Sunday, 3 September 2017

Princess Diana and me

I was surprised to see that it has only been twenty years since Princess Diana died.  In my mind, it was ‘long ago’, with her etched into my childhood memories.  I was a girlie-girl who loved fashion and make-up, the kind of kid who made wedding dresses for my Sindy doll out of net curtains. (Sindy was my doll of choice, over Barbie, who I recognised even then as being ‘too skinny’.  Sindy, on the other hand, had a decent pair of hips).  

I was mesmerised by Hollywood actresses such as Audrey Hepburn Diana and Doris Day, but they seemed very far away.  Diana seemed closer, when she came to my attention as a mere ‘Lady’ and got engaged to Prince Charles in 1981.   

A photograph by then Fleet Street photographer John Minihan, captured a shy looking 19 year old Diana, with the sun shining through a flimsy skirt that revealed her long legs, causing a pre-internet media sensation - an image that always stayed in my mind.  I suppose the image was controversial at the time and looking back, represents a shift in the media in terms of what was off limits.  Funny that years later, with my work-hat on, that I would become acquainted with John, who grew up in Athy and chat to him about taking that iconic image.  When I was purchasing his equally iconic collection of portraits and scenes from Athy for the local authority Municipal Art Collection,  I considered including the Diana portrait, but decided against - not sure that others would have the same affection for the image as I do, or if it there was a place for it in the collection.

The fact that Diana married a prince was incidental to me.  Talk about the monarchy and 'The Establishment' went over my head. I just loved her style, all shoulder pads, crisp collars and drop earrings.  Her floppy hair and eye liner.  The way she blushed and held her head low.  Her wedding dress that creased on the day because it was was so voluminous and made of silk.  Her humanitarian work. I poured over her image in Hello magazine and made sketches in copy books, practice for when I was going to be a fashion designer.  

This summer, I was charmed to see the original toile of her dress and miniatures of her bridesmaids dresses, created by ''The Emanuel's'' in The Style Museum in Newbridge Silverware.  Instantly, I’m transported back to seven year old me, sitting in an armchair beside the TV, watching coverage of the Royal Wedding for what seemed like hours, while my mother goes about her work, occasionally stopping to watch, the smell of dinner and Saturday afternoon baking wafting around.  

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Diana died?  I was staying with my aunt Aine and she woke me on the Sunday morning to tell me, handing me a cup of tea in bed.  A surreal moment indeed.  The previous year when I had stayed with Aine, I answered her phone on a Saturday night to be told that her cousin Anna and her husband, Leo had been killed driving home from mass in Ardee.  We had often accompanied Anna and Leo to mass and I remember lots of laughing and skitting in between the prayers.  For whatever reason, we stayed home that night and I had just finished dying and cutting Aine’s hair.  I was glad to be there for her, and in an odd way, happy that at least her hair would look well for the funeral in the coming days.  Thinking back on it now, I am also amused that she trusted me as hairdresser.

Aine was another style icon for me, the aunt who gave me hand-me-down clothes and shoes as soon as I was old enough to fit into them. She gave me leftover make-up too - the palettes of eye shadow with only navy and purples remaining.  I could hear other children whisper in a shop when we stop to buy Iced Caramels for my Nana, ‘that girl is wearing make-up’.  I regularly asked Aine when would she get married, somehow missing out on the fact that she doesn’t have a boyfriend.  

As the years go by, I take on the role of Personal Shopper for Aine and my mother, on our day
trips to Dublin for wedding outfits, or whatever is on the list.   I feel pulled in two directions in Arnott’s store, with Aine having an aversion to lifts and my mother, escalators and neither of them fancying the stairs.   After a stand off, a compromise is reached after I train my mother to use the escalator.

In the weeks before Aine died in 2013, I watch her appearance take on the strain of illness.  Her elegant wardrobe is reduced to bed wear and she is too sick to care.  My heart sinks as I walk towards her hospital room, with the door ajar and I only recognise her now by the colour of her dressing gown.  When she dies, she leaves me a beautiful rose gold bangle in her will, a gift from an old boyfriend of hers, a man I have heard of, but never met.  I’m devastated when I am unable to find the bangle after a break-in at my home last year and am even more upset telling my mother. Imagine my joy when I find it recently, tucked in the back of a drawer. I bring my mother clothes shopping recently and we find ourselves picking up garments in dusty pinks and blues, noting ‘this is a real Aine top’.

Much of the commentary in this week’s media was around the mass expression of grief when Diana died, a new phenomenon, before a world of social media.  To me though, my feelings of sadness are very personal, linked to my childhood, inspiration and coming of age.  Twenty years on, I am looking at the coverage of Diana’s death through my own eyes as a mother and really appreciate the impact that her death, aged just 36, must have had on her two young sons, children who had already experienced the separation of their parents.  And all in the glare of the media too.

I picked up a Hello magazine recently in my hairdressers.  It was jam packed with photographs of the Royal Family, which I had limited interest in, apart from amusement at the attention given to Kate Middleton’s sister butt.  In fairness though, she would give Sindy a run for her money.

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