Pulling back the heavy door, I leave a cheerful sun behind me as I step into the chilly darkness of the museum. As my eyes adjust to the dimness of the lighting, I notice the other visitors are all about my age. And all female. With total accuracy, I have no doubt I could tell each of them where they were on the early morning of July 29, 1981. For without question they, like me, were certainly in front of their televisions, watching the fabled wedding of Lady Diana Spencer unfold in all its magnificent splendour. And no doubt we are all here today for the same reason - to see the dress that she wore on that day.
For a newlywed myself, with the memory of my own beautiful wedding so fresh in my mind, that July pageant of long ago was such a rhapsodic spectacle, filled with a magic that seemed to leap off the very pages of both history books and fairy tales. The entire world seemed giddily focused in happy anticipation of this very British ceremony and the conviviality generated by this event seemed to linger in the air like a sweet fragrance for such a long time. I traveled to London the very next month, and remember fondly the boisterous good will that still reverberated from every shop window, every hotel lobby, every restaurant. That wedding, and the hope of true love it represented, had painted a smile on the face of every waiter, thrown a genial cloak of exuberance over every taxi driver in the old city. It was a wonderful time to be there.
But in the same way that an iridescent bubble will burst when it touches your hand, life has a way of evaporating some fairy tales, especially if they are not what they appear to be even as they are taking shape before our very eyes. So it is a bittersweet wander I am taking through this exhibit today, gazing through the glass at mementos of Diana’s star-crossed childhood - the naive diaries, the monogramed school trunk - the home movies, the ballet shoes.
The exhibit winds round and I silently follow until I turn a sharp corner and enter a long quiet room. And there it is. That wedding dress. There’s the impossibly long train that I watched unfolding like an prophet’s scroll from that glass carriage, unfurling in the wind like the wings of a million doves down the wide, wide stairs of St. Paul’s. There’s the sleeping beauty sleeves, the paper thin silk dotted with a multitude of sequins and pearls that sparkle like fairy eyes even here in this dull place, so far away across an ocean of events none of us can change, no matter how much we would wish to.
I make my way round the length of the 25 foot train, and then I come to the shoes.
Handmade, with 542 hand-knotted, mother-of-pearl sequins on each pair, and lovely hand-painted soles, these are works of art to be sure. But there is something else about them that brings me up cold. They seem, in their humbleness of purpose, to conjure the woman that was Diana more than all the other articles combined. For there are scuffs on the soles, scuffs that were made from the stone stairs of St. Paul’s, that were created on a palace balcony overlooking a multicoloured ocean of smiling faces - scuffs that make it all so ordinary, so real. These are the shoes that took a pretty woman from a quiet life of a nursery school teacher into one of soul shuddering fame. These shoes climbed into that golden coach on that bright morning in July, made their way up the steps of the old stone cathedral, and walked down that endless carpet of red, into a life none of us, including their wearer, could have ever foreseen. I stare at them, transfixed.
Suddenly I feel a chill, like the icy fingers of regret reaching out to grasp my memories, and I am grateful that a happy May sun awaits me outside. I weave my way through the whispering crowd and back out into the light.
But on the way home I find my mind roaming the corridors of deep thought, where the doors are emblazoned with words such as Fate, Destiny, and Choice.
And I wonder.
If Diana had known what the ending would be,
would she still have agreed to her part in the play?
Would she still have slipped her feet inside those lovely shoes?