The Truth About Princess Diana's Iconic Revenge Dress

While serving as a member of the royal family, Princess Diana was known for her benevolent spirit; as reported by Elle, in 1987, she visited an AIDS ward at the Middlesex Hospital in London, England, where she physically touched and embraced patients at a time when many people were afraid and unwilling to do so. However, like the rest of us, Diana was a woman of multitudes who had her own personal demons to confront. And sometimes she made a splash on the scene.

In 1994, Diana made waves when she stepped out in an off-the-shoulder black dress that has since been dubbed the "revenge dress" of all revenge dresses. As defined by Marie Claire, "a revenge look refers to any jaw-dropping dress or outfit worn immediately after a breakup, with the aim of showing your ex-partner exactly what they're missing." That, friends, is exactly what many believe Diana was going for.

Princess Diana debuted her revenge dress at the Serpentine Gallery

Princess Diana had places to be on the night of June 29, 1994. As reported by The Sun, Diana was slated to attend a dinner at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, one of London's royal parks. Notably, the Serpentine Gallery is home to "contemporary art and architecture" (per The Royal Parks), but the night was important to Diana for another reason: Her husband was going on national television and would admit he had cheated on her.

The dress ⁠— which featured a low neckline and impossibly high thigh split ⁠— was a first for the royal and certainly a departure from her typical look. Though The Sun noted that she and Prince Charles had been separated for two years by the time Diana attended the event, wearing the dress still made a statement: How could anyone have cheated on a woman who looks this good? 

Why the revenge dress was such a big deal

While Princess Diana's revenge dress might not feel like that big of a deal to most of us these days, wearing her revenge dress was an act of open defiance for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that the royal family had (and still has) a strict set of rules that govern what they are and are not allowed to wear. Everything from nail polish to clothing is covered, and as the Evening Standard pointed out, everyone from the queen down to the youngest member of the family is expected to follow protocol. 

One rule that the queen is said to favor is that women's skirts should be cut at the knee or even just below (per the Evening Standard). From the looks of the big smile Diana wore as she exited her car wearing the dress (per People), it doesn't seem like she was too bothered about flouting that particular concern.

Who designed Princess Diana's revenge dress?

Of course, as soon as Princess Diana stepped out in the jaw-dropping dress, people clamored for details. As shared by The Sun, the designer was Christina Stambolian, who was born in Greece and who moved to London in 1970. Stambolian later told The Sun that Diana had purchased the dress years before she actually wore it and that it was clear she was in no mood to play nice that fateful night. "She was clearly angry. She played it like Odile, in black. She wore bright red nail enamel, which we had never seen her do before," Stambolian said. "She was saying 'Let's be wicked tonight!"

Stambolian offered more technical details about the dress on her site, noting that the dress "has a ruched, asymmetrical bodice with cap sleeves," adding, "The skirt is also ruched horizontally, being caught up to a sash at the side which falls beyond the hem." She also shared that The Telegraph referred to the dress as "strategic," a claim that Stambolian appears to endorse.

She was never meant to wear the revenge dress

One curious detail about the revenge dress is that Princess Diana didn't plan to wear it at all. As People pointed out, many might have decided to cancel a public appearance when their former flame was set to tell all on TV. Instead, Diana wanted to redirect attention on herself and to send a message to Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles, and the rest of the world through her clothing instead of her words.

Diana reportedly planned to wear a dress by Valentino that night, but scrapped those plans after her planned outfit was leaked to the media ahead of the event. William Ivey Long, the costume designer for the Broadway play "Diana," told People that, in that moment, Diana made a choice. "She decided that she was going to fight back, and she decided that she would [choose] a dress that she had previously rejected as being a little too much," he shared.

She paired the dress with a choker the Queen Mother had given her

To really set the entire ensemble off, Princess Diana chose to pair the dress with a choker that she'd been given by none other than the Queen Mother herself. As shared by the Express, Princess Diana possessed some of the most impressive jewels of all time, including a sapphire brooch she had been gifted by Queen Elizabeth's mother when she married Prince Charles in 1981. As is the case with many royal baubles, the brooch had once been owned by another member of the family (in this case, Queen Mary) and had been passed down through the years.

Princess Diana eventually redesigned the piece, adding several strands of pearls to form a choker necklace instead, with the sapphire showcased at the center. She was said to have really loved the necklace, and wore it on many occasions, including in 1985 when she danced with John Travolta at an event. Diamond expert Max Stone told the Express the necklace could be worth between £50,000,000 to £100,000,000, or about $68,000,000 to $136,000,000.

Princess Diana's dress dominated the news the next day

If Princess Diana's goal was to redirect attention onto herself rather than on Prince Charles and his confession of infidelity, the revenge dress definitely helped her accomplish that mission. As HuffPost reported, The Sun ran a photo of Diana wearing the dress below the pointed headline "The Thrilla He Left to Woo Camilla." The message was clear: Many were wondering what in the world Charles could have been thinking.

The public was reportedly equally taken by the dress. As British journalist Alex Longmore explained to HuffPost, the evening was one of the first times that anyone in the public had a glimpse and understanding of who the "new Diana" was. He said, "It was a classic case of a woman wearing the dress and not the other way around."

Diana's former stylist Anna Harvey later explained to the Telegraph that Diana wanted to look sensational, like "a million dollars," and that she definitely pulled it off.

Princess Diana bought the dress three years before she was ready to wear it

When writing about Princess Diana's iconic revenge dress, numerous publications have noted that she actually purchased the dress a full three years before she ever wore it. It's hard to say what held Diana back from wearing the dress earlier than she actually did. The Telegraph noted that the dress's designer, Christina Stambolian, explained one reason why Diana waited so long was that the dress itself was too much of a departure from what she wore each day.

The Telegraph also described the dress as the "apex" of Diana's new, sexier look that she defined as she moved further and further away from the royal family and its rules. As Diana's former private secretary Patrick Jephson put it in a documentary about Diana, by the time Diana wore the Stambolian dress, she knew what role she had to play: "Being the part meant dressing the part."

A similar dress appeared on The Crown

Fans of the Netflix series "The Crown" might be pleased to learn that a dress very deliberately designed to be very similar to the revenge dress appeared on the show. The show's costume designer Amy Roberts told Bustle that recreating the dress meant paying attention to every single detail, even why Princess Diana chose to wear a black dress in the first place. After noting that choosing that color alone was enough of a signal that Diana was tired of abiding by the rules set forth by the royal family, Roberts explained, "Because [the royal family doesn't] like you to wear black — Charles never liked Diana to wear black."

While "The Crown" didn't exactly recreate the revenge dress itself, Roberts told Bustle that the Season 4 finale of the show featured Diana in a black dress on purpose. Roberts hoped that the dress the "Crown" version of Diana wore in the finale would call to mind the moment the real-life Diana stepped out of the car wearing her revenge dress, and that it would help viewers understand Diana's evolution. "When you think of the first time that we see Diana — when we very first look at her dressed as this crazy little fairy, all covered in leaves — and the last time you see her, it couldn't be more different."

The revenge dress was later auctioned off for a good cause

CBS News reported that, in 1997, Princess Diana took advice from her son Prince William and sold several of her most iconic gowns to a New York charity auction house. As People noted, the revenge dress was among those that Diana sold, and the dress eventually ended up benefiting a good cause. The dress sold for $65,000, which went to support cancer and AIDS charities. As many royal followers know, Diana was passionate about AIDS patient advocacy. 

Don't Die Wondering shared that the dress has been displayed a few times since Princess Diana died in 1997. CBS noted that the dress was not the only one of Diana's that was auctioned off; in 2013, several of her dresses (including the velvet dress she wore while dancing with John Travolta) were auctioned to several buyers for a total that exceeded $1.2 million.