When I was 16, I took a plane for the first time, clutching my brand new passport, to England. I had never really been out of the country before, at least not abroad (my parents took me to the Montreal Expo when I was 3 but I don't know if that really counts). It was 1981, the summer that Prince Charles wed one Lady Diana Spencer, and I was there experiencing all the hoopla first hand. I lived with a family in Redbridge which is in Essex. Martin, the father of the family I was living with, was a photojournalist and pretty left-wing, and he used to moan about the expense and everything all the time. I loved it, all the mugs, table cloths, place mats, books, masks, it was grand to me.
On the day of the wedding, I sat down in front of the telly with my new British friends and watched the event on television, waving my Union Jack proudly. The next day when we arrived in Scotland, a copy of Diana's dress was already in the windows. Over the next 16 years, Diana and I crossed paths many times. In 1984, I was in England studying when she had Prince Harry. I even skipped classes to see the State Opening Parliament, marked by Diana sporting a brand new hairdo. The summer that she died, I had been studying at The Royal National Theater studio, and I read the tabloids that detailed her new romance with Dodi Fayed. I've read pretty much every major biography on Diana so I couldn't wait to head down to Philly to the new exhibition at the National Constitution Center.
My review of the exhibition however is mixed. While it was wonderful to see so many things associated with Diana, and a few new things like the home movies and her school reports from when she was a child (putting paid to the rumors that she was incredibly stupid), the exhibit is pretty thin compared to the Napoleon exhibition hosted by the center a few weeks back. While that exhibit easily took 2 hours to cover, you can breeze through the Diana exhibit in a half-hour.
Of course, I was interested the most in the dress gallery, particularly that wedding dress. I was surprised to discover looking at the dress in the display case how plain and old fashioned it looked without Diana in it to dazzle everyone with her radiance. Included are her shoes and a lace parasol just in case it rained that day (I'm not sure how much coverage a lace parasol was supposed to provide!). Apparently the dress and the bridesmaids dresses only cost 1,000 guineas which comes out to $1,900. That doesn't seem like a lot of money when you consider how many women routinely drop $4,000 and $5,000 on a dress they are only going to wear once. Back in 1981, I'm sure that $1,900 was a lot to spend.
The dresses I loved the most were of course the ones she wore when she was freed from dressing British and could wear other designers. The Versace and Chanel numbers look incredibly timeless. For me, the most touching moment in the exhibit was the display case with all the condolence books. They cover an entire wall from top to bottom. The exhibit costs $23 + 2 handling if you buy online which is lot when you consider the Napoleon exhibit was only $17.50. I would recommend joining the Constitution Center for $35, it's good for one year, and the exhibit is free. I was glad to see that there was a gift shop with this exhibit (there wasn't one for Napoleon) although the exhibition catalog was a little pricey for $30.
Afterwards, I stayed for the Tina Brown talk which was very informative. Brown is a great speaker and she clearly has compassion not only for Diana but also for Prince Charles. I bought a paperback copy of her Diana bio, even though I have it in hard cover. In my opinion, it's the best biography on Diana because she takes such an evenhanded tone. She doesn't absolve either Charles or Diana nor does take sides. She admits that Diana brought a lot to the royal family, that her empathy was genuine, and that she was a great mother. She also said that Diana could be a pain to live with and that her courting of the press turned around and bit her in the ass.
Diana had the unique ability to make people think that they really knew her, not just in a tabloid kind of way, that she shared a part of her soul with people around the world. She let us in or at least seemed too. How many women identified with her during her interview with Martin Bashir when she said that there were 3 of them in the marriage? Or her work with the old and the infirm. She taught people not to fear diseases like leprosy and AIDS. It is nice to see that her sons are carrying on her charity work.
If you can't make to Philadelphia, you can see online images here.