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The saying goes that living well is the best revenge, but for anyone who was alive in 1994 (or let's face it, is a fan of the royals and on the internet), it could be argued that dressing well is the best revenge—specifically when the outfit comes in the form of a slinky off-the-shoulder look with a pleated bodice and draped chiffon skirt. The dress in question, known today as the Revenge Dress, was designed by Christina Stambolian for Princess Diana, who memorably wore the black number on June 29, 1994 to the Serpentine Gallery, the same night that Prince Charles admitted to his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles on national television. Like many sartorial moments from the late Princess of Wales, the simple LBD has remained in our collective consciousness over the last 30 years— and is roaring back into relevance not just with Taylor Swift references, but also with an appearance in the fifth season of The Crown.
In order to fully understand the dress's significance, you have to know its history. According to Diana: A Life in Dresses by Claudia Joseph, the gown worn by Princess Diana to the Serpentine Gallery in 1994 was actually commissioned in September 1991—long before the rift with her then husband Prince Charles had reached its crescendo.
During a shopping trip in Stambolian's boutique in Beauchamp place, Diana picked up a few pieces and then told the designer, "I want a special dress for a special occasion. It doesn't matter if it is short or long. It has to be something special." After deliberating on the fashion risks she was willing to take, they also decided it would be black. And with the design set, two dressmakers crafted a hand-stitched gown with a flirty mini train, which would then sit in Princess Diana's wardrobe unworn for three years.
Prior to her appearance at the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, it leaked that the Princess of Wales was going to wear Valentino. So instead, she wore the-soon-to-be-notorious revenge dress made by Stambolian. The appearance caused a stir; Princess Diana, who dressed with intention and understood the power of telling a story through a visual, had succeeded in her task.
Diana used the dress to reclaim her space in the narrative—asserting herself and her independence. "Diana was known for wearing pieces that would wow," explains Elizabeth Holmes, royal fashion commentator and Town & Country contributor. "She knew how a show-stopping piece could feel to wear—and watch. The revenge dress was both thrilling for royal fans and all but guaranteed her place in the newspaper, where space was finite. Embracing fashion-forward styles helped her get that spot on the front page time and time again." In other words, the revenge dress was true to her signature style.
But the LBD dress known 'round the world was also a departure for the royal. For example, it hit above the knee. "Up until that stage of her life, we hadn't seen Diana choose shorter evening looks (though it was common for formal daywear, suits, and the like)," says Holmes. "Also, black is a color that the royal family typically reserves for mourning. Diana had worn black before but it was still quite a modern choice, the ultimate 'little black dress' before that concept became widespread."
Associating the revenge dress with mourning is an astute observation, and one that was also top of mind for Amy Roberts and Sidonie Roberts, the costume designer and associate costume designer & head buyer for the The Crown. At a recent roundtable, the duo revealed that prior to this season, they had only ever used black on the actors playing the royals if they were going to funerals or in mourning. So the inclusion of the revenge dress marks a departure from the norm on the show. "It became this quite symbolic moment where she chooses to wear black and it's representing a death of a marriage, the moving away from the Palace, and then the rebirth of this independent woman," explains Sidonie.
Such began an era of "revenge dressing" for Princess Diana that lasted up until her death. Eloise Moran, author of Lady Di Lookbook: What Diana Was Trying to Tell Us Through Her Clothes and the voice behind the popular Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks, tells T&C. "We really got to witness her journey to becoming this confident, non-nonsense woman with the wardrobe to match. She had her revenge staples—like the designer handbags that acted as her armor—and then there were the higher heels and shorter hemlines." By 1996-1997 she had even embraced mini dresses on evenings out—all but totally ditching the classic tropes of royal dressing. "She just wanted to be a modern woman, and you can see that through her choices of designers and the silhouettes she wore."
Did dressing for revenge make for Princess Diana's more famous outfit? Almost undoubtedly. "It's tied for the black sheep sweater as the boldest fashion sending the most obvious message," says Holmes. Moran also notes, that aside from the black sheep sweater, the revenge dress was her most sensational look in equal standing with her wedding dress, "The mini train of her revenge dress is in direct contrast to her 25 foot-long wedding train," a juxtaposition that clearly conveys a stark departure from the woman she was at the beginning of her marriage.
The end of a marriage, but the beginning of a pop cultural touchstone—it's all in a good dress.
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