CORRECTION: Prince Harry’s birth year is corrected to 1984.
The gowns, the crowns, the shoes, THE wedding gown. The clothes Princess Diana wore so regally have been making their way around the world for 10 years, and will make one of their final stops at Davenport’s Putnam Museum from Sept. 14 to Jan. 5.
“Diana: A Celebration” is a magnificent mix of pomp and everyday circumstance, just like her magnificent life. Before crowns and paparazzi bounties weighed heavy on her head, she was a little girl, twirling on her toes in the backyard, tapping down the marble hallways in her Althorp ancestral home and making the Spencer splash in the pool at Park House, her childhood home.
She hugged a stuffed cat, wept through her parents’ divorce and went off to boarding school like all good little British bluebloods, where in 1966 she wrote: “Dear Mummy and Daddy, I hope you had a nice journey and that you are enjoying your holiday. We had a power cut on Monday and I went to bed with a candle in my room. Lots of Love, Diana.”
Like a candle in the wind, we embraced her every flicker, from her budding romance with Prince Charles to their fairy-tale wedding on July 29, 1981, the birth of her sons, the demise of her marriage and her tragic death in the tunnels of Paris on Aug. 31, 1997, as her driver tried to flee the paparazzi who fed our obsessions.
In life and death, she caused a media frenzy. Her faced graced the cover of People magazine 54 times – more than anyone else in the publication’s history. We couldn’t get enough of her – the sweet and salacious – via headlines, stories, photos, television and made-for-TV movies.
That’s why “Diana: A Celebration” is such a relief – equal parts revelation and adoration, tribute and final embrace.
I saw this breathtaking, humbling exhibition twice in 2012 – at the Mall of America for my birthday getaway in May and on opening day at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum on Sept. 15.
On loan from the museum on the Spencer family’s Althorp estate, it opened there July 1, 1998, which would have been her 37th birthday. The tour began in Toronto in 2003 and ends in 2014, when the items will go to her sons after Prince Harry turns 30, as directed by her will.
The exhibit has been lovingly crafted by the Spencers to give the world a rare glimpse of their sister — the People’s Princess — from birth to death, lineage to legacy. It is personal and loving, educational and enthralling at every turn.
I will see it at least two more times: with the ladies in my family, ages 8 to 84, and with at least one set of girlfriends. If others want to go, I’ll gladly take them.
Diana Spencer Windsor was my personal princess — the first female I knew named “Diana.” I was surrounded by “Dianes” growing up, but never another “Diana.” I rose early to watch her wedding on my black-and-white TV and stayed up all night with a friend to watch her funeral through tears and tissues. I walked past Kensington Palace at least twice daily on a trip to London just a month before she died, and drove through the same tunnel in Paris on that same European jaunt.
It’s been 16 since her death, and this exhibition mostly makes me smile. It features nine galleries filled with 150 objects, from designer gowns to home movies.
The most moving gallery, in which tissue boxes are placed discretely, contains footage of her funeral procession, the voice of Elton John singing “Goodbye England’s Rose” and rough drafts and final drafts of Earl Spencer’s passionate eulogy. This is the gallery that will make you cry.
But soon you’ll be standing before that glorious ivory silk taffeta, tulle and lace Victorian-style wedding gown with its majestic 25-foot train – the longest train of any royal British bride – and veil, hand-embroidered with sequins and pearls, billowing from the 1830 Spencer tiara. It is simply astounding in detail.
Also in the giant case are her embroidered, flat wedding shoes — which no one really saw – her parasol, made in case of inclement weather, and little-girl ivory silk taffeta bridesmaid dresses with long golden sashes.
Prepare to stand in front of this case a really long time, since you can’t take photos.
Other highlights include two more diamond tiaras, ornate family jewels and more than 25 dresses, suits and evening gowns that chronicle her changing image, from shy bride to confident fashionista and daring divorcee, with shorter hemlines and lower necklines than were allowed during her marriage.
Equally important to her memory are her humanitarian efforts, from being one of the first high-profile people to publicly embrace AIDS patients to her loving embrace of amputees who had stepped on landmines in Third World countries. Her tireless good works are detailed in photos and written tributes, including a moving message from Nelson Mandela.
As much as I love the glitter and outward trappings of any Cinderella princess, I could spend hours soaking in displays of Diana’s childhood and family tree. Photos of a baby in a buggy, a shy smile from a bicycle, formal portraits, her passport, report cards and school uniforms paint a vivid image of a child of privilege who was first and foremost, a little girl. The glass and ceramic figurines she toted from boarding school to her Kensington Palace apartment show her sweet, sentimental streak.
Menus and a hostess book showcase her budding social life, yet her schoolgirl charm. From Nov. 4, 1980: “Princess Margaret birthday dance at the Ritz. Sat next to Prince Charles … Wore a new dress & diamond & ruby ear-rings.”
A Christmas card from 1980, adorned with a watercolor painting by her future husband, opens with a simple, handwritten “Diana,” followed by a printed message: “With all Good Wishes for Christmas and the New Year 1980,” ending with the handwritten signature: “and much love from your tap-dancing partner. Charles.”
If only they hadn’t had to tap-dance through life.
History: Organized by Diana’s siblings, the exhibition opened at the family’s 500-year-old Althorp estate on what would have been the princess’ 37th birthday, July 1, 1998, nearly a year after her death in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. The estate’s stables were converted to a museum to house the display. Open to the public only in July and August, the exhibition drew more than 1 million people and raised more than $2 million for charities supported by the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
The collection began traveling the world in 2003 and will end its tour in August 2014. In accordance with Diana’s will, the exhibit items will go to her sons for safekeeping after Harry turns 30 on Sept. 15, 2014.
Timeline: Born July 1, 1961, to John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, and Frances Shand Kydd; Prince Charles proposes Feb. 6, 1981, with the official announcement Feb. 24, 1981; royal wedding July 29, 1981, at St. Paul’s Cathedral; Prince William Arthur Philip Louis born June 21, 1982; Prince Henry Charles Albert David born Sept. 15, 1984; divorced from Prince Charles on Aug. 28, 1996; Diana killed in a Paris car crash Aug. 31, 1997; funeral Sept. 6, 1997, at Westminster Abbey, buried on Althorp estate in Northamptonshire
Titles: The Lady Diana Spencer, from 1975, when her father inherited the Earldom of Spencer, until her marriage in 1981, when she became Her Royal Highness, The Princess of Wales; after her divorce, she was known as Diana, Princess of Wales