There are some dresses that transcend fashion and come to symbolise a moment. Such was the case with the midnight blue velvet off-the-shoulder evening gown worn by Princess Diana to dance with John Travolta at a White House ball in 1985. The gown was sold earlier this week at Kerry Taylor Auctions in London for £240,000.
In 1985 I helped make that dress. And last week, as I watched the auctioneer, I realised all it represented: not just the late princess, but the 1980s themselves; the innocence of the decade’s materialism and the belief that everything was possible if you were armed with charm, drive and power shoulders.
Not that I knew it back then, when I worked as an apprentice to Victor Edelstein, one of Britain’s top couturiers, who regularly dressed not just the Princess of Wales but also Jerry Hall, Michael Heseltine’s wife Anne and other stalwarts of 1980s fashion, money and power.
In Victor’s atelier in South Kensington, on £50 a week, I stitched away in a large airy room with 20 other women. Being junior, I wasn’t allowed near a sewing machine but I spent hours hand-stitching the velvet swirls that Victor had sculpted on to the stiff buckram bodice. I left after six months, and exchanged sewing for an Oxford degree.
The dress was first sold in June 1997 – auctioned for charity by the princess, along with 78 other dresses that were symbols of her former life. Just over two months later, she was killed in a car crash in Paris. The dresses became part of a travelling show.
By that time Victor had given up fashion. “I stopped in 1993,” he told me from his house in Gloucestershire, where he lives with his wife and now paints portraits of many of the beauties he used to dress. “There was a recession, like today. People stopped spending money. I knew I could keep the business going for a few years, but the best future I could see would be turning into [couturier Norman] Hartnell, making dresses for old ladies.”
Edelstein says he does not regret his decision. “A colleague said, ‘the 1980s were about rich women in expensive dresses having dinners in grand hotels for poor people, and we dressed them’,” he laughs.
“I can’t see who I’d dress now. The Olgas and Katerinas wouldn’t come to me,” he says, referring to wealthy Russians. “They want something white, with chains.”
As for the royals, he no longer believes his sort of fashion is relevant: “I don’t think the Duchess of Cambridge could be seen to wear couture. My dresses cost £3,500, even back then. In these times people don’t want the monarchy to be seen spending that kind of money [on fashion].”
The irony is that some don’t mind spending way more than that on dresses the monarchy once wore.