The True Story of Princess Diana's Electrifying 'John Travolta' Dress
"You only see the detail close-up," curator Eleri Lynn tells PEOPLE
When Princess Diana visited President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, at the White House in 1985, she stepped onto the ballroom dance floor — with a man known for his electrifying moves on the big screen.
Diana took the hand of John Travolta, star of Grease and Saturday Night Fever, and the pair gracefully spun around the checkered floor for nearly 30 minutes. The dance would become one of the most iconic moments of her life — and the velvet dress she wore for the occasion instantly assumed its place in her hall-of-fame looks.
Now, fans can revisit that moment at Kensington Palace’s new exhibit, Diana: Her Fashion Story, where the midnight-blue Victor Edelstein gown she wore to the White House is on display, along with many others that trace her style evolution through the years. (Including her role as a mother to two young sons, with one dress still showing her boys’ tiny fingerprints on the fabric.)
Eleri Lynn, curator of the exhibit at Diana’s former home of Kensington Palace, notes that Diana appreciated Hollywood and dance — and could have taken that path has life worked out differently for her.
“She was influenced by the cinema and the arts and she was also a very capable dancer — she had wanted to be a ballet dancer as a young girl,” Lynn tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
“So this was really a meeting of her interest in cinema and her love of dance – to be dancing with John Travolta. The dress is a real masterpiece.”
Lynn says that though the dress has been immortalized in photographs, it’s far more detailed and intricate in person.
“It looks so classical,” she said. “The design is fantastic. You only see the detail close-up. Photos do not do this dress justice.”
Of course, the dress, captured in motion as Diana danced, is part of what made it such a recognizable piece.
“If she had been wearing any other evening dress it might not have looked so good,” says Lynn. “But that twirling velvet that swirled up as she danced across the floor really made it.”
Kensington Palace is a fitting setting for the exhibit: Diana lived there after her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles up until her death in 1997. Today, Princess Kate and Prince William call one of the apartments in the palace home, and Prince Harry maintains a residence there as well.
Diana: Her Fashion Story, opens to the public on Friday.