Once upon a time, there was a real-life princess whose Cinderella story saw her transform from shy obscurity to become one of the most beloved, glamorous, and influential icons of the 20th century. And, of course, she wore the coolest couture.
Even after her not-so-fairy-tale marriage fell apart, this princess didn’t rest on her well-heeled laurels. Instead, she worked her wardrobe with gutsy brio to bring attention to the causes she supported.
Though the princess died tragically in an automobile accident 10 years ago, her legacy endures through her charitable works. The story continues in Ocala, when Diana, Princess of Wales: Dresses for a Cause opens on October 14 at the Appleton Museum of Art.
Dresses for a Cause features designer gowns and dresses donated by Diana shortly before her death in 1997 to raise money for charity. The gowns, auctioned by Christie’s of New York, netted more than $6 million for children’s AIDS and breast cancer initiatives, causes near and dear to the woman who will always and forever remain the “People’s Princess.”
Suzanne King didn’t know it at the time, but Dresses for a Cause began taking shape decades ago in East Texas when, as a fourth-grader, she used some birthday money to buy a Queen Anne “beautiful bride” doll. From that moment on, she was hooked on royalty, eventually and particularly with Lady Diana Spencer, the youngest daughter of the Eighth Earl of Spencer, whose one-time Prince Charming was heir to the British throne.
But it wasn’t until King’s husband, Jess, gave her a Christmas gift of the strapless silk taffeta commissioned by Diana that Dresses for a Cause even became a possibility. Since then, the founder of the national Pink Ribbons Crusade has collected five more of the original auction gowns, as well as earlier dresses worn by Diana—all gifts from her husband who, rightly or not, had discouraged King from placing a winning bid at Christie’s.
“I was actually crying when I left,” King recalls. “But if I had bought a dress, I would have one dress and probably no husband. Because I kept my promise, I now have six dresses.”
It was two years after the auction, while playing around on the Internet, that King discovered the Catherine Walker-designed, warp-printed bois de rose dress for sale in Sydney. Princess Diana had worn the dress for a 1988 visit to Australia, famously dancing with Prince Charles to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”
“When I told Jess I had found a Diana dress, he just looked at me and said, ‘Where is it and how much?’”
A young couple had won the dress in a raffle from among 60,000 entries and was searching for the “right person who would cherish it.” That purchase sparked the creation of the Pink Ribbons Crusade.
“Jess told me I could not have a dress if I couldn’t promise I was going to do something positive with it, that it wasn’t going to hang in my closet and be a trophy.”
In early 2000, King created the Texas-based charity to carry on Princess Diana’s fight against breast cancer. Initially, King toured her own collection of Diana’s dresses and princess-related memorabilia in limited exhibitions billed as “A Date with Diana,” but she said the goal was always to hold a 10th anniversary reunion of the auction dresses.
In a unique partnership with the Munroe Foundation and The Villages Regional Medical Center Foundation’s Circle of Friends, proceeds from a Royal Gala, as well as other fund-raising events tied to Dresses for a Cause, will benefit breast cancer initiatives in Central Florida. Those include free mammograms for women who can’t afford them.
The National Cancer Institute reports that since 2000, mammography screening rates have dropped 7 percent for women ages 50 to 64 and 4 percent for women 65 and older. Fewer screenings, it is feared, could lead to an increase in breast cancers detected in their later, less-treatable stages.
Appleton Museum Director Robin Muse McClea noted that Dresses for a Cause is the first time the museum has allied itself with community partners to draw attention to such an important issue.
“We thought this was a perfect opportunity for the museum to reach out in this way,” McClea says. “It should be a very positive outcome for all.”
That charitable link is the main reason Gail Granger of Crystal River plans to come to the exhibit. Both her mother and sister died of breast cancer and Granger says she is sold on the value of early detection. When her own daughter turned 39 recently, Granger slipped two IOU tickets to the Dresses for a Cause exhibit into a copy of a book about Princess Diana.
“I think it makes the perfect birthday present,” Granger offers. “This exhibit definitely continues Diana’s legacy as a humanitarian. So many in her position use their influence in negative ways, but hers was positive and ongoing, even all these years after her death.”
For Susan Gaston of Summerfield, it’s all about the clothes. Or mostly so.
The former New Yorker says she loves fashion and “can never get enough of it.” The Red Hatter also says there is a “huge interest” in the exhibit among her YaYa sisters and that the group is excited that the exhibit is coming to the area.
“The Appleton Museum is beautiful and I encourage everyone to see it,” she says. “We should be proud that we have a wonderful museum we can share.”
Of course, it was never a foregone conclusion that Dresses for a Cause would find a home in Ocala. It was originally destined for the Venetian in Las Vegas and King and her crusaders also negotiated to hold the exhibition at the Mall of the Americas. But neither venue worked out.
Organizers said the perfect location had to be accessible from major airports and had to be in a well-populated area and in a facility large enough and dignified enough to house the collection.
Ocala, positioned at the transportation crossroads of Florida, and the Appleton, one of the largest museums in the Southeast, fit the bill. It also didn’t hurt that the Kings, who own Cablevision of Marion County, have a second home here.
The exhibit wasn’t formally on the books until late spring, leaving only months—instead of years—to pull everything together, a turnaround unusual for an exhibit as large and complex as Dresses for a Cause.
All told, the exhibition includes 26 of the 79 auction gowns and four of Diana’s earlier dresses, on loan from 18 private owners including the WE network. Dresses for a Cause boasts the largest such reunion of auction dresses ever, a feat that is unlikely to be repeated, as King plans to place her dresses on long-term loan to Kensington Palace.
“Most people remember where they were that day when she died,” King says. “It caused us to look internally and ask, if we were to die, what kind of legacy would we leave?
“It’s about each person choosing to make a difference,” she continues. “If every person who came to this exhibit would remember that and go out and do one thing, just imagine the kind of influence we could have.”
Confidante To A Princess
By Amy Mangan
In his 21 years of royal duty, Paul Burrell first served Queen Elizabeth as personal footman from 1976 to 1987 before moving to Highgrove to become butler to the Prince and Princess of Wales. In 1992, following the couple’s separation, he moved to Kensington Palace at the personal request of Princess Diana where he served as her butler until her tragic death in 1997. An Ocala Style exclusive interview reveals that Burrell became a close confidante to the princess who described Burrell as “the only man she ever trusted.”
Although you have a residence in England and one in Florida, you now consider America as your home. The British tradition of life is evi-dent in your books about working for the royal family. What part of Britain did you bring with you to America?
A bit of all of it. I brought with me an eclectic English lifestyle, which I would like to introduce Americans to through my product line [Writer’s Note: Paul offers a home and garden line of rugs, furniture, china, and wine]. I’ve resisted doing high-end lines. I want to do lines that people can actually achieve.
You sound like your former boss, the Princess of Wales.
I am who I am today because of people in my past. My life has been shaped by four women, in-cluding my wife. My mother made and shaped me until I was 18, then she handed me over to Queen Elizabeth for 11 years until I went to work for the Prince and Princess. The Queen taught me lots of things about life, about royal history and how to speak the Queen’s English. Imagine having a tutor like the Queen
Then, along came this shy, young girl called Lady Diana Spencer who became the Princess of Wales. And she took me under her wing. She always said she “rescued me” from that archaic world of royal protocol because Buckingham Palace is very stiff and staunchy. So she took me into her world, which—at times—was chaotic.
But she gave me a great education in life. She exposed me to people with leprosy, HIV, people dying, the homeless and took me through the landmines of Angola and Bosnia. What an education! I watched her at very close quarters reach out to people from all walks of life. She taught me something very special and I’ll always remember this—she said, “Everyone’s soul weighs the same.”
We’re getting a glimpse of her soul through her dress col-lec-tion on exhibit at the Appleton Muse-um. When people are touring the exhibit, what do you hope they’ll see about Diana?
I hope they see pictures. I hope they see happiness. Every one of those dresses was what the princess called “an old friend.” All the dresses were created for an occasion—always happy occasions, never sad. So I want people to walk through there and think of the princess in a very happy and positive way.
Think of the dress she wore in to the White House when she danced with John Travolta. But I have to tell you—she had her eye on someone else that night: Mikhail Baryshnikov. As a little girl, she queued up outside the Royal Opera House to get his autograph and she told him that when she saw him at the White House. At the dinner, he pushed over his menu and said, “It’s my turn now,” and asked for her autograph.
Every single one of those dresses is a memory—an event—and was created specifically for Diana, Princess of Wales. They’re all stunning.
You took photographs of Princess Diana’s Kensington Palace home after her death.
I did that because I wanted to preserve the world in which she lived. I took the photographs a year after she died. I knew that her world was going to be dismantled and would disappear forever and I wanted a memory of that. It’s the only record of that world and so I’m glad I did it.
Now, through those pic-tures, you can see where she lived, which was actually very normal and livable. She sur-rounded herself by things she felt were important to her, pictures of Harry and William. Her children were her life. They are her lasting legacy to the world.
I’m a richer person for having known Diana.
The Way We Were: Remembering Diana is also available at www.amazon.com and at local bookstores.
Can’t Get Enough Di?
In addition to the exhibition, the public is invited to attend a number of special programs. Most are free as part of Dresses for a Cause or with general museum admission. For a complete schedule or ticket information, visit www.appletonmuseum.org or call (352) 291-4455.
English Tea: Served each day during the exhibition. Requires special ticket and reservations.
Lecture (October 7): Ellen Petho, Princess Diana dress owner, will whet your appetite for the exhibition. 2:30pm.
Exhibit Preview (Oct. 12): Museum members are invited to get a sneak peak at Dresses for a Cause during one of three previews from 1-3 p.m., 3:30-5:30 p.m. or 6-8 p.m. Reservations are required. Call 352-291-4455, ext. 1255
Lecture (Oct. 14): Nigel Arch, director of Kensington Palace, art historian and author, will share the history of dressing royals and anecdotes about Princess Diana. 2:30pm.
Tea, Talk & Book Signing (Nov. 10): Join Darren McGrady, author of Eating Royally and Princess Diana’s personal chef, for one of two sessions. The first, a mother/daughter tea, takes place at 10:30am, followed by an open tea at 2pm. Requires special ticket.
Book Signing (November 11): Darren McGrady, Princess Diana’s personal chef, will sign copies of his recently released book, Eating Royally, at 1pm.
Lecture (November 18): Join Suzanne King as she talks about the vision of bringing Dresses for a Cause to the Appleton and her mission as founder of the national Pink Ribbons Crusade to raise funds for breast cancer prevention and awareness. 2:30pm.