Hear ye all. Kensington Palace has put on an exhibition titled Diana: Her Fashion Story and, ostensibly, tickets are selling out fast. For a mere £19 eager crowds can see the demure and romantic outfits Diana wore when young and full of hope, and then go all the way on to elegant, glamourous style of her years as a savvy divorcee. That sweet pink blouse! That blue velvet gown! It will be 20 years this summer since the princess died a horrible death. This show reduces the ill-fated, complex, empathetic and clever young woman to a tightly moderated fashion collection.
Eleri Lynn, the curator, confesses there will be no ‘weaponised’ clothes Diana wore to get at Charles, but many examples of sober garments she wore when doing good works. Alas, visitors will not get to see the stained dresses that show she suffered from bulimia. Or the dress she had on when she learnt that Charles was discarding her. Or the Shalwar Khameez she wore when she went to visit the family of her secret, true love, the British Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, who never betrayed her.
Princess Diana lived in Kensington Palace during the last years of her life. It was here that she had to find strength and remake herself after the inevitable end of her marriage, a marriage arranged by her own hideous family and deviously planned by the British royal family. The king in waiting had to have heirs. She was a damaged young girl from a broken, aristocratic family and, most importantly, a virgin. Perfect really. Camilla, Charles’s long time upper class lover, accepted the deal. As the day approached, Diana, who by then knew about Camilla, wanted out, but was told by her sisters she had to go ahead. They all used her. Never forget that.
In this palace she suffered terrible loneliness, missed her boys when they were with their father and other royals. Her neediness drew her into affairs, liaisons and also unusual, sometimes highly unsuitable friendships ( she yearned for love, trust and care). And she was mentally unstable. But there were also days and nights of wicked pleasure and happiness with Khan, who, in the end, sadly could not step into her crazy, over-watched world. She got stronger and bolder too. As Beatrix Campbell wrote in her radical biography of the princess ‘[Diana revolted] against her arranged marriage, the deceit and duplicity of her husband and complicity of his relatives, exposed them as an atavistic family…’
In October 1996, she told a confidante that she believed she would be killed in an accident, that would be arranged by people who did not want her around. She even ordered a sweep of Kensington Palace for listening devices. By this time she was more media savvy and able to be herself. Then she died, just as she had predicted she would. ( We will never be given the full facts of what happened in Paris that night.)
And it was to the palace that thousands upon thousands went the day she died and for many days afterwards. I am a committed republican yet I came to this place of grief and love over and over again. Diana’s vulnerability and openness had touched millions. Men and women of every background sobbed loudly around candles. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh women prayed and lit incense. Flowers spread across the gardens, more flowers than any of us had ever seen. There were messages of quiet fury written on bouquets, not only about how badly she had been treated, but questioning the Queen and her motley crew, some the monarchical system itself.
Her brother Earl Spencer- who denied Diana a sanctuary when most she needed it- made a stirring speech about how she would not be forgotten. Tony Blair promised ‘the people’s princess’ would be forever in our hearts. But she was systematically and sedulously erased from national memory by the very expensive and excellent palace PR machine with the collusion of pro-royal newspapers.
Camilla is now glowingly praised and totally rehabilitated. Some commentators are slathering her with praise and already suggesting that she would make a jolly good queen. High level public indoctrination has begun as the long serving monarch gets older and succession is on the horizon.
I write this because the royals want us, the people, to forget the real Diana, her empathy, effectiveness, beauty and ultimately tragic story. And to forget too the way she was treated by Camilla and Charles and the rest of the Windsors. Remembrance is often a political act of resistance and restorative justice. Misremembering is also a political tool.
Diana was far, far more than a womb and a frock. This exhibition is gross and disrespectful. And greedy. Kate and William, who live in Kensington Palace, should never have backed the project. But they did and so showed that they have become part of the Firm’s ruthless PR machinery.
I newspaper 23rd March 2017