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Princess Diana: A look at the last birthday of the queen of hearts

One year on from her divorce, she seemed on the cusp of a rebirth, making her death just two months later all the more tragic

Mulenga Hornsby

On 1 July 1997, her 36th birthday, Diana, Princess of Wales woke up to 90 bouquets of flowers, and Prince Harry ringing from school to sing Happy Birthday over the phone with a group of classmates. One year on from her divorce from the Prince of Wales, Diana was putting her troubles behind her and had bright plans for the future, both in her private and public lives. She seemed on the cusp of a rebirth, making her untimely death just two months later all the more tragic. The sense of loss is still palpable 20 years on, as Prince William recently admitted, saying he feels the shock to this day.

On her final birthday Diana was on dazzling form, recalls her brother Earl Spencer. He was by her side at a gala in London's Tate Gallery, where the Princess was guest of honour at the invitation of director Nicholas Serota, whose wife Dame Angela was a friend through Diana's work for aids patients. Earl Spencer poignantly said at his sister's funeral just two months later: "The last time I saw Diana was on July 1, her birthday in London, when typically she was not taking time to celebrate her special day with friends but was guest of honour at a special charity fundraising evening. She sparkled, of course."

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The Princess dazzled as she attended a charity soiree to mark the centenary of London's Tate Gallery

Chanel sponsored the centenary soiree at the Tate for 500 of the most glamorous guests imaginable. Hollywood royalty, represented by Steve Martin, mingled with British high society in the form of Prince Charles's cousin Viscount Linley, his wife Serena, Lady Helen Windsor and Sabrina Guinness. From the fashion world came milliner Philip Treacy and models Karen Elson, Carole Bouquet and Iman, wife of David Bowie. Even among this glittering guest list Diana was the focus of every gaze.

In a black Chantilly lace sheath that showed off her knockout figure, the Princess was radiant. By Jacques Azagury, the eye-catching gown was a surprise birthday gift from the designer, who'd had it delivered to Kensington Palace that day.

"Diana loved it. I believe she had another dress to wear but ended up wearing mine," he told HELLO! in an exclusive interview, adding that in the final stages of her life, "she was happier than I had ever seen her. There was something about the way she carried herself; a certain new-found confidence".

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She wore a black lace Chantilly gown given to her as a birthday gift by designer Jacques Azagury. His sketch (above).

Jacques knew that now his famous client was no longer an HRH she loved eveningwear in black – something usually only worn by royals during mourning. Finishing off the Princess's spectacular birthday look was one of her favourite pieces from the royal collection. Once worn by the Queen's grandmother, Queen Mary, the emerald and diamond necklace was loaned to Diana for her lifetime.

This was one of the few occasions after her divorce that she wore heirloom rocks. In fact, in the sensational portraits by photographer Mario Testino published a few weeks previously, she had made a point of appearing without the accoutrements of royalty and with natural hair and make-up. The new image was accompanied by a sharpening of her commitment to humanitarian missions, for which she crisscrossed the globe that summer.

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The Princess's brother Earl Spencer was at her side that evening. It was to be the last time he saw her alive, as he movingly recalled at her funeral

In June the Princess had scored a success with a speech about landmines on behalf of the Red Cross in Washington. In August she flew to Bosnia to meet landmine survivors, accompanied by the world's press. And in September, she was due to travel to Hong Kong, newly handed over by the British to China, on a three-day visit for a cancer charity co-ordinated by her friend and Chinese entrepreneur David Tang.

But first she'd planned holidays with Egyptian magnate Mohammed Al Fayed and his son Dodi, who was to become her lover. Her previous boyfriend, heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, who was reluctant to commit to life with a global icon, wasn't quite forgotten though.

As the most photographed woman in the world left for the Tate, she asked her butler Paul Burrell: "Do you think Hasnat will think I look good in this?" Sadly this was the last such gala she was ever to grace, and many of those present would later be at her funeral. But that magical midsummer night summed up the essence of who she was, the beautiful People's Princess who grew up before our eyes, learning along the way how to use her high-octane royal glamour for good.

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