Designer Diaries – Diana, Princess of Wales and Catherine Walker Part 1

For the last few weeks we were immersed in Diana’s fairy princess entry into the royal world. Even those with only a passing knowledge of Diana’s fashion know that as she matured into her royal role, her fashion choices changed considerably. The sleeker, older, more professional princess emerged, and no one was more responsible for molding that image than Catherine Walker.

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Like so many famous designers, Catherine Walker did not set out to design clothes. She was born in France, and came to Britain with her first husband. She bought her first sewing machine at the age of 28, with money she won from her mother-in-law, who challenged her sons and daughter-in-law to quit smoking. We are lucky that Catherine kicked the habit, because it began an obsession with tailoring and the technical aspects of sewing that begat her design house.

Walker began by designing children’s clothes. Her earliest designs were sailor suits, designed in the style of classic children’s clothes in her native France. She would fill baskets with samples and make the rounds of buyers for the large department stores in London. These early designs were extremely popular among what was then known as the Sloane Ranger set – and we know who was one of the most famous members of that group.

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Diana is shown above, in 1983, wearing a Walker sailor suit-influenced dress, and you can see the shades of Walker’s early designs for children echoed here.

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Diana is shown in 1984, pregnant with Harry, in another Walker with a sailor influenced design.

Catherine eventually set up a design studio in Chelsea and began designing for older women. Her technical focus was on elongating the body through the midriff, and you can still see that in the designs produced by the fashion house today. Four months after her wedding, Diana placed her first order with the Catherine Walker design house, for some maternity fashions.

They first met some months later, when Diana visited the atelier to thank Catherine for her maternity clothes. Catherine Walker later reflected that she felt Diana also visited to look around, and to determine if the designer had the resources and personality to be discreet. Walker passed the test, and the designing began.

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Above, Diana in a Catherine Walker coat, December 1982

Catherine Walker reflected a great deal on the various roles of the Princess of Wales. Designing a working wardrobe for her was a monumental challenge. There was the public princess, who had requirements of fit, modesty and suitability for a variety of events. There was also the fact that the princess was young, and required a certain style to project gravitas, but not to become too matronly. Diana was lucky in that Walker was much like her: she was tall (the same height as the princess), introspective, and dedicated to creating the appropriate clothes for the image Diana needed to project.

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The photo above shows Diana in a Catherine Walker suit in Australia (1983).

The early designs show a period of development between the two. In the early days there were still lots of ruffles, and a reliance on the aforementioned sailor dresses. The Walker designs did not initially reach the level of sophistication shown in the Edelstein creations, but they evolved quickly.

The collaboration eventually resulted in a series of sleeker suits and glamorous gowns. Over the next two weeks we’ll delve into the working day wardrobe that Walker devised for the princess, and the evening gowns that were both the fun part of her commissions, and the most challenging. In the meantime, let’s post some early Diana/Catherine Walker collaborations in the comments.