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The secret history of Princess Diana’s Revenge Dress

On the evening of June 29, 1994, the British TV network ITV screened Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role, a documentary about the Prince of Wales and future King Charles III. 18 months in the making, the show would be watched by 13 million people and prompt headlines for Charles’ admission to presenter Jonathan Dimbleby that he had been unfaithful to his wife, Princess Diana, after their marriage had, as the Prince put it, “irretrievably broken down.” But Charles was not the only member of the British royal family making news that day. Diana herself made headlines, albeit with her outfit rather than her words, when she attended a party at London’s Serpentine Gallery wearing a black, form-fitting, off-the-shoulder dress that was considered eyebrow-raisingly risque for a member of the royal family

The secret history of Princess Diana’s Revenge Dress

Almost three decades on, Charles: The Private Man, the Public Role has mostly faded in the public consciousness. The image of Diana ‘s so-called “Revenge Dress,” on the other hand, remains vivid in many people’s minds as actress Elizabeth Debicki discovered when Netflix announced she had been cast as Diana in the just-released fifth season of The Crown which details the bitter end of her marriage to Charles.

“It fascinated me how entranced people were with that dress,” says Debicki. “When it became known that I had the part, I received these text messages saying congratulations, [but] there was also a huge amount of text messages about the Revenge Dress. ‘Do you get to wear the Revenge Dress?’ ‘Oh my God, you get to wear the Revenge Dress!'”

The Tiaras of the Crown
The Tiaras of the Crown
The dress, and certainly the supposed sentiment behind its wearing, even received a shout-out by Taylor Swift on her recent Midnights (3am) collection.

“I don’t dress for women/ I don’t dress for men/Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge,” Swift sang on the track “Vigilante Sh-t.”

The tale of the Revenge Dress begins in 1991 when Diana and her brother Earl Spencer walked into the London boutique of designer Christina Stamboulian. After buying a day dress and a couple of blouses, Diana told Stamboulian that she wanted something to wear for a special occasion.

“We sat down and I drew a few sketches on a piece of paper,” Stamboulian would later recall to Britain’s Sunday Mirror newspaper. “The dress was revealing, quite short and showed quite a bit of leg and flesh. Diana was not sure about it. She thought it was a bit risky. I said, ‘Why not be daring.’ But she wanted everything more covered up, longer and the neck higher.”

Stamboulian told Diana that she had good legs and she should show them. “She asked her brother and he said, ‘Do what you think is right,'” remembered Stamboulian. “Finally, she said ‘yes’ to the style then we moved on to the color. I had black in my mind, but she wanted cream. To me Diana was a black and white sort of person. That was the way she was — there were no grey areas. I thought of black for the color. I thought of her in a sophisticated way. I didn’t like her in the pale pinks and blues with lots of beading.”

Diana waited three years to publicly debut the dress and almost didn’t do so on that night in 1994.

The Princess had planned to wear Valentino to the party at the Serpentine Gallery but changed her mind at the last minute, a decision which would make the dress one of the most famous outfits of all time. As The Crown head buyer and associate costume designer Sidonie Roberts recently told The Times newspaper, “We can’t overestimate its impact. In the revenge dress not only do we have the birth of a new woman, we have the birth of an icon for women all over the world. It was a deeply empowering moment.”

In June, 1997, just a few months before Diana’s death, Christie’s in New York sold the dress and dozens of others at an auction benefiting cancer and AIDS charities which collectively garnered $3.25 million. Stamboulian’s creation was bought for $60,000 by a Scottish couple, Briege and Grahame Mackenzie who planned on using the dress for further charitable purposes.

“We bought it because we were very impressed at the Princess’ novel plan to raise money for charity,” Briege told Glasgow’s Daily Record newspaper at the time. “Please, please, could you explain I am not some rich bitch pretending she’s a princess by buying one of her dresses to prance around cocktail parties in.”

Diana’s death would sadly make her most famous outfits even more iconic and Debicki’s wearing of the Revenge Dress represents a pivotal moment in the new season of The Crown

“There’s a beautiful kind of symbolism in the fact that it’s black,” the show’s Sidonie Roberts told The Times. “Until this moment we have only ever used the colour black to mark a funeral or someone in mourning. Captured in one dress is the death of a marriage and the death of her relationship with the palace. Everything changed after that.”

Debicki herself says wearing the recreation of the dress while shooting the show felt “very significant and quite powerful, but also it provoked something in me as an actor. I can’t really explain it. It’s pretty incredible that a dress would represent a moment in history, or that this human’s life would represent so much and become so iconic. So that was a big day on set for me!”

Elizabeth Debicki Recalls the “Responsibility” of Recreating the Revenge Dress

For Elizabeth Debicki, nothing’s scarier than revenge – She is sharing which of the royal’s many iconic outfits she was most nervous to take on. And, of course, it’s a fan favorite.

“We all felt the responsibility of the revenge dress because it’s something that everybody wanted to see,” Debicki exclusively told E! News. “It’s an incredibly powerful sartorial moment in the history of fashion. That dress is so emblematic of so many things because it’s so brave and beautiful. But it’s also so tinged with our understanding of what was going on in this person’s life. So the duality of that is really powerful, I think, and we really felt that we had to do it properly.”

Debicki explained that it wasn’t just her feeling the pressure—the costume department also felt a responsibility to recreate the Christina Stambolian dress as closely as they could. Diana’s look inspired the term “revenge dress,” because she wore it on the same night that ITV aired a documentary where her then-estranged husband King Charles III admitted to having an affair with now-wife Queen Consort Camilla.

“For me, I just came to the fittings and I put the dress on,” the Great Gatsby alum said. “I think the costume department—that was really a task and there were many, many hours [of work]. Many hours.”

All of this preparation, Debicki explained, went into a particularly memorable day on set at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens—the same spot where Diana wore the dress in 1994.

“It’s a powerful dress,” the actress explained. “It’s a totally unique dress too—the structure of it, the shape of it, the look of it—and so I certainly won’t ever forget that day on set. We shot it in the same location that it actually happened, so there was this slightly deep layering of things going on that day.”

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Chiara

Source: EW / E!News

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Chiara Lombatti
Chiara Lombatti
When Cristina Yang’s mankind hate, and Sherlock Holmes’ deductive skills meet Randall Pearson’s anxiety and Jamie Fraser’s multilingualism (featuring Claire Fraser’s curls and Kate Pearson’s voice). Translator and feature article with a great love for cinema, TV series and books.

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