How Princess Diana became a fashion icon

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Versace and the Queen of Hearts

Princess Diana wore a legendary Versace dress for a photo shoot in 1991, pictured here at the "Diana: Her Fashion Story" exhibition in Kensington Palace. At an auction in 2015 the elaborate gown, said to have been Gianni Versace's first creation for Lady Di, fetched a record $200,000 (about 190,000 euros at the time). Versace and the princess were close friends until his death in July 1997.

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Stages of life

Diana's more romantic look in the 1980s made way for sleek designer dresses in the 1990s, which the princess learned to use as "tools of diplomacy." When her marriage began to fail, her wardrobe increasingly communicated independence and power.

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Humble beginnings

Young Lady Diana Spencer wasn't at all familiar with the world of designer fashion. All she owned was a dress, a blouse and a pair of good shoes, so she borrowed clothes from her friends. Diana wore this pale pink blouse for her official engagement portrait to Prince Charles in 1981, and the brown tweed outfit for her honeymoon at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland.

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Honeymoon with Charles

At first, Diana was only the woman at Charles' side. It took a while before the 20-year-old adjusted to her new role after her wedding in 1981. But she later became more self-confident and independent, and that began to reflect in the clothes she wore.

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Iconic wardrobe

Over the years, Diana increasingly used clothing to make a diplomatic statement. A silk dress for a visit in Saudi Arabia (at left) was embroidered with gold falcons, the national symbol of the oil state.

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Dancing with Travolta

This Victor Edelstein gown is one of the highlights of the exhibition at Kensington Palace. Diana wore the midnight blue velvet evening gown at a White House gala dinner in 1985, where she famously danced with actor John Travolta. She wore the Travolta dress again two years later on a state visit with Charles to Bonn, still the German capital at the time.

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Power dressing

Over the years, Diana increasingly took control of how she was represented, "intelligently communicating through her clothes," according to the exhibition. Her favorite designer was Catherine Walker, who outfitted the princess with elegant gowns. Later, Diana wore Walker's exquisitely tailored suits at daytime charity events like lunch at the Savoy Hotel or hospital visits with HIV/AIDS patients.

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Most photographed woman in the world

Diana's interactions with the press characterized the classic love-hate relationship. Sometimes she would complain about pushy photographers, but then she would deliberately leak her indiscretions to the media. An entire industry formed around the princess, scrounging for exclusive snapshots or alleged "insider information."

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The people's princess

Diana's separation from Charles was announced in 1992, and the 1990s showed a marked change in the princess' clothing style to more pragmatic "work clothes." The Princess of Wales was turning into the "People's Princess," the term used by then Prime Minister Tony Blair after her death in August 1997.

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Fashion legacy

At the very end of the exhibition, visitors can marvel at five of Princess Diana's most stunning evening gowns. She wore them for a photo shoot with star photographer Mario Testino. Photos on the walls show a radiant, self-confident Diana who seems to be comfortable with her place in life. The exhibition is ongoing through February 2018.

Glittering gowns, elegant suits and bold mini dresses worn by the late Princess Diana are on show at Kensington Palace, marking the 20th anniversary of her death. The exhibition charts her evolving style.

"Diana: Her Fashion Story," an exhibition hosted in her long-time London residence Kensington Palace, follows the evolution of Princess Diana's style from the demure outfits of her first public appearances to the glamorous gowns of her later life.

The exhibition, which showcases 25 pieces by 11 designers, began earlier this year and is scheduled to run through February 2018. The palace aims to show how the Princess of Wales used fashion to sharpen her image and inspire other women.

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of her death on August 31, symbols of her evolving identity become all the more poignant. She died in a fatal car accident in Paris, together with Egyptian billionaire Dodi Fayed, with whom she was romantically involved. 

Read more: Why I didn't watch Lady Diana's funeral

Kensington Palace owns only a few of the marvelous dresses and outfits on display. Others are on loan from museums and private collections from around the world.

Culture | 17.07.2017

"Diana wasn't really aware of the value of her clothing, and quickly gave things away for charity," curator Eleri Lynn told Germany's dpa press agency. "We buy what we can find at auctions."

Click through the gallery above for a glimpse of some of Diana's most iconic looks.

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A terribly nice family

The concept of the "royal family" originated in the middle of the 19th century with Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their nine children. Since then, not only is a queen or a king responsible for the British Empire, but a whole extended family. The Windsors have modernized and perfected this concept. Today, the Queen even accepts Camilla, the second wife of son Charles, into the family circle.

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Monarchy in danger

George V (1865-1936, right) looked like his cousin Czar Nicholas II of Russia. But when the latter needed to abdicate after the 1917 Revolution, George V distanced himself and quickly withdrew the offer for political asylum for fear of unrest in his own kingdom. Nicholas II was assassinated shortly thereafter.

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Stability in the face of war

As World War I continued, the reign of George V stabilized after the change of name to Windsor. While elsewhere monarchies crumbled, George V led his kingdom through an economic crisis, and granted numerous colonies independence within the Commonwealth.

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The abdication

After George V's death in 1936, his son Edward VIII succeeded him on the throne. His reign lasted only 326 days - the shortest in British history. Edward's impending marriage to American Wallis Simpson caused both a scandal and a constitutional crisis. The conservative government eventually forced him to abdicate.

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The crisis continues

Edward's younger brother Albert stepped into the breach, and in 1937 was crowned King George VI. With his wife Elizabeth and his two daughters Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, George VI had a strong family behind him. He led the country through World War II, but was burdened with poor health. In 1952, the king died of arterial thrombosis.

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Retreating at Windsor Castle

During World War II, the royal family stayed in solidarity with the deprived general populace by living only on food rations, for example. George stayed in London despite the bomb attacks and the damage to Buckingham Palace. He spent the weekends with the family in Windsor.

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'We want the king!'

With their commitment to the war effort, the royal family became a symbol of British resistance to fascism. After Germany's capitulation on May 8, 1945, a jubilant crowd gathered before Buckingham Palace and screamed "We want the King!" The royals were at the height of their popularity.

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Royal wedding draws the masses

In 1947, people flocked to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. The king's daughter proved to be a godsend for the British crown. Since her coronation in 1952, she has stood for continuity. A largely scandal-free marriage and four children have ensured the continuation of the Windsors at a time when many other monarchies have dissolved.

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The unhappy heir to the throne

The somewhat doomed marriage between Prince William and Lady Diana ended in 1992 amid an unsightly media spectacle that harmed the prestige of the royal family. Their two sons had to cope not only with the divorce in 1996, but also the sudden death of their mother in 1997. It would be a long time before Prince Charles was again a respected royal family member.

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Queen Elizabeth celebrates

In 2016, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday (pictured), and in 2012, her diamond jubilee was celebrated. She has held the throne longer than any British monarch before her. Currently, she is the longest serving head of state in the world. Despite increasing criticism of the royal family from the media, the support of the monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II seems unbroken.

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The dream royal couple

After his father's inglorious divorce and the tragic death of his mother, the private life of the queen's grandson William has drawn high media scrutiny. In Kate Middleton he has chosen a partner who can and wants to fulfill her role in the royal family - two young heirs included.

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Charlotte and George: the next generation

The latest Windsor offspring have become media phenomena at a very young age. The "Prince George effect" describes Prince George's influence on business and pop culture - meaning whatever George wears sells. At the tender age of two, the prince has made GQ Magazine's list of the 50 Best Dressed Men in Britain.

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