The appearance of Diana, Princess of Wales at the 1996 ball wasn't as random as it might seem: Diana was a guest of her good friend Liz Tilberis, then-head of Harper's Bazaar and hostess of the event that year. And more importantly, the event celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Christian Dior label, which had just appointed British designer John Galliano as its creative director. Diana's dress that evening was Galliano's first couture creation at the Dior helm. It was a highly anticipated moment, coming a month before the debut of his first collection. (The dress, now a part of the brand's history, was included in a Dior exhibit at Harrod's in 2013.)
Galliano fit the lingerie-inspired midnight blue slip dress with black lace trim to the Princess himself in a series of meetings at Kensington Palace, and she did make some requests for changes to his original design. The final product was accompanied by a dark wrap to guard against the December cold and a small navy version of her favorite Dior handbag, a style she liked so much it was renamed Lady Dior in her honor. She added her signature sapphire and pearl choker on top (created from a sapphire and diamond brooch given to her as a wedding gift by the Queen Mother, mounted with seven strands of pearls), with sapphire and diamond earrings and bracelets.
It feels so dated now, doesn't it? It takes you right back to the underwear-as-outerwear trend of the 1990s that saw starlets in simple slip dresses all over the red carpet. And it was perhaps too trendy for its own good, sacrificing the structure that would have been more flattering to her figure. For Diana, it was a daring choice, another dress (and event) fit for her new post-divorce life. The whole look feels unfathomably understated in comparison to the looks we see at the same event today, but it made a huge splash at the time. Many reviews of the dress itself were not stellar - it really is terribly hard to resist pointing out that a princess left the house in her nightgown - but the publicity worked its magic and its place in fashion history was secured.