The summer of 1994 was unusually warm for Britain. Hot, sunny days were followed by close, sticky nights, and by the end of June, the pressure had begun to build. The last week of the month was explosive, meteorologically and culturally. On Friday 24 June, an exceptionally severe thunderstorm hit the south-east of the UK, spreading so much grass pollen that it caused 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 infidelity to Princess Diana during an ITN documentary. (When asked if he had remained loyal to his wife, the Prince of Wales nodded. “Yes, absolutely,” he said before adding of his marriage “until it broke up irremediably”.)
On Wednesday, June 29, the same day the program aired to 13 million viewers nationwide, Diana emerged from her emotional wreckage to attend a gala in a dress so captivating that she has since become known simply as as “the suit of vengeance.”
Princess Diana in Christina Stambolian’s black dress while attending a party at the Serpentine Gallery in London, June 1994. Credit: Princess Diana Archive/Hulton Royals Collection/Getty Images
Black, off-the-shoulder with a sweetheart neckline and a figure-hugging skirt that ended 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 like a million bucks,” Princess Anna’s former stylist 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 front pages of British tabloids: “Revenge is stylish,” wrote the Sun. “Di showed Charles what he’s missing last night.”
Elizabeth Debicki, pictured here, will play Princess Diana in the new season of “The Crown,” recreating the legendary moment on screen. Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix
Following the news of her casting, Debicki told EW that the sacred dress was among the first questions on many lips. “I was fascinated by how delighted people were with that dress,” she said. “When word got out that I had the part, I got these texts saying congratulations, (but) there were also a lot of texts about the revenge suit. ‘Can you wear the revenge suit?’ “Oh my god, you can wear the revenge suit!”
Diana’s decision to wear the dress that night was apparently impulsive. According to “Princess Diana’s Dresses: The Auction,” it had been sitting in her closet for three years before its fateful exit, fearing it was “too daring,” designer Stambolian said. Instead, the Telegraph reported that Diana had been fitted for a Valentino dress, but a premature press release sent out by the fashion house alerting journalists to the ensemble put her off. But while it may have been a snap judgment, the revenge suit 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. Rather than submit to shame or public scorn, Diana told the world that she would not go quietly.