Britain

Designer Diaries: Diana, Princess of Wales and Catherine Walker, Part 3

Before we begin talking about the evening clothes Walker designed for Diana, let’s dive into a couple of behind the scenes anecdotes, which casts some light on hectic royal tours.

According to the designer, the new-to-princessing Princess and her inexperienced staff miscalculated and ran out of clothes during the 1983 Australian tour. Walker’s principal machinist, Helen, moved into the workroom over Easter weekend and worked night and day on finishing up some ensembles. Diana began wearing them on the New Zealand leg of the trip.

The design house’s presser once scorched a lining of a white lace coat dress, which was scheduled to be worn for a state banquet in France, 1988. Walker rang Diana’s dresser, who decided not to tell the Princess. Such repairs as were possible were done on the design end. Getting Diana into the dress without her noticing the patchwork must have been quite a production, but it was accomplished and Walker did not tell Diana until many years later. According to the designer, the Princess found it all quite funny.

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Above, Diana wearing the “scorched” white lace dress.

After her fairy princess phase came Dynasty Di. Walker streamlined the silhouettes, but upped the beading and the sparkle. Walker designed the green sequined dress for Diana’s first solo trip, to Vienna in 1986. In fact, that was the first trip to highlight mostly Walker designs. The designer and client were simpactico.

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After ten years of designing for the Princess, Walker knew well that her client would be photographed from every angle. The Bouton Renaud silk velvet dress, shown below, was designed for the 1991 premiere of “Steel Magnolias” in honor of the Prince’s Trust. A premiere meant even more flashbulbs than usual, so Walker went for a strong color and cut, based on designs from the Imperial Russian Court. Initially the underdress was to be ivory, but Diana felt all burgundy would be more fluid. And she was right.

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Above, Diana in the Bouton Renaud gown, which was embroidered to catch the light from the front, side and back.

Below is a black silk crepe dress Diana commissioned for a 1992 banquet at the former palace of the Nizam of Hyderabad, in India. Walker researched the decorative arts of India, and innto that influence was incorporated the swirls of the Spencer tiara. The result was a glorious melding of dress and jewels, fit for a Princess.

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The dress, which featured a diamante design on the bodice, was one of those sold at the Christie auction.

Just before her death in 1997, Diana famously auctioned off many of her gowns for charity. Included were some of the late model Walkers, which were less formal and more “sexy” than the gowns Diana wore as a princess. Walker lowered the necklines but retained the structure in the gowns.

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Above, Diana at the New York auction in 1997, wearing a glass beaded dress and looking at another Walker design, one of the first done in the sexier mode. The long gown is in Clerici silk crepe, and features an embroidered pocket.

Sadly, both women are no longer with us. Diana died in 1997 and Walker in 2010, from complications from her treatment for breast cancer. It was truly one of the great fashion collaborations of all time, and I think you will agree many of the gowns, suits and dresses that Walker designed for Diana have stood the test of time. They certainly went a long way to carving out Diana’s unique style.

I have so enjoyed delving deeply into Walker. Like Hartnell with LiL, this talented, shy, fiercely drive woman worked her way into my heart and imagination. Her working partnership and frendship with Diana is one for the ages.

…The comments about your design and expertise would have made your ears burn. You have given a enormous amount of people an enormous amount of pleasure… Thank you!

Princess Diana Letter to Catherine Walker, 1996

Next week, Diana goes glam, and begins her association with international design houses..