From the moment Diana, Princess of Wales stepped onto the world stage at her engagement in February 1981 she became a fashion icon of unparalleled magnitude. Her youth, beauty and innate glamour captured a world that fell in love with her and was captivated by her clothes as much as her refreshing approach to royal duties.
Diana conveyed status in the fantastically regal and glamorous gowns that she wore on her overseas tours as well as red carpet events. To her, promoting British fashion was fundamental to her role. Throughout the the 80s and 90s, she was dressed by the very best of British designers including Bruce Oldfield, the Emmanuels, Catherine Walker and Victor Edelstein, amongst others.
Amongst her most iconic looks was the navy velvet Victor Edelstein dress that she wore on her 1985 visit to the White House as a guest of President Reagan. Now, over 20 years since her death, one of the most famous outfits ever worn will return to Kensington Palace.
Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity which cares for the State Apartments at Kensington Palace, has now acquired the iconic ‘Travolta dress’ so called because she memorably danced with him at the White House reception.
The gown will now join the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, an internationally significant collection of royal and court dress. It will be conserved and cared for by Historic Royal Palaces specialists before any future display.
The dress, designed by Victor Edelstein and selected by the Princess for dinner at the White House, went down in fashion history when Diana took to the dance floor with John Travolta as the band played tunes from his hit films including Grease and Saturday Night Fever. The resulting images of the Princess and the actor dancing together went around the world causing a global sensation, earning the gown its enduring nickname; the ‘Travolta dress’.
Worn by The Princess of Wales on a number of occasions between 1985 and 1997 – when it was auctioned alongside 78 other items from her wardrobe to raise money for AIDS and cancer charities – the dress is said to have been among Diana’s favourites. In addition to the White House dinner, it was chosen by the Princess for an official visit to Austria in 1986, Germany in 1987, to attend the London premiere of the film ‘Wall Street’ in 1988, and to sit for an official portrait by the artist Israel Zohar, in her capacity as Colonel in Chief of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars. The Princess wore the gown for the last time in 1997, when she was photographed by Lord Snowdon, in advance of the dress going up for sale.
Unusually for the Princess’s evening wear, it was not a bespoke design, but rather selected by her from one of Edelstein’s seasonal collections and remade in midnight blue rather than the original burgundy. In addition to its connection to Diana, the dress is itself is an important work of fashion design. It takes inspiration from Edwardian evening dresses, with the velvet ruched and cut with incredible skill to create a sleek silhouette while retaining movement in the fabric.
The perfect fusing of form and function, the gown marks a point in Diana’s style evolution, when she moved away from seasonal fashions to a more classic, timeless look that was to define her fashion choices until her death in 1997. Edelstein, one of the most important British couturiers of the 1980s and 1990s, is credited with helping the Princess move away from the frills and ruffles of her earlier image to the new, sleek style he himself championed.
Eleri Lynn, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “We’re delighted to have acquired this iconic evening gown for the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – a designated collection of national and international importance – over 20 years since it first left Kensington Palace.
“Not only is the ‘Travolta’ dress a fantastic example of couture tailoring designed to dazzle on a state occasion, it represents a key moment in the story of twentieth century royal fashion. The photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales dancing with John Travolta at the White House wearing this midnight blue Victor Edelstein gown are known the world over, with the dress’s twirling velvet skirt playing no small part in making this such a memorable image.”
The dress had previously been on show at Kensington Palace as part of the “Diana: Her Fashion Story” exhibition, which opened in 2017. It was purchased by the charity for £264,000, after the auction in which it didn’t sell.
It was last sold at auction in 2013, alongside other dresses belonging to the Princess.