As worn at the fall of the House of Windsor

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By lunchtime the queue stretched round the block, but the women waiting to see a collection of second-hand clothes didn't seem to mind.

"It's the mystique of her," said one. "It's a moment in a tragic history."

"It's like looking at a jacket with someone's blood on it or a bullet hole through it," another added. "Looking at these dresses, you're looking at the fall of the house of Windsor. Diana is a tragic figure."

The chiffon, the satin, the sequins - they were all vested in historical significance as visitors to Christie's in London this week waited to pore over the 79 gowns that Diana, Princess of Wales, is auctioning for charity in New York at the end of the month.

They crowded into a small room hung in royal purple and festooned with blown-up pictures of the Princess to look at the good, the bad and the downright fashion disasters that make up the life of Diana over the past 15 years, from the flounces and furbelows of Shy Di to the sleek armour of Diana the survivor.

Christie's has been averaging a thousand visitors a day - nearly three a minute - who come to gaze reverentially at the Princess's cast-offs. Entry to the exhibition is conditional on buying a catalogue, the cheapest version of which is pounds 30. By Wednesday, more than a million dollars had been made on catalogues alone. All 250 of the limited-edition pounds 1,250 catalogues, leatherbound and signed by the Princess, have been snapped up, and the pounds 150 canvas-bound ones are also selling well.

Christie's is not putting a reserve price on any of the dresses, but the sale is expected to raise pounds 4m. The two dresses that have excited the most interest are lot 80, a Victor Edelstein in oyster satin, which Diana models on the front of the catalogue, and lot 2, the wisp of black chiffon that Diana wore on the night of her husband's public admission of adultery, which swept her husband off the front pages in spectacular fashion. "The dress caused an awful lot of comment at the time and subsequently," the catalogue comments dryly, "not only for its daring asymmetrical ruching."

The Princess has said that she hopes whoever buys the dresses will get as much enjoyment out of them as she did. While institutions and museums may be interested, word leaked out last week that several leading members of New York's drag queen community have expressed an interest.

Most of those who crowded Christie's this week could not afford a dress to Di for - although some had spent considerable amounts of money to get to London. Rather, they wanted to pay their respects to Diana their heroine. It would be enough to make the Prince of Wales gnash his royal teeth if he could see the reverence that his ex-wife still inspires. Here was tribute to Diana of the Sorrows, St Diana of Chelsea Harbour. Despite the "do not touch" signs, surreptious hands reached out. If we were living in more superstitious times, one could imagine every community having a few threads to work signs and wonders.

"I came because I admire her so much," said Phyllis Okenyl. "I think she's wonderful. She does so much for charity. She's a wonderful mother - the way she's brought up her family and the way she's come through all her troubles and defined herself."

Mrs Okenyl and her friend Thelma Hyde had taken the day off work and travelled down from Yorkshire, at a cost of pounds 60. Add to that the pounds 150 that Mrs Okenyl's husband had spent on the catalogue for her, and it's a fair sum to see some dresses you have no chance of buying.

She wasn't the only one. Women had travelled from Pembrokeshire and Cardiff as well as Essex, or had simply popped in during their lunch hour.

"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Barbara Reeves, summing up the general feeling. "There would be no one else who would get this kind of reaction - certainly not anyone else in the Royal Family. It's a mixture of things: the fairy-tale that isn't, the experiences she had, and the wonderful dress she wore the night of Charles's documentary - that was really making a statement."

Would people have crowded so much to see Diana's furniture or other possessions?

Dr Halla Beloff, a social psychologist in Edinburgh, said the interest in her gowns reflects the importance that we attach to clothes. "It's the function of clothes to show the world who we are, or who we would like them to think we are. That may be relatively near what we are, or not."

"Clothes are very intimate," added Dr Martin Skinner, lecturer in psychology at Warwick University. "They have been on her body. They have been owned by her, chosen by her because they represent something to her. They are associated with her, and her physical presence makes them more special than, say, her house or her other possessions."

Some of the women didn't like the thought of someone else wearing Diana's clothes. "Who could carry it off better?" said Phyllis Okenyl. "Who else could wear purple and pink together, I ask you? She's a superstar."

"I hear some of those drag queens in America want to buy them," said Ann Harting from Hambledon, who had bought the catalogue for her daughter as a present. "I just don't think that would be right to see her dresses on them."

"I suppose wealthy people might buy them to try to acquire a bit of her mystique, or if they have wonderful figures," said Maxine Knight of Pembrokeshire. "I don't think I could get my left thigh into one of them!"

A few streets away in the local Oxfam shop, the assistant said pleasantly that while anyone's clothes were welcomed, the price fixing guide indicated only the condition of the clothes and the sort of fabric, and not the status of the owner. Yes, there was a nice red one from Next which wasn't that far distant from lot 14, a dance dress by Bruce Oldfield, for pounds 7.99 in size 8. "What's the difference?" he asked. "They've both been owned by someone else."

Dr Skinner disagrees: "It is like the story of the woman in the Bible, where she did not try to touch Jesus, just the hem of his cloak. Clothes have that much power."