Princess Di’s Dresses in the Archives?

At Cranbrook Archives, much of the work we do—processing manuscripts, arranging documents, scanning photographs—all have a rather similar procedure: repeat.

There is plenty of magnificence to be found in the mundane though. We don’t mind the monotonous details because it’s this repetitive process that wins us the occasional gem. Today, while going through Cranbrook’s historic exhibition brochures printed between the 1940s and 1990s, I came across an image of Princess Diana.

“Five Dresses from the Collection of Diana, Princess of Wales” was an exhibition held at the Cranbrook Art Museum from March 10-15, 1998. The royal dresses were premiered at Cranbrook before becoming part of a worldwide tour that traveled to Russia, Japan, Australia, and England through 1999. This selection from the Princess’s wardrobe was shown in conjunction with the “Art on the Edge of Fashion” exhibition held at Cranbrook at the same time.

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Cranbrook Art Museum exhibition brochure, 1988. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The five dresses were from the private collection of Ellen Louise Petho, a commercial interior designer who, incidentally, was the parent of a Kingswood School alumna. Susan Whitall’s press release in the Detroit News explained how the princess sold dozens of her dresses to benefit AIDs charities just months before her death in 1997. She wrote, “Petho scooped up the five frocks for what became, after Diana’s death, a bargain basement price—less than $100,000.”

The collection included a pleated pink silk tunic dinner dress that Diana wore at the Gala Evening for the English National Ballet and the long jade and black evening dress worn to a dinner at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto in 1986. Four of the five dresses were designed by Catherine Walker and the “piece de resistance,” designed by Bruce Oldfield, was the red dress the princess wore at the premiere of the motion picture “Hot Shots” in 1991.

The Archives are a trove of Cranbrook history. We love rediscovering the hidden materials—it’s what makes the repetition meaningful.

Danae Dracht, Archives Assistant

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