Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE MOST striking part of Diana's Dresses (BBC1) was a discussion of the iconography of the princess, by an art-dealer named Zondra Foxx: "What we're looking at here, I suspect, is the whole notion of saints and relics... Diana has become, for better or for worse, some sort of secular saint... Young women make the best martyrs. I mean, in baroque painting, for example, there are always young women being stripped to their birthday suits and tortured by these evil-looking characters, who may be construed today as the paparazzi chasing and torturing Diana. It's roughly the same sort of predatory, persecutorial relationship." Not that there was anything novel about the idea, but it made a change to hear it coming from a 6ft drag queen in Lolita sunglasses and enormous false breasts who made Lily Savage look like Mother Teresa.

In June 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, auctioned off 79 dresses at Christie's in New York. The sale was a social event, attended by glamorous figures such as Dr Henry Kissinger. Christopher Sykes went out in search of the dresses and their owners.

The trail led all over America, and to Europe, to a doctor's receptionist in Brittany, who won her dress in a Paris-Match prize draw; to a couple of ageing Southern belles; and to a boutique owner from Boston. Some buyers had purely frivolous motives, or no motive at all. Ellen Pethio, an interior designer from Port Huron, Michigan, said: "I was watching some of them go for less than $20,000, and I kept thinking `You can't get a good used car for that'." For others, it was an investment. Maureen Rorek, a successful Florida businesswoman, had decided that one of her investment portfolios had peaked in value, and was looking for something to do with the money. She bought 14 dresses, including the one Diana wore when she danced with John Travolta (that one cost $200,000). Some of the buyers wore them (Zondra Foxx said that he was almost the right size - "She's like an eight, and I'm mayyybee a 10"); others put them on display, or locked them away in vaults.

Diana's death, two months after the sale, changed everything. Ms Rorek realised that she had a responsibility to use the dresses wisely, and instituted the "Dresses for Humanity" world tour, displaying them in aid of charity. Kate McEnroe of Romance Classics, a cable TV channel, had already sent their three dresses on a tour of shopping malls: they had to change their advertising, with the tag-line "Dresses to Di For", in a hurry.

Diana's Dresses was an unlooked-for treat, like the little gush of warm water out of your ear an hour after you've been swimming. Dealing with Diana is a delicate business. Christopher Sykes's film had its rebarbative moments - a teenage girl explaining "There is a place in my heart where I keep God, and Diana is right there... She's just unreal"; a young man testifying that her example helped him to a career in the military - and too many soundbites from the St Matthew Passion and Allegri's "Miserere". But overall, it managed to maintain the balance between sentimentality and outright anthropology. Who knows? One day soon, maybe we'll be able to talk about her as if she was real.