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Princess Diana's revenge dress: the truth revealed

"As she got out of the car, it was impossible not to gasp."

Fiona Ward
Fiona WardActing Fashion and Beauty Editor
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The year was 1994. That very same year also saw Elizabeth Hurley make headlines in her Versace safety pin gown and the introduction of 'the Rachel' haircut thanks to the first series of Friends – but there would be no it-look quite like the it-look of 29 June 1994, when Princess Diana made a last-minute yet iconic outfit change for a Vanity Fair party at the Serpentine Gallery.

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Her low-cut, figure-hugging mini dress, made by lesser-known Greek designer Christina Stambolian, would go on to become one of her most memorable – dubbed the 'revenge' dress – since her bombshell outing was perfectly timed with the release of Prince Charles' candid ITV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, in which he confessed to being unfaithful during their marriage.

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Today, 25 years on from her death, post-breakup 'revenge dressing' is very much still a thing. And as for Princess Diana's own eff-you moment, it was everything a royal woman wouldn't have worn to a public event, at the time.

With a ruched, curve-hugging silhouette, an off-the-shoulder plunging neckline and above-knee length, Diana had kept the dress in her wardrobe for years after buying it in 1991, and was said to have thought it too 'risqué' in hindsight.

diana dress arrival© Photo: Getty Images

Diana's unforgettable moment in 1994

The events that led up to Diana's 'revenge' moment.

Though we will never really know the truth behind Diana's fashion choices that night, a pretty clear picture emerges from those that were closest to her. Her late fashion stylist and friend, Anna Harvey, told 2013 documentary Princess Diana's Dresses: The Auction that having found out about Charles' confession from previews of the interview, she wanted to hold her head high in whatever she wore that night.

"She wanted to look a million dollars. And she did," she said. Indeed, we know that Diana liked to make a statement with her fashion choices, and there was usually meaning behind each decision. Anna also wrote in a 1997 piece for Vogue: "She rapidly learned how to make an impact... it thrilled her."

diana pop up shop white

Over the years, Diana had also grown tiresome of designers that used her name for press promotion, according to Anna. And so when Valentino sent out a presumptuous press release confirming she was wearing one of its dresses ahead of the Vanity Fair event, she made a U-turn on her original outfit choice.

The slinky Christina Stambolian dress, which had been sat in her sizeable walk-in wardrobe for years, was selected instead. Paul Burrell, her former butler, has claimed that he was the one who chose it for her. During Channel 5 documentary Secrets of the Royal Dressmakers, he said: "She said, 'I can't go, I can't face the world knowing what Charles has just said. And anyway I haven't got anything to wear.' I went to her wardrobe room and pulled out the Christina Stambolian dress, and showed it to her."

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diana dress garden group© Photo: Rex

Princess Diana was the belle of the ball

He added that Diana had thought she wouldn't fit in the dress anymore, having bought it back in 1991. "I said, 'Try it on.' She slipped into it, I zipped her up and she looked a million dollars."

Another close friend, Dr James Colthurst, has previously said that it was also negative feedback about a speech she had made that pushed her to make a statement. "That day she was mightily fed up because she'd had criticism from what she called the 'Grey Men', I think to do with one of her successful speeches," he told the Daily Mail.

"The day before the Vanity Fair party she was saying, 'Oh for goodness sake, here we go again!' So I told her, 'You’ve got to show defiance; put something on that really swings the heads.' In the end she chose that dress."

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Dame Julia Peyton-Jones, former director of the Serpentine Gallery, recalls that she was informed Princess Diana would be wearing an unexpected dress for the occasion – and that she had sent an RSVP a week before the event. Previews of Prince Charles' damning interview in Charles: The Private Man, The Public Role, had been shown to the press days before its release, and rumours were swirling that it was set to cause a stir.

diana dress movement1© Photo: Rex

The silk and chiffon Stambolian dress drew gasps

"I was surprised when our Patron's lady-in-waiting told me that she'd be wearing a short dress, not the long one customarily worn at such events. Little did I know!" Julia wrote for The Telegraph.

She added: "As she got out of the car, it was impossible not to gasp. Diana was one of the most famous and beautiful women in the world... it was as if she'd come down to earth from another planet. She looked sensational in her off-the-shoulder, low-cut garment, and we all felt drab and old-fashioned in comparison."

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Event photographer Dafydd Jones, who was the only photographer inside the party, exclusively tells HELLO! that Princess Diana seemed happy and at ease while mingling with guests, and even helped him get a shot with the magazine's editor. "Diana looked fabulous, of course," he said. "I only had a limited time before everyone sat down for dinner and realised at the last moment that I had not managed to get a picture of Diana with Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter who was sponsoring the evening. She gave me a sympathetic smile and said something about my being in trouble for missing the shot... and happily posed with Graydon in the garden."

The following day, Diana dominated the front pages of every newspaper with her bold outfit choice.

The forgotten details of the 'revenge' dress

Made of black silk damask with a chiffon skirt, the Christina Stambolian number might have clung beautifully to Diana's figure, but it moved and flowed, too. With an asymmetric hemline and a sash that hung from her hip, it toed the line between sexy and soft.

diana dress accessories© Photo: Rex

Diana accessorised with a sapphire from the Queen Mother

In choosing Greek designer Stambolian, who sold evening and cocktail dresses from her London boutique at the time, Diana also gave a nod to an independent female-owned business.

It was one-of-a-kind at the time, but Christina Stambolian did later make another exact replica of the dress, which was auctioned off by Kerry Taylor Auctions in 2011. Made to Diana's sizing (a 34-inch bust and 28-inch waist), the dress is now on display at the Museum of Style Icons in County Kildare, Ireland.

The museum's curator, Pauline Doyle, tells HELLO! that the dress is very detailed in person – covered in tiny pleats across the bodice. "It's stunning," she says.

And though the dress gave Diana an incredible shape, there is no structure or boning in the bodice. "It's actually very soft," she adds. "It's figure-hugging, and has some stretch to it."

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As for accessories, the Princess chose her favourite Manolo Blahnik heels for the occasion – a pointed stiletto pair. Her clutch bag was from one of her go-to designers, Salvatore Ferragamo – a modern version of the 'Vara' bow clutch, which she carried that night, is still available to buy today. It is much lesser known than the 'Lady D' bag, or the 'Diana' clutch, a design she had in more than 20 different finishes from the Italian designer. Unlike other members of the royal family, Princess Diana was fond of fiery red nail polish, too, and set off her black cocktail dress just so. Well known for her hosiery, she added a pair of black tights that were just sheer enough.

diana meets dress designer christina© Photo: Getty Images

Diana met Christina Stambolian at Christies

As for jewellery, Diana's engagement ring was still firmly on her wedding finger. Her statement pearl and sapphire choker, which was once a brooch given to her as a wedding gift from the Queen Mother, was the natural choice for the dress. It was clearly her favourite to wear with strapless and off-shoulder gowns – she also memorably wore it the night she danced with John Travolta at the White House in 1985.

Her earrings aren't often mentioned, though Diana chose failsafe pieces that she had owned before she became Princess of Wales – the Collingwood Pearl Drop Earrings – which today are significant favourites of the Duchess of Cambridge, worn for a number of important portraits and appearances. The pearl drop earrings were originally a gift from Collingwood, family jeweller of the Spencer family, following her engagement to Prince Charles. She also added a diamond and sapphire bracelet, thought to have been a gift from the Emir of Qatar.

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The mystery of Princess Diana's 'revenge' dress today

In June 1997, just months before her tragic passing, Princess Diana held a charity auction to sell 79 of her most famous dresses in order to raise funds for the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the AIDS Crisis Trust.

dianas dress in auction catalogue© Photo: Alamy

The Princess Diana dress auction catalogue July 1997

Sweetly, it was a 15-year-old Prince William who had the idea. In the Christies auction catalogue, a handwritten note from Diana reads: "The inspiration for this wonderful sale comes from just one person... our son William."

Amongst the lots, which included countless memorable Catherine Walker designs and the velvet 'Travolta' dress by Victor Edelstein, was the 'revenge' dress. And within the catalogue, which was presumably approved by the Princess, was the description: "The Princess bought this dress off-the-peg for a dinner she attended given by Vanity Fair at The Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1993. The dress caused a great deal of comment at the time and subsequently, not only for its daring asymmetrical ruching, but also because it was thought not to be the work of a British designer."

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While many of Diana's most famous dresses have gone on to be featured in museums and galleries around the world, the 'revenge' dress has rarely been seen since the 1997 auction. The Christina Stambolian dress was purchased for £39,098 by a Scottish couple, Graeme and Briege Mackenzie, who at the time revealed that they would use it to raise further money for charities, as Diana wished.

"We were lucky enough to meet the Princess at the auction preview in Christie's in London and told her our intentions of using the dress to raise money for charity," Graeme said, according to Mail Online. "At the time charities were complaining that the National Lottery was impacting on their donations. I thought the dress would be a way of attracting people to events and that its fame could only help that aim."

dianas dress designer christina© Photo: Getty Images

Christina Stambolian at a private viewing of the dress

It's thought that the dress was used on a few occasions at luncheons and functions for the charity Children 1st, though when HELLO! reached out to the organisation, a representative couldn't confirm that was the case. The Mackenzies reportedly put the dress into a bank vault following Diana's death. "The only noble thing to do was not to use it," Graeme said. "It would have been inappropriate."

Little more was said about the dress, other than that new owner Briege wouldn't be wearing the dress herself. She told The Independent in 1997 that the dress is a size 10. "I am not some rich b***h pretending she's a princess by buying one of her dresses to prance around cocktail parties in," she candidly said.

"I can't fit into it, but that's not really the idea in this instance. We bought it to raise funds for the charity Children 1st."

Today, the dress hasn't been seen for years – it's unknown whether the Mackenzies still own it.

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Princess Diana undoubtedly knew that her fashion choices told a story, though whether she knew quite how enduring her last-minute outfit change on 29 June 1994 would be, we'll never know. The 'revenge' dress will always be a defiant piece of fashion history – though whether the world will see it again remains to be seen.

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