The first Met Gala began in 1948 as a fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York, but it wasn’t until 1973, under the direction of iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland, that it became the celebrity-packed spectacle for which it’s now known.

In the nearly 50 years since, the Met Gala has cemented its status as a red carpet extravaganza rivaling the Oscars for glamour and hosting movie stars, fashion designers, athletes, supermodels and, in one memorable instance, a princess.

In December 1996, fresh from a hugely public divorce from Prince Charles, Princess Diana made her first and only appearance at the Met Gala.

That year’s theme: Legendary French fashion designer Christian Dior. The style icon died in 1957, but his eponymous fashion house remains one of the world’s leading luxury brands.

1996 marked the debut of Dior’s new head designer, John Galliano, whose first couture collection for the label included a midnight blue silk slip dress with black lace accents.

It was this daring dress that the 35-year-old Diana chose to wear to the Met Gala, which she attended with friend and event co-chair Liz Tilberis, then the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Tilberis, who was battling ovarian cancer at the time, died in 1999.

According to a 2010 Diana biography, the royal worried that the dress might be too racy and bring embarrassment to her 14-year-old son, Prince William. Ultimately, however, she plowed ahead, accessorizing the look with the pearl and sapphire choker made famous by its appearance during her 1985 dance with John Travolta.

The princess also paired the dress with a matching silk robe-style cover-up and quilted Dior bag (now known as the Lady Dior) as well as her sapphire engagement ring and sapphire and diamond cluster drop earrings (both since passed on to Kate Middleton).

Though Diana, accompanied by Galliano himself during the event, was deemed the “belle of the ball,” it was her only Met Gala appearance. The royal died in a car accident in August 1997, aged just 36.

Nearly 25 years later — and with this year’s Met Gala moving to September due to the pandemic — only one other British royal has attended the A-list affair: Princess Beatrice, who came in 2018.

Princess Diana and the Met Gala: The story behind the royal's red carpet moment

By Erin Donnelly

On Monday, Sept. 13, after 16 months of pandemic-forced cancellations and postponements, the famed Met Gala will at last return, with throngs of A-listers descending upon New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in their most inventive fashions. Though this year's long-awaited event — often referred to as fashion prom — is being billed as more intimate in scale this go-around, rumors are already running rampant about who might be on the star-studded guest list, notoriously vetted by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. As the 2021 co-chairs, Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish, Amanda Gorman and Naomi Osaka alone are guaranteed to be gracing the most thrilling red carpet in the world, with this year's theme devoted to American fashion.

But it's the legacy of a Brit that carries special significance, as this year marks the 25th anniversary of Princess Diana's visit to fashion's big night out. (In a stroke of symmetry, 2021 also marked what would have been the late royal's 60th birthday, on July 1, and 40 years since her July 29, 1981, wedding to Prince Charles.)

Princess Diana's appearance on Dec. 9, 1996, remains noteworthy on several counts: her daring, lingerie-inspired dress, designed by a visionary young John Galliano in his first season at Dior; the rarity of a British royal attending the gala (although Wintour herself is a dame); and the moment's encapsulation of her transition, as Eloise Moran of Lady Di Revenge Looks puts it, "from royal to international celebrity."

Moran, whose popular Instagram account chronicles Diana's "sassiest post-divorce looks" and will release The Lady Di Look Book: What Diana Was Trying to Tell Us Through Her Clothes in June 2022, says the then-35-year-old royal's attendance came as she was finding new footing among New York City's fashion crowd in the months since her scandalous split from Prince Charles. The former couple finalized their divorce on Aug. 28, 1996 — a year and three days before Diana would die from injuries sustained in a Paris car crash, and just three months before the Met Gala.

Was Diana's dress a "revenge" look? "One hundred percent," says Moran. For its theme that year, the gala — which started in 1948 as a more staid fundraising dinner for the Met's Costume Institute, until the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland came on as a consultant in the early 1970s and transformed it into the splashy, starry spectacle it is now — had chosen the work of Christian Dior. Though the eponymous French designer died in 1957, his fashion house remains one of the leading luxury labels. In 1996, all eyes were on the young British-Gibraltarian man who had just taken over as head designer, John Galliano. In his first couture collection for Dior, Galliano included a slinky midnight-blue silk slip dress reminiscent of a negligee, black lace trim emphasizing the boudoir-chic effect. It's this dress that Diana chose to wear.

The princess reportedly had her reservations about the provocative look, however. According to the royal biographer Katie Nicholl, author of 2010's William and Harry, Diana worried that the dress might embarrass her then-14-year-old son William, who was struggling with his parents' split. Ultimately, the urge to make a bold sartorial statement as a newly single woman won out.

Diana paired the Dior dress with a matching navy silk robe-style cover up — perfect for fending off the December chill — but didn't shy from adding some ice in the form of her sapphire and diamond cluster drop earrings. The jewels perfectly complemented her sapphire engagement ring — which, along with the earrings, has since been passed down to her daughter-in-law Kate Middleton — and the pearl and sapphire choker necklace made famous for its appearance during her 1985 dance with John Travolta. Diana also carried her go-to quilted Dior handbag, a style now known as the Lady Dior in her honor.

Dressed to the nines, the princess arrived in the company of her friend Liz Tilberis, then the editor of Harper's Bazaar and a co-chair for that year's gala. (In a rare absence since becoming chairwoman of the Costume Institute — now part of the Anna Wintour Costume Center — in 1995, Wintour did not co-chair the 1996 event, though another princess, Marie-Chantal of Greece, stepped in.) Tilberis, wearing a velvet turtleneck dress with matching opera-length gloves in the same shade of midnight blue as her royal pal, was at the time undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, and would die from the disease in 1999.

Galliano himself also stayed close to Diana's side throughout the evening, reportedly introducing the princess to fashion's own version of royalty. By all accounts the mother of two was the "belle of the ball," though Moran notes that her dress — now considered an iconic look that's been displayed at London's Victoria and Albert Museum — fell flat with some more conservative royal-watchers.

"That was one of her most shocking dresses, and it got slated because they said it didn't suit her figure because she obviously had quite broad shoulders," Moran says. "But I thought she looked fabulous. She just looks so happy and confident."

The dress's shock value may have been the appeal, Moran adds, noting that Diana was well aware of the reaction her outfits received. What better place to push the envelope than at the Met Gala?

"I think she was embracing it and enjoying it," Moran says. "She knew she could never get rid of the attention and the spotlight on her, but I think she was positioning it in a different way, as a kind of international megastar, Marilyn Monroe-type icon rather than a member of the royal family. And I think the dress really reflected that."

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