That time Princess Diana outdid everyone in an "Elvis gown."
If the walls could talk: when the Royal Albert Hall hosted the opening of the British Fashion Awards in 1989, big names and industry talents showed off their haute couture, but among them was a true queen: Diana, Princess of Wales.

She had read the brief. Although Diana could never compete with the country's most avant-garde designers (Vivienne Westwood's fig-leaf-covered ensemble and Katherine Hamnett's silver flip-flops gave that historic October evening a splash of color), Diana commissioned a British designer to come up with a look that celebrated national talent (check) and her artistry balanced by a touch of humor (check, check).

Catherine Walker, the Chelsea stylist who had first dressed Diana during her pregnancy with Prince William in 1981 and played a key role in shaping her royal image away from the Sloane Ranger style associated with Prince Charles, devised a gown of snow-white beads and a bolero embroidered by hand with some 28,600 pearls. Her signature touch? The high, sharp collar that earned it the nickname "Elvis' dress" from Diana herself.

Originally designed for a state visit to Hong Kong in 1989, the oyster pearls, embroidered by S Lock Ltd, were meant to complement Queen Mary's Lover's Knot tiara, lent to Diana long after her July 1981 wedding. But on that great evening of fashion, which saw Workers for Freedom, founded by Graham Fraser and Richard Nott, win the inaugural Designer of the Year award, the Princess reduced the pearls and dared with the shoulders and the bold Elvis ornament around her neck. Amid designers of the caliber of Zandra Rhodes, Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell, there was something extraordinarily brilliant about wearing a white wedding dress weighed down by microscopic ornaments. There is fashion and there is real fashion.

It was almost three decades before another member of the royal family caught the attention of photographers at the Fashion Awards (which lost the term "British" in 2016), when the Duchess of Sussex presented the British Designer of the Year award for women's fashion to Clare Waight Keller, arguably Meghan's version of Catherine Walker. The highlight for Markle was not a big dress, but her baby bump, framed by a black column dress by Givenchy made by Waight Keller herself.

On that October night in 1981, Walker lost the British Glamour Award, presented by Janet Street-Porter, to Anthony Price. However, other brands supported by Princess Diana, including Victor Edelstein and Bruce Oldfield, were awarded. Indeed, scrolling through the list of nominees, the Queen's influence was evident. Elvis's dress did not receive the media attention as Christina Stambolian's "revenge LBD" or the Galliano slip worn during her only trip to the Met Gala, but it showed the confidence of one of the world's most original influencers.

April 18, 2024