On June 25th, 1997, seventy nine of Princess Diana's gowns went up for auction at Christie's in New York City. It was one of the greatest social events of the year, and was featured in all the major newspapers and many magazines.
In fact, the idea of selling the gowns for charity was of Diana's eldest son; Prince William of Wales, to raise money for the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the AIDS Crisis Trust. In a handwritten note used in the frontispiece of the dresses catalogue, the princess added: "The inspiration for this wonderful sale comes from just one person; our son William".
In her book Diana: The Last Word, Simone Simmons, an energy healer and one of Princess Diana's most controversial spiritual advisers, described joining the princess to sort out which dresses were to be sold. Many, she reports, were rediscovered with much head-shaking and cries of 'How on earth could I have worn something like this?'. The princess admitted that she had probably tried too hard to wear clothes she thought the royal family would approve of, telling Simmons 'The Queen Mother had terrible taste, which is why I looked so awful'.
Princess Diana classed the gowns into her 'fairy period' or her 'Hollywood period'. When the dresses were selected, however, she felt a pang of loss at the prospect of parting with them, until Simmons reminded her of the importance of taking this step for moving into a new phase of her life.
Princess Diana said in a press release about the sale: "Words cannot adequately describe my absolute delight at the benefits which the results of this auction will bring to so many people who need support". Catherine Walker, who herself had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, proclaimed: "I am deeply moved that my designs, through the Princess, are now being used to save lives". Walker was by far the best represented designer in the sale, with about fifty outfits.
The princess collaborated with Meredith Etherington-Smith, a Christie's expert, by jotting down notes for the catalogue about each of the dresses. She also agreed to be photographed in some of her favourite gowns and to attend previews to promote the sale both in London and New York. "Sequins save lives" was the phrase Diana used in planning the event.
On that event, her friend Jeffrey Archer recalls: "Once, at an auction when we raised $160,000, she said I'd sign this tablecloth and we'd get another $16,000". So I called out: "Ladies and gentlemen, Her Royal Highness has agreed to sign this cloth. We got $17,600 for it. She was good at knowing the role she could play". In total, the auction raised $3.26 million.
The star item proved to be Victor Edelstein's ink blue velvet off the shoulder dress, which Princess Diana had worn at the White House reception; it sold for a remarkable 133,835 British Sterling Pounds.
Diana: An Extraordinary Life, By Weidenfeld Nicolson Illustrated. Publication Date: 14 September 1998
Princess Diana Reviews Some Of Her Gowns Displayed Before The Auction
With Her Favourite Couturier French Born Designer Catherine Walker