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Princess Diana refused to wear hats on official visits with children because she said “you can’t cuddle a child in a hat”, a Kensington Palace curator has said.
The original fashion sketch of a blue floral dress regularly worn by Diana, the Princess of Wales, on visits to hospitals or to meet children, by designer David Sassoon, is featured in a new exhibition at Kensington Palace exploring the relationships between designers and royals.
It became known as her “caring dress” because she knew children loved the bright, floral pattern.
Despite the hand drawn pencil and ink sketch featuring a large matching hat, Diana never wore it because, she said, “you can’t cuddle a child in a hat”, Claudia Acott Williams, Kensington Palace curator, explained.
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She also often wore “big costume jewellery because she would pick children up, and they would play with it”, she added.
Matthew Storey, curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, said this “really illustrates just how carefully she considered the people she would meet when selecting outfits for her many public engagements”.
Acott Williams added: “She understood how what you were wearing could really convey warmth … it could reinforce hierarchy, or it could undermine hierarchy and create more of a relationship.
“This brightly coloured floral was a really important piece in her working wardrobe.”
Diana wore the dress, created by Bellville Sassoon, on visits to a children’s hostel in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1998, to Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Nigeria, in 1990, and The Lighthouse Project for AIDS victims, London, in 1992.
The sketch features in the exhibition, titled Royal Style in the Making, alongside the original pattern of Diana’s wedding dress, as well as other gowns worn by the late Princess, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
Set in the Palace’s Orangery, and held in partnership with Garrard, the longest serving jeweller in the world, the exhibition displays never-before-seen items from the royal archives and gives visitors a unique look into some of the most famous royal designers’ workshops.
Also included in the exhibition is an 18th-century style gown designed by Oliver Messel for Princess Margaret. It is displayed for the first time, alongside Messel’s original design sketch of the dress.
Princess Margaret wore it to a costume ball in July 1964 at London’s Mansion House, in aid of St John’s Ambulance.
Messel, the uncle of Margaret’s husband, Lord Snowden, was better known as a stage designer, but was also an influential architect. He went on to design her home on the island of Mustique.
The exhibition also features Diana’s wedding dress, designed by Emanuel, made from silk woven in Suffolk and lace made in Nottingham.
It was last displayed at Kensington Palace in 1996 and permission was sought from the Duke of Cambridge and Duke of Sussex for it to be part of the exhibition.
Acott Williams said the exhibition, which runs from June 3 until January 2 2022, was a “once in a decade” opportunity for the public to see the dress in person. Textiles, particularly silks, can degrade “very quickly” under light or humidity, she added.
“We keep all of our light levels very low, generally under 50 lux, and that’s always for a very limited period of time,” she said.
“In normal circumstances it’s kept in the dark, in neutral materials that don’t give off any kind of chemicals that would increase that rate of decay.
“Particularly silk, we’d only display it for very short periods because it can really … disintegrate quite easily, which is why something like this will never go on display more frequently than every 10 years.”
The pattern for the wedding dress, which has never been displayed before, also features in the exhibition. It is the first time the pattern and the dress have been featured together since it left the Emanuel atelier the day before the wedding in 1981.
Following the wedding, Diana changed into a pink silk day dress, known as her “going away” outfit, designed by Bellville Sassoon.
The dress is displayed at the exhibition with a short sleeve bolero jacket, but a long sleeve version was also created in case of bad weather. She wore the dress again in Australia in 1982, and to open a hospital in Grimsby in 1983.
A cotton calico toile worn by The Queen Mother for fittings prior to the coronation, in 1937, also features in the exhibition.
Designer Madame Handley-Seymour used the toile – a prototype garment – to improve the shape and fit of the final dress.
The intricate gown was painted with gold detail to represent the emblems of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Storey said: “We are proud to open the exhibition with Madame Handley-Seymour, who combined astute business sense with design talent.
“As a court dressmaker, well versed in the rules of dressing for royal ceremonial occasions, she was the perfect choice to make Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s 1937 coronation gown.
“She had already won the Queen’s complete confidence by designing her debutante dress and wedding gown, which had won praise with its fashionable drop-waisted 1920s silhouette.”