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Fans of Princess Diana take voyage back in time on Queen Mary

Her admirers gather to hear the man who tended her tresses share memories. A portrait of innocence and decency emerges.

January 31, 2013|By Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Dalton, Princess Diana's hairdresser, didn't create her famous cut. That was his assistant's work. But he was its longtime custodian.
Richard Dalton, Princess Diana's hairdresser, didn't create… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Prominently displayed at the Princess Diana exhibit at the Queen Mary last week was a rack of diaphanous dresses, copies of the one Kate Middleton was modeling when she caught Diana's elder son's attention.

The flimsy strapless knit was designed as an overskirt. But at the insistence of organizers of the charity function where she appeared, Middleton wore it over undergarments.

Now married to a prince, Middleton has retreated to a more chaste look. But the dresses, and the teasing placard that accompanied them, show how far we have come from the days when Diana "shocked the world" in a low-cut black strapless frock entirely appropriate to a beautiful 19-year-old woman on the verge of becoming a princess.

That black dress, or a picture of it, was in the exhibit, along with copies of her other famous outfits, Diana dolls, photographs and personal belongings including a dressing table set. There were photos and placards on Middleton, the young princes Harry and William, Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth. Displayed on the sun deck level of the onetime transatlantic liner in the fog-swirled Long Beach harbor, the artifacts had a ghostly power.

Most of Diana's dresses were body-skimming, not hugging. She wore scarves, preposterous hats and shoulder pads.

Young women today, including my daughter, refuse to believe that Diana was a style icon because of this frumpiness. Largely, it's the hair: feathered back from her face and shellacked, it's as far from the bed head and pole dancer aesthetic in vogue as a Gibson Girl's bouffant.

The man behind the hair, Diana's longtime hairdresser Richard Dalton, spoke at an evening tea the night I arrived. Turns out Dalton, now graying and accompanied by a towering hair model in a white princess gown and tiara, didn't create the famous cut. That was his assistant's work. But he was its longtime custodian.

After a disastrous experiment pinning her hair up for the opening of Parliament, Dalton learned he could alter Diana's coiffure only a quarter-inch at a time, or set off a media eruption.

"Teenagers wouldn't get it," Dalton said. "They just want to die their hair pink and be Katy Perry. And I did Katy Perry's hair. The sophistication of a princess is lost on them."

In his remarks, Dalton, who grew up in Scotland and now lives in Dana Point, shared homely memories of Diana: her mildly dirty jokes, the hand-written notes she sent him and the quotidian details of her schedule (up by 7 a.m. to swim, in the stylist's chair by 8).

What came through was a portrait of innocence and decency.

"She was so human, she made you feel at ease," he said.

Dalton said he never has and never will disclose anything private or scandalous. And that's how the crowd — women in tweeds and rhinestones and a few men — liked it. Sipping tea or champagne, and picking at petit fours, they hung on every familiar detail about the suits, scarves, gowns and tiaras. Especially the tiaras.

"Every single moment he mentioned we knew," said playwright Valerie Monahan, 42, of Long Beach. "It was our childhood."

Monahan came to the talk with two childhood friends from Columbia, Mo. who now live in Southern California. The summer between their 5th and 6th grades, the girls stayed up all night together to watch Diana marry Charles on television. Later, they had a record with an audio recording of the ceremony, which they play-acted over and over again.

"Our friend Nancy had to pretend to be Charles because nobody wanted to be him," Monahan said.

Margaret Katzman, 55, a Claremont nurse, managed to get her husband, Brad, a podiatrist, to the evening tea. Two years after Diana's death, the couple went on a memorial tour in the princess' honor.

They stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed dined the night of her fatal accident. They drove through the Pont d'Alma tunnel, where paparazzi chased the couple and their driver, then traveled through the English countryside to Althorp House, Diana's family estate.

The princess is buried there, on an island in the middle of a glassy lake patrolled by black swans.

"It's so lonely," Katzman said. Margaret met Diana's brother Charles Spencer, who later sent her a card. "I didn't even mind that it was a Christmas card, and I'm Jewish," Katzman said.

After the remarks, Dalton signed autographed photos of his younger self with a radiant, windswept Diana, while the crowd flowed out to the exhibits.

Felicia Ruiz, 36, a Buena Park loan servicer, was stopped cold by a Diana doll showing the princess crouched down in the folds of a voluminous evening dress.

"It's so natural," she said. "I love the fact there's a human side to her.

"And I love that the hairdresser didn't tell anything that was trashy."

Other pictures showed her in the maternity clothes of the day—voluminous enough to supply a tent maker.

For all the so-called scandals around Diana, looking at her through eyes scarred by reality TV, hot moms and stripper chic — trends that find their most tawdry expression right here in L.A. — she is the picture of fresh-faced grace and innocence. Diana was beautiful when that was possible without being trashy, and stylish without being outre. It's an aesthetic sadly denied to the It Girls of today.

You don't have to be a fan of Diana to see that something's been lost. Not that her fans aren't still seeking it. "I'm trying to get into this Kate," Katzman said

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