03 May 2010

Diana and Me

Five little princesses in sundresses with sparkly plastic tiaras sit cross-legged in the floor in front of a giant television screen flashing images from THE royal wedding. The little magpies bubble over with excitement: “What day did she get married, Mama?” “Is that a real glass coach?” “That’s an awfully long train for just one princess!”

Funny, I think, these darling girls, who have so carefully dressed themselves to come to the exhibition, “Diana: A Celebration,” weren’t even alive when she died almost 13 years ago. I’m intrigued. Is it the modern marketing of princess merchandise to youngsters? Is it the age-old fairy tale of princesses? Or, is it something about Diana herself? Clearly something has brought these tiny ones out to mingle with old white men, middle-aged black ladies, girls who wish they could marry Prince William, my sister and me on a sunny afternoon wedged between two dreary, rainy days.

Of course, I was barely older than this be-sandaled quintet when Diana entered my life. Just months after that incredible wedding my teacher asked us to write reports about the year 1981. I was assigned what was assuredly (wasn’t it?) the most important event: the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. I was 10 and, although I have an excellent memory of my childhood, this report is my first memory of anything royal. By the end of the next school year, my interest (obsession?) with the British royal family had grown so much that my teacher actually sent me, over the summer holidays, the People magazine article about Charles and Diana taking baby Prince William to Australia with them.

My burgeoning hunger for information about royalty coincided with an early taste for fashion—both of which could be fed by magazine articles and books about Diana. I had two Diana paper dolls, each of which had hats and outfits matching every outfit I had seen a photo of Diana wearing. (All of my other paper dolls were equally well-dressed, but in designs of my own creation.) During my high school years, I spent my lunch time in the library tracing royal genealogies and kept up the tradition on Saturday mornings when I went to college. (All of my professors thought I was incredibly studious, if only they’d known I wasn’t working on any of my classes!)

I must certainly credit Diana with igniting my passion for all things royal, but over the years I became less and less interested in Diana herself. Like many others, I was disappointed by the disillusionment that came with the breakdown of her marriage. More than that though, I think I reacted negatively to the deification that Diana underwent in the public view. I absolutely believe that she could have been provided more emotional support and guidance by the royal family, but I also feel that she had been around the royal family and its establishment her whole life and must have had some idea what she was getting into with them. Of course, she could never have anticipated the overwhelming media attention she attracted, but in many ways she herself encouraged it and then complained when she couldn’t control it. By the time she and Charles divorced, I was disgusted by the behavior they both had so publicly demonstrated.

When my new husband awakened me in the middle of that hot August night in 1997, however, I was in complete shock. For a couple of hours, the reporters just kept saying, “There’s no news on Diana’s condition.” How could she possibly die?

My sister and I watched the funeral together. We left a birthday party early the night before so that we could be up in time. Nevertheless, I was stunned by the dramatic demonstrations of grief from around the world. Diana, who certainly had done much good in this world—especially for children, AIDS victims, leprosy victims and anti-landmine campaigns—was also certainly no saint. The death of her friend Mother Theresa shortly thereafter, I felt, should have put things a little more in perspective: Mother Theresa was a saint.

And so it was, I found myself both excited and disappointed by the Diana exhibition organized by her brother, Earl Spencer. It was touching to see the toys, photos and clothing from her childhood and to watch home movies of a very young Diana wearing a bathing suit while showing off her latest ballet poses. The exhibition mentions Diana’s broken home, but overall, her childhood is depicted as untroubled. I believe it was her mother’s abandonment and the subsequent legal battles and family transitions that left Diana so emotionally vulnerable as a young adult so, for me, this sweet display seemed a little too saccharine.

The next area of the exhibition is, in my opinion, the best. It is here that I first noticed the five little princesses. Here, pictures and memorabilia from the royal wedding are arranged on the walls around one enormous clear case housing that fairytale gown. Like the little ones, I was overwhelmed by the length of the train—apparently, in some exhibition spaces, they can’t even display it fully! Mostly, I am surprised by how much lovelier it is in person. I was never a fan of its overall puffiness that I thought made her look a bit plump in photos. Somehow, here, in the case, it seems exceptionally perfect. It is exactly how I remember it but so much better. More than anything else, it embodies the essence of the world’s love of Diana. This gown IS the fairytale she and we wanted for her.

Prince Charles kisses his new bride Diana on their wedding day in London in a July 29, 1981 file photo. Britain's Prince William is to marry his fiancee Kate Middleton on Friday April 29 next year at London's Westminster Abbey, the 1,000-year-old church where the funeral was held for his mother Princess Diana. REUTERS/stringer/FILES (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT ROYALS SOCIETY RELIGION PROFILE)

Beyond this room, you move through images, videos and artifacts or her extensive charitable works into a room about her death and funeral. This room was the most upsetting to me, not because of the rekindling of the emotion I felt at her death, but because of the organization of the display itself. As Elton John incessantly sings “Good-Bye England’s Rose,” the visitor is subjected to Earl Spencer’s touching but slightly obnoxious funerary speech in three different forms: a handwritten draft, a typed but hand-edited draft he used on the day, and another clean draft blown up to fill an entire wall. Did no one else say anything worth remembering that day? Tony Blair does at least merit a large wall quote for his invention of the phrase, “The People’s Princess.” (As you can deduce, I’m no fan of Earl Spencer.)

From there, you move to the main draw of the exhibition, Diana’s clothes. Here again, I was a bit disappointed. Most of the outfits were from the last couple of years of her life. I know that many of her most iconic early gowns were sold for a charity benefit before her death, but surely more of her earlier pieces could have been included. More importantly, I thought there were just too few photographs of her wearing the clothes to go along with the mannequin displays. Having said that, the dresses are beautiful—many are stunningly gorgeous—and the exhibition does a fairly good job of explaining the complexities she had to consider when selecting her clothes for an occasion: would she be encountering children, how to prevent her skirt blowing up in a breeze, how to stay cool but culturally appropriate on a visit to Saudi Arabia, etc. I also will note that Diana was incredibly slim during that last year of her life!

Today, I don’t know how I feel about Diana. Without her, I’m sure I never would have developed an interest in royalty and certainly would never have started a blog about princesses! I’d like to think that I have placed Diana the Woman and the Icon in perspective. She was lost and lonely, needy and demanding, giving and caring, a wonderful mother, a trendsetter, and deeply empathetic. She will be forever frozen in time as a “glamorous humanitarian.”.

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