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Dresses to Di For

She cleans out her closet and the world forks over $265 ($60 softcover) just for the benefit auction's catalog. Who says the fairy tale is over?

June 25, 1997|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — If she were any other woman, she'd simply haul her clothes over to the Salvation Army or Goodwill when they didn't suit her anymore. But if your major fashion accessory has been a diamond-encrusted tiara and your closet is the size of the average New York apartment, you can't exactly pass on the old stuff to the cleaning lady.

Not at Kensington Palace.

Diana, princess of Wales and the world's most famous coat hanger, is selling off 79 of her 90 fanciest frocks at an auction at Christie's tonight to benefit six cancer and AIDS charities. It is an act befitting a woman who, though she will never be queen of England, is honing a new image as queen of hearts. She is also, presumably, trying to unload a lifestyle that ended with her divorce last year from heir to the British throne Prince Charles, and trying to make room in her palace cupboard to accommodate a shop-till-you-drop habit with new fashions.

The sale has had a huge media buildup, similar to the auctions of the duchess of Windsor's jewels and Jacqueline Onassis' estate, and is expected to bring in quite a haul. Diana's hand-me-downs already have raised $1.5 million in catalog sales at $60 for softcover and $265 for hardcover.

But how much individual gowns will go for is still unclear. Tonight's bidding, with 1,100 in attendance at Christie's Park Avenue salon and hundreds bidding by phone from around the world, is expected to start at $5,000 per dress, not a lot more than a haute couture dress might cost if it were new and hadn't been fitted precisely for Diana's ever-changing body--or, in the case of one silk chiffon number, did not have a tiny gravy stain from one of those royal feasts.

Probably, bargain hunters should look elsewhere. The market for these dresses ranges from museums to a daddy's little girl with a fat allowance. (Imagine the conversation at a summer dance in Tulsa: "Ooooooo, Muffy, I just love your dress," debutante No. 1 says to debutante No. 2, who has plunked down thousands for that emerald-green satin ball dress with the bustle. "Why, thank you," says deb No. 2, adjusting a cap sleeve. "Where did you get it?" deb No. 1 inquires. "Oh," deb No. 2 whispers, leaning over in a kind of royal curtsy, "it belonged to the princess.")

Rumors persist that several drag queens might be bidding to wear a Di original at a slightly zanier ball. Told that the next person shimmying into one of her velvet bodices might be a transvestite, Diana is said to have responded, "I hope whoever buys them has as much fun in them as I did."

Meredith Etherington-Smith, Christie's director of the sale, ever so discreetly let on that there was considerable interest from Los Angeles. "I can't say exactly who," she said, winking, "but I would imagine it's the Oscar audience."

While there are some stunning columns of silk and velvet, and off-the-shoulder numbers, there are several overwrought gowns (witness Lot No. 45--a one-sleeved ball dress in silk taffeta with a black background strewn with crimson roses) that are reminiscent of all the horrible bridesmaids dresses you had to buy in your 20s for college roommates' weddings but were never again able to wear.

But it's difficult to be too hard on a wardrobe--Etherington-Smith labels it the "world's most glamorous working wardrobe"--that is probably a decent narrative of Diana's 15-year journey from fairy-tale princess to savvy survivor of infidelity and Windsor Court intrigue.

Diana was 19 when she became engaged, 20 when she entered royalty and about 25 when the fairy tale began to break up. At 35, she is among the most recognizable faces in the world.

If nothing else, Diana has long been immensely better-dressed than her former mother-in-law and the Queen Mum, whose collective style one royal watcher has labeled "fussy itsy-bootsy." Even with all the sequins and chiffon and those big "Dynasty" shoulders, compared to her female in-laws, Diana was a siren of simplicity. Still, royal women are a parody of chic: Everybody is already staring at them, and then they dress in overkill.

Vicki Woods, a British fashion writer who frequently contributes to Vogue, is sympathetic to the dilemma Diana faced when she was married and had to wear--exclusively--clothes by British designers.

"If you're wearing an Indian prince's ransom of emeralds and diamonds, you can't be Calvin Klein-like and minimalist," Woods pointed out. "You have to wear dresses as formal as the state occasion and the little gilt chairs you sit on and the flunkies surrounding you--including the palace staff in white, silk stockings and gold embroidered shoes."

Diana also reached dressing maturity in a hard decade, the garish 1980s, and in a difficult time of any woman's life, her 20s.

Elizabeth Emanuel, the British designer who created Diana's wedding dress and has two romantic ball gowns in the sale, said the clothes reflect a style that went from frothy to glitzy to confident.

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