Princess Diana in her Peach Silk Honeymoon Outfit

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Princess Diana, 1981

On the 20th anniversary of her passing, the designer who created her famous ‘going away outfit’ explains how it sparked a 12-year friendship with the people's princess

When a 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer first entered the Bellville Sassoon showroom in Knightsbridge, she was looking for something suitable to wear for her official engagement photograph. The young Diana, notoriously softly spoken and timid, was greeted by a bolshy Russian dressmaker who, entirely unaware of who the customer was, and struck by her ‘girl-next-door’ demeanour (which would eventually earn Spencer the moniker of ‘the people’s princess’), instructed the aristocrat to try Harrods instead, where something suitable for such a demure character could be sourced.

From the moment of its foundation by statuesque debutante Belinda Bellville in 1953, the British couture house Bellville et Cie acquired a wealth of glamorous clientele from the upper echelons of society, crafting exquisite eveningwear for royals and celebrities alike – including Princess Anne, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. Fashion designer David Sassoon was plucked from obscurity after Bellville saw promise in his Royal College of Art graduate collection, and joined forces with the house in 1958; the company was officially titled after the two business partners in 1970.

By this point, the house counted Frances Ruth Shand Kydd, Princess Diana’s mother, amongst its regular customer base. Indeed, it was Shand Kydd who had persuaded her princess-to-be daughter to visit Bellville Sassoon. As David Sassoon explains: “her mother had been a client of ours, and had suggested that she come to us. But, due to Diana being scared away by our straight-talking Russian, she was terrified to come back – which was a great pity as we then missed out on doing the wedding dress.” With a little coaxing, however, Diana was dragged back to the store. “We did the going away outfit for her honeymoon, and made her trousseau. I was very lucky as I had a great rapport with Diana, and we got on extremely well. So after this, over a period of 12 years, we made clothes for her.”

Her honeymoon ensemble, comprising of a silk skirt-suit the colour of soft fruit, perfectly complemented the shade of dove grey worn by her new husband Prince Charles. She accessorised her outfit with a pearl choker and feathered hat, marking not only the beginning of a life in the royal spotlight, but also of an enduring relationship between the princess and Sassoon. “Well, she was very young, she was not used to having garments made for her, and she certainly didn’t have a very large wardrobe, so it was very exciting for her to be able to choose lots of new clothes,” he says. “It was like a young girl in a sweetshop. She enjoyed the process, she had a young woman’s approach to fashion. She liked romantic, pretty clothes, which happened to be very much in fashion at that period. There were laces, ruffles and bows.” 

“It was like a young girl in a sweet shop. She enjoyed the process, she had a young woman’s approach to fashion – she liked romantic, pretty clothes, which happened to be very much in fashion at that period. There were laces, ruffles and bows” – David Sassoon

Sassoon went on to become the most prolific designer for Diana, his romantic craftsmanship aiding the up-keep of a glossy, fairy-tale princess façade. “The night it was announced that she was expecting her first child, she wore one of my dresses to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. And it was one of the dresses that we got the most publicity for, because it was every child’s idea of what a fairy princess should look like, so all kinds of children would write to us and send us funny little sketches, or ask for a little pattern of the fabric. She famously fell asleep in it – a real life sleeping beauty.”

At 85, Sassoon is now retired, but he recalls the royal’s kindess with distinct clarity. “I made her this dress that she wore more than any other. It was a short, silk dress and she called it her ‘caring dress’ as it was a multi-coloured print and she wore it whenever she went to orphanages or hospitals to visit children – she knew they would relate to bright colours. So whenever she would pick one up, or put her arm around a child, they would always grab at this dress.” 

Sassoon attended Princess Diana’s wedding and funeral, noting that they “both stick firmly in my memory as being very extraordinary days”. He speaks of sitting in the pews at Westminster Abbey, with his friend Zandra Rhodes, where they quietly cried together, mourning the loss of their friend and – royalist or otherwise – an undisputed icon of British fashion.