Editor’s Note: Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a CNN Style series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.
The summer of 1994 was uncharacteristically warm for Great Britain. Hot, sunny days were followed by close, sticky nights — and by the end of June, pressure had started to build. The last week of the month was an explosive one, meteorologically and culturally. On Friday June 24, an exceptionally severe thunderstorm hit the south east of the UK, diffusing so much grass pollen it triggered a sudden and short-lived asthma epidemic. Two days later, and after years of mounting speculation, the British press broke the news that Prince Charles had accidentally revealed his unfaithfulness to Princess Diana during an ITN documentary. (When asked if he had stayed loyal to his wife, the Prince of Wales nodded. “Yes absolutely,” he said before adding of his marriage “until it became irretrievably broken down.”)
On Wednesday June 29, the same day the program aired to 13 million viewers across the country, Diana emerged from the emotional wreckage to attend a gala in a gown so captivating it has since been known simply as “the revenge dress.”
Black, off-the shoulder with a sweetheart neckline and a figure-hugging skirt that finished above the knee, the cocktail dress — designed by Christina Stambolian — was unlike anything Diana, or any other royal, had ever worn in public. “Diana wanted to look a million dollars,” the princess’ former stylist Anna Harvey said in “Princess Diana’s Dresses: The Auction,” a 2013 Channel 4 documentary. “And she did.”
The next morning, photos of her incendiary outfit were splashed across the British tabloids’ front pages: “Revenge is chic,” wrote the Sun. “Di last night showed Charles what he’s missing.”
Almost thirty years later, the dress — and the empowering moment it signifies — remains one of the most indelible pop culture moments in history. And it will likely gain a new audience, thanks to the fifth season of Netflix’s historical drama “The Crown,” airing November 9. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the actor Elizabeth Debicki — who will take over the role of Diana from Emma Corrin — highlighted the Stambolian dress as key to understanding Diana’s character. “It provoked something in me as an actor,” she said. “I can’t really explain it. It’s pretty incredible that a dress would represent a moment in history, or that this human’s life would represent so much and become so iconic. So that was a big day on set for me!”
After news of her casting broke, Debicki told EW the hallowed dress was among the first questions on many lips. “It fascinated me how entranced people were with that dress,” she said. “When it became known that I had the part, I received these text messages saying congratulations, (but) there was also a huge amount of text messages about the Revenge Dress. ‘Do you get to wear the Revenge Dress?’ ‘Oh my God, you get to wear the Revenge Dress!’”
Diana’s decision to wear the dress that evening was apparently an impulsive one. According to “Princess Diana’s Dresses: The Auction,” it had been sitting in her closet for three years before its fateful outing, for fear it was “too daring,” said designer Stambolian. Instead, the Telegraph reported Diana had been fitted for a Valentino dress — but a premature press release sent by the fashion house alerting journalists to the ensemble put her off. But while it may have been a snap judgment, the revenge dress created a legacy that would endure for nearly three decades, and counting. It was a moment of sartorial autonomy: a rebellion against royal dress codes and enforced notions of chastity and compliance. Instead of submitting to public shame or scorn, Diana told the world she would not go quietly.