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That Time Princess Diana Out-Fashioned Everyone at the Fashion Awards in an “Elvis Dress”

If walls could talk: when the Royal Albert Hall played host to the inaugural British Fashion Awards in 1989, the industry’s great and good budged up in their couture and made room for a royal in the ranks: Diana, Princess of Wales.

She read the brief. While Diana was never going to compete with the country’s most avant-garde dressers (Vivienne Westwood’s fig leaf-covered crotch ensemble and Katherine Hamnett’s silver-studded G-strings added color to proceedings on that landmark October night), Diana commissioned a British designer to create a look that celebrated homegrown talent (tick) and featured craftsmanship balanced with a signature sense of humor (tick, tick).

Chelsea-based Catherine Walker, who first outfitted Diana during her pregnancy with Prince William in 1981 and became seminal in shaping her formal royal persona away from the Sloane Ranger who married Prince Charles, dreamt up a snow-white beaded dress and bolero hand-embroidered with some 28,600 pearls. Its defining factor? The crisp tall collar that earned its name the “Elvis dress” by Diana herself.

Princess Diana doing Elvis-chic her way at the British Fashion Awards 1981.

Photo: Getty Images

Originally plotted out for a 1989 state visit to Hong Kong, the S Lock Ltd-embroidered oyster pearls were conceived to complement Queen Mary’s Lover’s Knot tiara, which was on long-term loan to Diana after her wedding in July 1981. But on fashion’s big night—which saw Workers for Freedom, founded by Graham Fraser and Richard Nott, win the inaugural Designer of the Year Award—the Princess pared back the pearls and instead relied on the shoulders-back, head-up swagger that bold Elvis neck adornment afforded her. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Zandra Rhodes, Yasmin Le Bon, and Naomi Campbell, there was something singularly brilliant about wearing a bridal-white gown weighed down with microscopic embellishment. There’s fashion, then there’s royal fashion.

It took nearly three decades for another royal to get paparazzi cameras flashing at the Fashion Awards (which lost the “British” in 2016), when the Duchess of Sussex presented Clare Waight Keller—arguably Meghan’s own version of Catherine Walker—with the British Designer of the Year Womenswear accolade in 2018. Markle’s own headline-making moment was not thanks to a statement outfit flourish, but her baby bump, framed by a black Givenchy column dress made by Waight Keller herself.



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