Princess Diana's attire exhibited in Philadelphia
An ordinary childhood — spent in grand estates. A fairytale wedding — that ended in tears. A time spent among royalty and celebrities — and the poor and forgotten.
Such was the life of Diana Spencer, the English girl who married the heir to the throne of England and found herself Princess Diana: future queen, fashion icon, mother and, in the end, a beleaguered person hounded to death by her own celebrity at age 36.
Yet a newly-opened exhibit in Philadelphia hopes to tell more.
"Diana: A Celebration"
"Diana: A Celebration" opened Oct. 2 at the National Constitution Center, on the city's Independence Mall. The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 31, makes its East Coast debut after touring such venues as Toronto, Houston, Cleveland, Sydney and Budapest.
The showcased items — personal mementos, clothing, her famous wedding dress and displays focusing on Diana's charity works — are normally housed at Althorp, the Spencer estate in England, which is overseen by Diana's brother, Charles, ninth Earl of Spencer. At a press luncheon held the day before the event's opening, Spencer admitted, "I do get a bit of a thrill seeing these exhibits in a new home," and added, "Diana loved this country. And this country loved Diana."
Nine galleries spotlight all that made Diana — who married Prince Charles on July 29, 1981, in a lavish royal wedding in London — famous in the eyes of a public who followed her every move for the next 16 years. There are those dresses which made Diana the most stylish woman in the world and that bridal gown with its 25-foot train.
But there are other reminders, such as those recalling Diana the young girl: a collection of tiny porcelain animals, a letter to "Darling Daddy" in multicolored hand, the future princess's ballet and tap shoes, reflecting her love of dance. It's a startling juxtaposition to the exhibit's main entrance, where visitors are greeted by an oversize photograph of a radiant adult Diana smiling over a glittering, glass-encased 19th-century tiara bedecked with diamonds, silver and gold.
Diana became engaged to Prince Charles when she was 19 and was married to the 32-year-old heir at age 20. An entire gallery is devoted to the wedding day the world will never forget.
There are photos of the grand occasion — Diana climbing the wind-swept steps of St. Paul's Cathedral — and a film loop of the young bride gliding down the aisle. But it's the dress, possibly the most famous wedding gown in history, that's the star of the show.
A confection of silk taffeta, ivory tulle and lace, it is displayed with the glittering Spencer Tiara, which framed Diana's hand-embroidered veil. Keeping company with the gown is a junior version sure to delight the heart of any would-be princess: a taffeta bridesmaid dress worn by then-5-year-old Clementine Hambro, who accompanied Diana on the royal day.
An adjoining gallery spotlights Diana's evolution as a princess of style — and as a personality who evolved over the course of her not-always happy life. Diana's marriage to Prince Charles ended in divorce in 1996.
Early outfits show the obvious influence of royal fashion personified by the Windsor family and especially by Diana's mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II. Frills, polka dots and big hats abound.
But something happened as the princess, emboldened by the knowledge that her style could also bring attention to causes she supported, became her own person. Queenly ensembles gave way to chic streamlined designs by Armani, Versace and other superstars of the fashion world.
"I want this dress!" exclaimed Diana admirer Jean Tini, of Berwyn, as she gazed upon a sleek graphite-colored evening gown by Jacques Azagury.
But she grew serious as she recalled what made the princess special to her.
"Her beautiful smile, and her warmth," Tini said. "She was just a beautiful person. You could tell."
That reflects an aspect of Diana's life Charles Spencer hopes the exhibit will bring to light.
Standing in front of his sister's wedding dress, Spencer acknowledged the contrast between Diana's "glamour and her humanitarian work," the latter hallmarked by the princess's work with AIDS patients, the homeless and her efforts to ban land mines.
Indeed, amid the glitter of Diana's haute couture in the exhibit's fashion gallery is a stark sartorial contrast: protective gear designed to protect Diana as she toured the ravaged, land-mine-infested killing grounds of Angola and Bosnia in 1997.
"[That] proved to be her swan song," Spencer said wistfully.
Diana died that same year, killed in a Paris car crash while fleeing paparazzi. A tribute gallery reflects the world's grief at her passing, but it's fittingly near the displays that focus on her charitable work.
"A spectacular life," summed up Diana's brother.
"But, tragically, a very brief one."
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