originally, I purchased the dresses to lease them out until I decided to sell them. But with the circumstances of the tragedy, I felt that wouldn’t be right, so we organized a tour to benefit charity and then we put them on display in Kensington Palace for 10 years as a part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. We also published a book called My Decade With Diana, and it tells the story of how I got to know more about her through this whole experience.
LN: Which gowns will be on display during the exhibition at America’s Center?
MD: The very high profile dress that she wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House—it’s deep ink-blue velvet. It’s so beautiful. Also, the black halter dress she wore in the Vanity Fair spread to promote the Christie’s sale. It was designed by Catherine Walker in 1994, when the princess was separated from her husband and she became more daring and—dare I use the word—sexier in her dressing, which she really couldn’t do when she was in her official role as princess. She looked so great in that dress!
There also is a dark burgundy, heavily embroidered dress with a long tailcoat. The story behind it is that Catherine Walker put a lot of effort into the design on the back because she recognized that Diana—the most photographed woman in the world—was photographed from every angle. So every angle needed to have some sort of design interest.
A green sequin dress also is a part of the collection—and she was called ‘Dynasty Di’ when she wore it because it looked like a dress from the ’80s television show, Dynasty. One thing that’s really exciting about that dress is obviously anywhere Diana went, the paparazzi was there, and she wore this dress at night, so you can see all the lights from the photographers’ flashes reflecting off of this dress. And there’s a one-shouldered pink and cream crepe sequined dress. Diana wore it on an official visit to Brazil, as well as to a movie premiere that Liza Minnelli attended.
LN: What else can visitors expect to see at the exhibit?
MD: It’s a walk through Diana’s life, beginning with a 12-minute movie. After the film, visitors walk through a zone covering her childhood, her ancestral background and why that background made her such an excellent candidate to become the future queen of England. There’s an engagement/wedding zone, as well as one that tells about her role as a mother, and another that talks about her use of fashion. As an ambassador of England, she not only brought attention to British designers, but she also superbly used her fashion to bring attention to her charity work. And then there’s a zone that talks about the tragedy of her death and the legacy that’s lived on. So it’s really a historical perspective on Diana, and the dresses are a part of the story—it’s quite a comprehensive experience.