“Diana: A Celebration,” a valentine to the late, lamented royal at the Atlanta Civic Center, closed June 13. If you are a Diana diehard — or if the announcement of her son Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton has gotten you into a royal-wedding mood — don’t despair. The show just opened at the Grand Rapids Art Museum and runs through February 16.
The show is cannily orchestrated so that Diana’s fans — who, I’m guessing, will largely be women between ages 20 and 80 — can relive the enchantment with the ultimate princess. An aristocrat plucked from obscurity to marry Britain’s Prince Charles, she was a beautiful, innocent-looking 20-year-old who became an icon of glamour and did good works to boot.
Fittingly, the first object seen in the show is her diamond-encrusted tiara, placed as if on an altar before a photographic blow-up of the smiling princess wearing that very crown on her famous head of hair. There follows a gallery devoted to establishing Diana’s aristocratic pedigree, replete with family tree, family jewels and family estate, the 14,000-acre Althorp, which contains a stately home right out of a period drama on “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Fans will bond even more closely with their princess through endearing souvenirs of childhood — china animal figures, letters to parents — and home movies of a lanky, spirited young woman. Photographs of Diana’s charity work capture the empathetic expression and actions, such as holding a leper’s hand, that help explain the public’s connection with her.
The artifacts that most visitors will most want to see, however, are the clothes. Her famous wedding dress, with its 25-foot train spread out behind, commands the gallery devoted to the 1981 nuptials. The gown with its puffed sleeves and billowing skirt, the matching slippers and the carriage that brought her to Westminster Abbey (visible on the video footage of the wedding) seem to have stepped out of Disney’s “Cinderella.” The virginal Victorian gown is a far cry from the glamorous fashion persona Diana would develop. Her evolution is evident in the 28 outfits in the final galleries.
Aside from the unavoidable fact that Diana has died, the touring exhibit resolutely ignores the dark side of her story. If you took this as gospel, you would think that “the people’s princess,” as former Prime Minister Tony Blair put it, had it all: romance, wealth, babies and, of course, all those fabulous clothes.
In reality, of course, Diana’s life had as much in common with a country-western song as a fairy tale. She endured her parents’ acrimonious divorce and a stereotypical stepmother. She suffered from eating disorders and a cheating husband. Death at 36 years old in a drunken-driving car crash is not a happily-ever-after ending.
The display devoted to her funeral precedes the fashion, perhaps in order to give an upbeat ending. But her absence is more poignantly felt among the disembodied outfits. The videos of her demonstrate that it was the personality and presence of the wearer that made the clothing special.
I’ll bet my tiara (it’s cardboard, from New Year’s Eve circa 1998) that serious Diana fans have already seen this show. If you haven’t yet, you might wonder why you’d want to go now. The fact is that the exhibit is a great place to ponder an enduring American phenomenon. Our ancestors mounted a revolution to rid the country of a monarch, yet centuries later, we (particularly women) remain infatuated with royalty, especially princesses.
Why? Can we blame Disney cartoons for stoking the fire? Is it a love of pomp? Is the desire for romance a gene in those of us with two X chromosomes? I suspect that even ardent feminists have experienced princess fantasies. As one admirer wrote in the guest book, “Diana is the princess we all wanted to be.”