Over a quarter of a century after her tragic death, Princess Diana and her style keep fascinating a new generation of fans, and her fashion might be even more popular now than ever before.
Princess of Wales has gone through quite a transformation in the public eye, from, as dubbed by press, Shy Di to Sly/Dynasty Di to The People’s Princess. What is particularly interesting is that behind her most iconic looks (including even her wedding dress, designed by a married couple David and Elizabeth Emanuel, née Weiner) that mark those periods in her style were Jewish designers of various backgrounds. Let’s have a look at some of the most memorable — and Diana’s personal favorite — dresses that were created by David Sassoon, Victor Edelstein and Jacque Azagury.
The brand Bellville Sassoon was founded by Belinda Bellville in 1953, who was joined by David Sassoon in 1958. When she retired in 1981, David remained as a head designer for the next 50 years.
Sassoon was born in 1932 to Iraqi Jewish parents, Gourgi and Victoria Sassoon, in north London. He had originally wanted to be an actor, but his father strongly disapproved. Instead of going to acting school, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where he studied fashion design. While Belinda Bellville was a socialite with aristocratic clientele, Sassoon, a member of Lauderdale Road Synagogue in West London, brought along his own following to the brand — “the well-off, young Jewish marrieds,” notably from the Sephardi community.
Bellville Sassoon was the first favorite label of Princess Diana, which she wore often after marrying Prince Charles in 1981, starting from the first official portrait together with her then- fiancé and the Queen. Over almost two decades, Sassoon designed more than 70 gowns for the princess and these are the most memorable.
Going-away Peach Suit
The first suit that Diana, Princess of Wales, wore the day after the wedding was a peach-colored suit by David Sassoon for their departure for the honeymoon trip to Gibraltar on the Royal Yacht Brittania. This look, as well as the whole relationship with the company, almost didn’t happen. According to the curator of the 2021 exhibition “Royal Style in the Making,” when 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer was looking for an engagement suit for a photocall with Prince Charles, a sales associate did not recognize her and suggested she goes to Harrod’s department store around the corner! Yet, she returned to the atelier with her mother, who had been a client at Bellville Sassoon, and ordered some clothes directly from the designers for her trousseau.
Delicate color, ruffles, a hat with feathers — all of these epitomize Diana’s signature style in the beginning of her tenure as a Princess. She was ridiculed by fashion critics, but crowds of people adored her charming looks.
The Gonzaga Dress
On November 4, 1981, Princess of Wales attended the opening of the “Splendour of Gonzaga” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum with her husband in a pale blue and white chiffon ruffle gown by David Sassoon. That night, during the official part of the opening, the Princess was photographed taking a nap. The next morning, after those photos were all over morning papers, Buckingham Palace announced that Princess Diana was pregnant with their first child with Prince Charles, just three months after their wedding.
Sassoon remembers that after Diana wore what became known as the “Gonzaga dress,” hundreds of children wrote to them because it was exactly what they thought a princess should look like.
The coat, in which Diana was photographed the following morning, also by David Sassoon, soon will be on display for the first time for an exhibition “Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners Shaped Global Style” at the Museum of London Docklands.
The “Caring” Dress
In the early 1990s Princess Diana dedicated herself to charity, helping the sick, destigmatizing AIDS and raising money for cancer research among other humanitarian missions. For visits to hospitals, particularly to children’s hospitals and orphanages, she would wear something brightly colored to cheer up the patients, especially children. One particular favorite was a paintbox silk dress by David Sassoon in dark blue patterned with brightly colored flowers in turquoise, yellow and red. Diana called it her “caring dress.”
Sassoon remembers that she wore it so many times, one newspaper published an article saying that the princess should throw it away. However, this dress was very strategic in terms of how the Princess would dress for her hospital missions. The dress had short sleeves because, Diana explained, she liked to touch people. As Colin McDowel, author of the book “Diana’s Style,” describes, “If she was visiting the blind, the princess was always careful to wear clothes with an interesting texture, so that the people she spoke to would be able to feel her presence. For children she wore dangling necklaces and made sure that neither her jewelry nor her buttons would scratch them.”
Princess Diana was introduced to Victor Edelstein by Anna Harvey, an editor in British Vogue, who had been her style advisor since the royal engagement. She was pregnant with Prince William at that time and Edelstein was asked to create some maternity gowns for her, and their working relationship started.
Couturier Victor Edelstein grew up in Northwest London, in a Russian Jewish family involved in the rag trade, where his father and grandfather made and sold clothes. But Victor didn’t see the link between his love for high fashion with his family’s business. He went to Paris to gain experience at a couture boutique and upon return to Swinging London he worked in a pattern department at the most fashionable boutique at the time, Biba. Before opening his couture house in 1978, he also worked at Christian Dior London. Although, he closed his couture business in 1993 and now is a painter, he is engrained in the history of fashion for these particular gowns.
The Pink Dress
Forty years before Barbiecore became a thing, Princess Diana had already been enjoying all the shades of pink in her wardrobe. On their Royal Tour to Australia and New Zealand, when she stole the spotlight from her husband, she wore this fabulous bright pink gown by Victor Edelstein, styled with a Spencer family tiara and a sapphire jewelry set, to a banquet in Brisbane in April 1983.
This marked a turning point, when her outfits become less matronly and stuffy, and more sleek and sophisticated.
The “Travolta” Dress
In 1985, Prince and Princess of Wales visited the United States with the official visit. For the state dinner in the White House, hosted by President and Mrs. Reagan, Princess Diana wore a gorgeous ink-blue velvet gown by the Jewish designer, cut with an Edwardian bustle and bare shoulders, accessorized with her signature choker. However, it made history not only for its elegance, but mostly for its performance.
As the band played “You Are the One that I Want,” a hit from the movie “Grease,” Diana was invited for a dance with the icon of all disco dancers, John Travolta. It was such a special and photogenic moment that the dress got its place in fashion history as “Travolta dress.”
Travolta dress was one of her most favorite gowns and she wore it multiple times afterwards. In 1997 at the Christies auction, when Diana auctioned off 79 of her couture gowns to raise money for Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the AIDS Crisis Trust, it sold for over £100,000 ($208,000), then the highest price ever paid for a dress at an auction. It was sold again in 2019 for $290,000, another record, to Historic Royal Palaces.
The Elysee Palace Dress
According to Georgina Howell in her book “Diana: Her Life in Fashion,” “a supreme test of Diana’s fashion life became in November 1988, when she went on an official visit to Paris….In Diana’s case it was the critical moment by which she would always be judged by the fashion critics”.
For the State banquet given by President and Madam Mitterand at the Elysee Palace, the Princess wore Victor Edelstein’s majestic formal dinner dress in oyster duchesse satin with a bolero jacket. The long-sleeved jacket and bodice were embroidered by the French couture craftsmen Hurel with sprays of flowers and leaves. It became her favorite dress from her wardrobe of state and the most expensive dress she ever bought.
After the formal separation and divorce from Prince Charles, Princess Diana’s style changed completely and was marked by her, what would now be called, “revenge looks.” She radiated confidence, and her dresses were markedly sexier. The designer behind some of the most stunning looks of this era was Moroccan-born Jewish dressmaker Jacque Azagury.
Azagury was born in Casablanca in a traditional Jewish family and moved to London at the age of 6. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicles he said, “We didn’t have a religious upbringing. I went to cheder in the East End, we kept Passover and Yom Kippur. We were clearly Jewish and had a big family, but we were never forced to do anything.” Yet the women in his Jewish community have long trusted him to dress them for simchas: “Women I have dressed as bat mitzvah girls, I now dress as brides. I dress mothers for their children’s bar or bat mitzvahs, and then for their children’s weddings. I have dressed three generations of women. There’s something very special about that.”
He met the Princess in 1987 through Anna Harvey (again!) at the presentation of his debut collection, “New Romantics.” They developed a friendship, and these are some of the most memorable looks that he created for her in the final chapter of her life.
The Lady in Red Dress
In June 1995, the Princess attended an event at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum during Venice Biennale in a bright red beaded crepe-de-chine mid-length dress by Jacque Azagury. The designer told Eloise Moran for her book “The Lady Di Look Book” that, “It was the first time we’d gone shorter than normal.”
She arrived by boat during the golden hour and it was a beautiful scenery. As Dan Jones wrote, “The sun was setting, and Diana and her red dress were illuminated against the ancient Venetian facades, with a canal glittering behind her.” It looked really marvelous!
The Jewish designer is also behind another stunning red number, which Diana wore to the Red Cross Gala in Washington D.C. in 1997. That night she delivered a speech to encourage the U.S. government to join her in a worldwide ban on the use of landmines. The designer considered the seriousness of the topic, thus the strict and conservative front, however at the back it featured deep V cut to the waist, for an after-party.
The Blue Swan Lake Dress
June 3, 1997 marked one of the final and most memorable appearances of Princess Diana. She arrived to Royal Albert Hall for a National Ballet performance of “Swan Lake.” She was dressed in a pale icy blue dress by Azagury that matched her eyes, emphasizing her glowing sun-kissed skin. She added Jimmy Choos slingbacks, an Anya Hindmarch “cleavage” bag and stunning “Swan Lake Suite” jewelry — a necklace of 178 diamonds and five South Sea pearls with matching earrings by Garrard.
The dress, made of silk georgette, was hand-beaded with crystal bugle beads and adorned with subtle “Hepburnesque” bows on the dress straps. The look was not only a media success, being photographed extensively, but the Princess absolutely loved it, too. This is why Azagury made a similar dress for her in black as a gift for her birthday.
On July 1, 1997, Princess Diana’s 36th birthday, she attended a 100th birthday celebration of Tate Gallery in this stunning black column dress, made of hand-beaded Chantilly lace, accessorized with an emerald choker and earrings. Azagury himself said that every dress that he had made for the Princess has its own story, but if he had to name one favorite, it would be this black dress.
Gottex Swimwear Company
Princess Diana’s final summer of 1997 was marked by her romance with playboy billionaire Dodi Al-Fayed. And the paparazzi could not get enough photographs of her wearing swimming suits on the deck of her boyfriend’s yacht. What is most notable is that her most memorable one- piece swimsuits were created by an Israeli luxury swimwear company, Gottex.
Gottex was founded by Leah Gottlieb, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, in 1956 in Tel Aviv. She previously opened a raincoat factory in Jaffa, with her husband, Armin, which was not that great of an idea in the desert-climate of Israel. But then she founded a high-end swimwear company that become world-famous for using innovative materials, pioneering hard cups and was even one of the first to use spandex and Lycra in swimsuits.
The most memorable swimming suits that Princess Diana wore were a leopard print one-piece and a neon color-blocked one-piece with a matching sarong. As she had a longer torso, they were custom made specially for the Princess, like a real couture, as Gottlieb personally arrived to London from Tel Aviv.