The summer of 1994 was very warm in Great Britain. Hot, sunny days were followed by overcast, sticky nights, and in late June, the pressure began to build. The last week of the month was explosive, meteorologically and culturally. On Friday 24th June, extremely severe thunderstorms 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 many years of speculation, the British press broke the news that Prince Charles had accidentally revealed his infidelity to Princess Diana in an ITN documentary. (When asked if he had remained faithful to his wife, the Prince of Wales nodded. “Yes, absolutely,” he said of his marriage, before adding, “until it fell apart”).
On Wednesday, June 29, the same day the program was broadcast to 13 million viewers across the country, Diana emerged from the emotional wreckage to attend the gala in a dress so dazzling that it has since become known as the “revenge dress.”
Princess Diana wearing a black Christina Stambolian dress at 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 body-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 a million dollars,” Princess Diana’s former stylist Anna Harvey said in the 2013 Channel 4 documentary Princess Diana’s Dresses: The Auction. “And he did.”
The next day, photos of her fiery outfit were splashed across the front pages of British tabloids: “Revenge is chic,” wrote the Sun. “He showed Charles what he’s missing last night.”
Emma Debicki, pictured here, will play Princess Diana in the new show “The Crown,” recreating the legendary screen moment. Credit: Netflix
After her casting was announced, Debicki told EW that the holy dress was among the first questions on many lips. “I was fascinated by how excited people were about that dress,” she said. “When I found out I had the part, I got these texts saying congratulations, (but) there were also tons of texts about the Revenge Dress. ‘Are you wearing the Revenge Dress?’ ‘Oh my God, you’re going to wear the Vengeance Dress!'”
Diana’s decision to wear the dress that evening was apparently impulsive. According to “Princess Diana’s Dresses: The Auction,” it had been sitting in her closet for three years before her fate came out, fearing “it was too bold,” designer Stambolian said. Instead, the Telegraph reported that Diana was fitted for a Valentino dress, but an early press release from the fashion house alerting journalists to the ensemble backfired. But while it may have been a trial, the revenge dress created a legacy that would last for nearly three decades, and counting. It was a moment of sartorial autonomy: rebellion against royal dress codes and imposed notions of chastity and compliance. Rather than submit to public shame or scorn, Diana told the world that she would not go quietly.