How does Kensington Palace portray and explain Princess Diana’s fashion innovation in the exhibition, ‘Her Fashion Story?’
To introduce this essay, I will be analyzing how curator Eleri Lynn and Kensington Palace curated ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ in terms of production, display, and discourse. This exhibition masterly selects a range of iconic dresses, described by fashion designer Elizabeth Emanuel as ‘a humble catwalk of dresses’ from Diana’s short, but very public life. The exhibition was very much designed as a twenty-year anniversary commemoration of Diana’s death in 1997. I will also be discussing whether and how Kensington Palace is an appropriate location for this exhibition.
In terms of research sources, I will be analyzing contemporary and traditional debates regarding exhibition standards, curatorial methods, design as an artistic practice, the roles of gender in art and the way Susan Sontag explores ‘the other.’
The exhibition, unlike other fashion exhibitions, which is situated on the Kensington Palace walking tour, acts as a clothing biography, with each dress marking an iconic event. There are several passages of unique communications within each room, with one room titled ‘design studio’ offering exclusive access to the sketches which were an integral aspect of the detail required for creating the style and personality of Diana’s fashion. There was a ‘real language of clothes, Diana would love to give out a message with each dress she wore,’ tells fashion designer Jasper Conran. The language of Diana’s fashion is represented in a contemporary manner with the high-level ambient lighting enhancing the beauty of each dress’ unique attributes. Some bearing a truly British theme, yet others a more exotic Arabic influence, with some dresses being loaned from three international collections. These collections are from countries which Diana visited and the public can connect with her humanitarian work, for example.
When compared with exhibitions at galleries such as the V&A, which often have the tendency to display a broad range of fashion designers who work with diverse concepts.; however, ‘Her Fashion Story’ is a collection of dresses displayed in the ‘house of the royals,’ so the exhibition is both focused and contextualized.
A passage from the introductory text on the wall states, ‘Diana combined the allure of royalty with the fascination of international celebrity.’ (Text from the exhibition)
Diana’s transition from Royal to fashion icon is exhibited astoundingly, with the minimalist white walls acting as a backdrop in the first few rooms displaying a collection of photographs of her with her family and portraying her life as a royal. Similar to independent galleries, the nature of the collection adopts a modern, fashionable tone, giving the exhibition a less aristocratic ambiance but a more intimate portrayal, attracting a broader audience who may hold interests in fashion and the life and times of Diana, or perhaps both.
Moreover, Diana set her own trend in fashion, whilst also undertaking charity work thus being able to connect with millions of people worldwide. Connecting to people and being this inspirational international figure is epitomized in ‘Her Fashion Story’ as the exhibition depicting her as a fashion icon may also be considered to be housed in ‘her studio.’ The dresses represent far more than mere garments, they are inextricably a part of Diana and her story.
We could then consider Daniel Buren’s text, ‘The function of the studio.’ In this, Burens describes how the studio is the area of where an artwork is produced, but it is also the artist’s ‘haven’, a place where they can innovate beyond the perimeter of an art gallery or picture frame. Or to quote Burens, the studio, ‘Is the place where the work originates’ and ‘it is generally a private place, or an ivory tower perhaps.’ – Daniel Burens, The Function of the Studio
Furthermore, in response to Burens theory of the function of the studio, walking through ‘Her Fashion Story’ gives the audience the feeling of walking through her wardrobe, even more so as the production and execution of the exhibition is only a staircase away from the apartment where she once resided. According to Diana’s friends, Diana only possessed a minimal selection of her own clothes, with the remainder borrowed from friends and her wider family. As Diana gained more confidence she appeared to entertain the concept of experimentation with her clothing style, and this is evident as the exhibition progresses. Her dresses are curated in chronological order, with her earliest dresses being designed and worn as more casual evening dresses. However, these develop into dresses of a more prestigious, star, celebrity quality, which Diana was increasingly becoming recognized as.
Overall, the exhibition is delivered in emphatic style, mimicking Diana’s style, with cogently placed quotes utilizing alternative letter sizes and archival videos representing Diana’s occurrences with famous celebrities, and how she was viewed in the increasing glare of publicity. If we view the exhibition from this technical standpoint, it becomes an exhibition highlighting Diana’s personal voyage; demonstrating her astounding human spirit as well as individual style. With this notion in mind, the Italian designer and inventor Bruno Munari, explains how he views design as a bridge between art and life, ‘The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living and art as a living thing.’(https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/11/22/bruno-munari-design-as-art/)
There is much discourse involved in how Diana is currently recognised in history as promoting living an inspired life through the contact with the public, and the artistic innovations involved in designing her dresses is very much part and parcel of this.
Murani mentions, ‘Art as a living thing,’ which in the realm of this exhibition, and as opposed to the standard art museum whom would normally curate paintings arranged horizontally on a wall, the dresses and accompanying photographs recreate her life as a more living exhibition of her personality. However, it is not only her dresses that are due credit for this, but also the design and layout of each room. There is a fireplace situated at the entrance, in the very first room which gives even the neutral audience a sense of it belonging to Diana’s own home. This is a quirky feature, similar to the abstract wall designs, leading the audience through to the collection of the outdoor dresses she wore at, for example, Balmoral.
There is a warm feel as one walks across the red carpet leading to the doors of the main entrance. Kensington and Chelsea designer, Bruce Oldfield describes Diana’s aura as ‘in the end it was all about her presence.’ (Bruce Oldfield, Bruce Oldfield’s Season)
Diana, it could be argued, became something of an exhibitionist who simply wanted to adjust the way in which fashion, as almost performance, was recognised. She certainly enjoyed and took great inspiration from experimenting with alternative, strong clothing styles, and colors, as well as hats and belts of an eccentric nature. All of these may have been to enhance her image as a quirky outsider; someone determined not to adhere to a signature style. This is certainly one strong message that the exhibition brings out.
‘Her Fashion Story’ strongly brings out the notion of Diana’s experimentalism as it is a relatively small exhibition, yet it powerfully and movingly embraces a portrait of Diana’s personality and role in society. This can clearly be associated with the theory of ‘the other’. ‘The other’ is the theory about the contrast, even differences, in society between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between the ‘mass’ and ‘niche’ of society, but essentially how particular social groups are perceived and of which Susan Sontag describes as ‘the outsiders of society,’ (Susan Sontag, On Photography) in her 1977 critique on photography, ‘On Photography.’ However, in this instance, an outsider within the fashion world.
Furthermore, in the context of this essay and within the discourse of ‘Her Fashion Story’, there is an ‘otherness’ in the ways the dresses are displayed in the form of a public catwalk. An audience walking through an exhibition of stunning dresses might assume an arrogant or flamboyant personality once wore or designed the dresses. In response to the theory of the ‘otherness’ in society, the French writer and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir states in her book ‘The Second Sex,’, ‘She is not regarded as an autonomous being. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential. He is the subject, he is the ‘absolute’, she is the ‘other.’ – Simone De Beauvoir, The Second Sex.
Beauvoir’s quote about the adjudged difference in society between men and women can be related to Diana’s well documented and troubled relationship with Prince Charles, but also to her fashionable personality. Princess Diana may be seen as escaping from her seemingly jaded marriage to Prince Charles and being seen as the outsider, by developing her personal, innovative style in fashion. She was subsequently viewed as distinct from the marriage and was regularly noticed wearing a new item, no matter where she was, whilst in the public eye. Therefore, this contemporary exhibition could be viewed as a moving tribute to a cultural legend who aimed to simply make a difference to society. The photographs taken of her together with child victims of war depict her wearing memorable garments, and these now appear to the audience as works of art, revealing her as truly herself, and not as a bourgeois royal. She is simply, ‘the other.’
Moreover, there is an air of less formality with the production of the exhibition, as it portrays expensive, royal garments and accessories which are often a feature of a historical museum such as The British Museum, which usually displays clothing and jewellery worn by historical figures at landmark events. However, in the case of this exhibition, the dresses are not displayed for solely commercial reasons, but equally as an education as to how Diana lived her life and utilised the dresses. According to charities, which also had an input in the selection of items for the exhibition, Princess Diana is believed to have requested that her dresses be auctioned after being worn, with the raised funds to be donated to the charities for which she worked in close alliance with. Each one of the dresses on display, are in a highly thought out order and in tasteful, ambient light setting.
If we were to consider exhibition styles and the role of the exhibition curator in this instance, it is clear that a subjective knowledge of Diana’s dresses was needed in order to display each item in the appropriate manner. In this instance, the dresses almost curate themselves, allowing them to embark upon a narrative journey of their own. Furthermore, an art critic I found particularly relevant to this essay, is Paul O’Neill, who discusses issues in contemporary curating and performance in his article ‘The Curatorial Turn,’ where he writes, ‘The presentation of an exhibition is now a form of curatorial self-presentation, a courting of a gaze where an exhibition’s meaning is derived from the relationship among artistic practices. This, he argues, is represented by the co-dependent idea that the curator and artist now closely imitate each other’s position.’ – Paul O’Neill, The Curatorial Turn
Acknowledging O’Neill’s theory about the relationship between curatorial and artistic practices, it takes a fine skill to innovatively curate an exhibition solely about a figure who famously wore these dresses in such a bold and alternative fashion sense, particularly when he states, ‘exhibition’s meaning is derived from the relationship among artistic practices.’
Meaning, is key at this point, as in contemporary art debates Diana will be viewed as something of an artist purely because of her inspiration and pioneering within fashion, and how she presented herself to the public, but also to famous fashion designers, who took great influence from her.
In terms of curating, the presentation is a key factor in this exhibition, as it sometimes feels as though you are walking through an art shop or a bourgeois fashion line, without realising it is an exhibition based upon a member of the Royal family and a creator of future fashion curating. This gives a positive effect as there was no great volume of academicism involved, simply because Diana was non-conformist and enjoyed being involved with the ‘ordinary public’ as the media dubbed her “Queen of Hearts.”
Analysing ‘Her Fashion Story’ in terms of both display and discourse simultaneously, exhibition curator Eleri Lynn has curated the unique dresses in such a way that the viewer can receive a photographic interpretation of the moment in which Diana wore these works of art. If we compared this exhibition to the discourse of other exhibitions, many would use one, or many A0 size photographs displayed at a great height on a wall, or possibly have them aligned on an extended wall similar to ‘The Curve’ of the Barbican. If we go back to Murani’s theory about design as art, Murani talks about how artists, or designers, have to stay humble by responding to the biting culture of art, in a calm, yet mindful manner:
‘Today, it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be that art will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal. The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as, be well up in present-day techniques, materials and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbours may make of him.’ – Bruce Murani, Design as Art
If we evaluate the concepts and beliefs surrounding pomposity, and ‘standing on the pedestal of art’, this is far from the case with ‘Her Fashion Story’, as each dress is displayed just above head height, and with a large mirror aligned immaculately behind some, enabling the audience to view the intricate details and the carefully stitched garments of each dress. They are given their own perimeters of space, displayed inside each glass cabinet; ranging between three and eight dresses, with such precision, you can almost hear the audience asking, ‘What do you think about this one?’
There is, without doubt, a star quality to the atmosphere of this exhibition, with credit due to the technical details. The mannequins for each dress have been designed in a way as to emphasize the sheer quality and uniqueness each dress bears. The vast majority are hung from the neck or torso and down, allowing the bottom half to emphatically flow freely, particularly because most dresses possess a large variety of bold colours, most notably the British flag, whether on an accessory or the dress itself.
Whether the viewer is neutral or knowledgeably aware of Diana’s lifetime, there is a specially crafted photograph portraying her in the dress being displayed. This multimedia effect is carefully constructed to emphasise the enormity of the privilege of witnessing each dress in the context in which it had been worn.
Drawing this essay to its conclusion, I return to the initial question asked, where I analysed how the production, display and discourse affects ‘Her Fashion Story.’ I argued that Kensington Palace is the quintessential venue for the production of this exhibition, as it not only represents how Diana sculpted an ongoing new identity for herself, and how this can be seen within the context of British art, but also Kensington Palace was her family home.
Eleri Lynn has accomplished this by demonstrating very clearly how Diana captured the global audience in the past and is continuing to do this through the legacy encapsulated in the exhibition for the present-day audience. ‘Her Fashion Story’ narrates her journey as British icon and legend in sequential form, as the dresses are displayed in chronological order, which then forces a focus on the intricate details of her life. I have also outlined ‘The other,’ and how this relates to how Diana was viewed as a royal, as a design pioneer, and most notably, as a humanitarian; as one of us, as opposed to another distant, pompous Royal.
https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/11/22/bruno-munari-design-as-art/, Bruce Murani, 30/04/2018
Burens. D, Function of the studio, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1973, Page 51
Murani. B, Design as art, Penguin Classics, Great Britain, 2008, Page 25
O’Neill. P, The Curatorial Turn, Intellect, Great Britain, 2007, Page 22
Sontag, S. On Photography, Penguin Classics, Great Britain, 1979, Page 27
De Beavoir, S. The Second Sex, Vintage Classics (New Edition), France (translated into English), 1949, Page 756
Oldfield. B, Bruce Oldfield’s Season, Pan Books (1st Edition), Great Britain, 1987, Page 114
http://www.coatesandseely.com/news-events/arts/kensington-palace – Cover page photograph
http://barnescoaches.co.uk/itineraries/8102-diana-20-years-on-kensington-palace-exhibition-and-lunch?&tourid=164257 – Image of Diana’s dresses in an illuminated glass cabinet