Britain

Designer Diaries – Bellville Sassoon and Diana, Princess of Wales

Note: Those who watch “The Crown” know that the upcoming season features the introduction of Diana. The season airs in November, so we will spend the next few weeks focusing on Diana and the designers who defined her image. Our brains will be sharpened to tackle all those Crown costume discussions.

Last week we talked about how Bellville Sassoon started designing for the House of Windsor. The most famous of their designs were for the most visible member of that family.

That was, of course, Diana, but it was the case of a relationship that almost never launched. When the young, nervous Lady Diana went to the Bellville Sassoon retail shop late one Friday night, looking for a suit for her engagement announcement, the French vendeuse on duty took her for a teenager shopping above her price point. She advised Diana to “try around the corner at Harrods”. (That is the answer to why Diana wore THAT blue suit for her first appearance as an almost member of the Royal Family. It was an off-the-rack last minute choice).

Frances Shand-Kydd stepped up and coaxed her daughter back to the store. The designers confided later that they were “horrified” when they learned about the incident, although any conversations between the formidable Ms. Shand-Kydd and the design house have been discreetly forgotten. Bellville Sassoon ended up designing for the princess for the next 12 years. Some of Diana’s most famous early outfits were designed by Bellville Sassoon, starting with the pink honeymoon going-away suit.

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The “fairy princess” gown was worn the night before she announced her pregnancy with William, when she famously fell asleep sitting up.

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The sailor ensemble was worn for Diana’s first official photograph with the Queen and Prince Charles. She chose it off the ready-to-wear rack, and according to Sassoon, twirled around the shop saying, “they are going to love this one!”

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Majesty Magazine, 1981

The design house, focused as they were on making traditional British design fun, was a good fit for a young princess. They dropped a lot of the ruffles as the years progressed, but the colorful and youthful image remained. One of their most recognizable designs was worn repeatedly by Diana.

Diana called this her “caring” dress and the designer called it the “paintbox” dress. Regardless of the name, Diana wore this dress a lot, most often to events with children. Young people loved the colorful dress done up in soft fabric, and it was, according to the princess, a very comfortable dress to wear.

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The design team wasn’t all color and detail, though. This sleek number worn by Diana in 1991, to the premiere of the film Backdraft.

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David Sassoon remained a friend throughout Diana’s life, a fun and cheerful presence, full of gossip and good spirits. He last saw Diana at Christies, at the charity auction of her clothes. He asked her if the going-away outfit she wore on her wedding day was in the auction. ‘Oh no!’ said Diana. ‘I’m not losing that.’

Belinda Bellville retired in 1981, and with age, David Sassoon has reduced his involvement with the firm. Bellville Sassoon continues with their ready-to-wear lines, and is now run by Irish designer  Lorcan Mullany.

Next week we continue our designer discussion with the team that helped Diana explode onto the scene as a fairytale royal princess.