Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
But also: fashion hath no greater thrill than when being deployed for the purpose of expressing rage, froideur or an insouciant dose of “look what you’re missing”. Helen of Troy may have possessed a face which launched a thousand ships, but today, a breakup is more likely to launch a “revenge dressing” strategy.
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Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the ultimate modern example of revenge dressing. On the evening of June 29, 1994, Prince Charles publicly confessed his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles for the first time in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. Meanwhile, the Princess of Wales made a last-minute decision to attend the Serpentine Gallery’s summer party, offering her a chance to be photographed just as her estranged husband’s confessions were being broadcast to the world.
Diana had originally planned to wear a new designer gown to the event, but changed her mind after the brand released a statement earlier in the day announcing that they would be dressing the Princess that evening. Instead, she riffled through her wardrobe and pulled out an LBD by Greek designer Christina Stambolian. She’d previously decided the dress was too risqué, but for that night it was a perfect statement of the freedom, confidence and sexiness that she wanted to project.
At the time, the reception was mixed. For The Sun, Diana’s off-shoulder, above-the-knee look made for a perfect front page image, along with the headline: “The thrilla he left to woo Camilla.” The Telegraph’s analysis was laced with more than a hint of scepticism: “The Princess of Wales did not have to dine out before the television cameras at the Serpentine Gallery last night in order to avoid seeing her husband sharing his soul with the nation on the box. She could have watched a video, played bridge or simply washed her hair and curled up in bed… It’s amazing what some people will do to avoid press speculation.”
The princess’s look – and the act of reclaiming the narrative it encompassed – still resonates 25 years on. In an era of online dating, and all the gaslighting and ghosting that accompanies it, women have turned to Diana as a source of inspiration.
The 27-year-old fashion writer, Eloise Moran, began the Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks last year when she was going through a break-up herself. “Every time I went out with my friends we’d discuss which ‘revenge look’ I was wearing and that’s how the joke began,” she tells me.
“I felt quite empowered by looking after myself and dressing with more intention, which obviously I related to when I saw how Princess Diana’s style really came into her own post-separation from Charles.” Now she posts images of Diana, labelling them as different takes on revenge, from “strictly business” skirt suits to the “dish best served cold” embellished mini dress, which was on show at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons in Kildare in 2017.
It is supermodel Irina Shayk, recently separated from Bradley Cooper following a four-year relationship, who is leading the revenge dressing movement now. After sitting through Cooper’s duet with his A Star Is Born co-star Lady Gaga at this year’s Academy Awards (which went viral thanks to the unmistakable chemistry between the two actors), Shayk has exhibited several takes on the genre in recent weeks.
The most refreshingly modern was a beige Burberry boiler suit, Away suitcase and chunky black boots, which she wore to leave the couple’s LA home just as news broke of their parting. She could never fit her worldly goods into a carry-on, of course, but the look imbued her with independence and strength at precisely the right moment.
It was this visual of Shayk looking supremely cool and controlled that accompanied news of the split, rather than those pictures of Cooper and Gaga that had fuelled speculation months ago. Since then, Shayk has appeared on the catwalk in a mini leopard print dress, posted snaps on Instagram of herself in a black swimsuit with her back turned (“Bradley is crying somewhere,” read one comment) and turned up at last weekend’s WorldPride day in New York wearing bum-grazing Daisy Dukes and flanked by a group of tall, dark and handsome men.
Revenge dressing may sound like it’s all about getting your own back, but it’s just as much an exercise in moving on and seeking validation elsewhere.
After her split from Tom Cruise in 2001, Nicole Kidman embraced the opportunity to wear stilettos again, having previously kept to low heels so she didn’t tower over her shorter husband. Bella Hadid donned a backless mesh Alexander Wang catsuit to shore herself up as ex-boyfriend The Weeknd appeared just feet away from her with new girlfriend Selena Gomez on the Met Gala red carpet in 2017 (they’re now back together).
Tipperary native Una Healy gave us a lesson in the rather more unsubtle art of revenge dressing when she dyed her red hair blonde after reports suggested that husband Ben Foden had cheated on her with a PR worker. The former Saturdays singer showcased her post-breakup makeover a month later during a Baywatch-style Instagram shoot. Proving that less is more, she stepped into a red Ivy Park bodysuit and opted for just one key accessory: male model Kenneth ‘KP’ Guidroz.
After Jennifer Aniston split with Brad Pitt following his affair with Angelina Jolie, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair rising above it all in nothing more than a crisp white shirt, her hair tousled and undone in contrast to her usual sleek blow-dry. The effect was nonchalant and nice rather than spiked with any hint of anger, cementing her now-signature likeability and ensuring that the public was firmly on her side.
Even the Duchess of Cambridge has dabbled in this sweetness-and-light revenge dressing technique. When she and Prince William broke up in 2007, their last public appearance together had been at Cheltenham, where their look had been more “middle-aged toff” than “world’s most famous couple under 30”.
Kate was too polite and cautious to do a Diana, but she was photographed having a ball as she trained for a rowing race in vest tops and leggings and going to parties with little sister Pippa, looking tanned and youthful in silky dresses with swooshy hair. One can’t help but think that Diana would have been proud.
Indeed, if Diana’s willingness to wear an outfit that semaphored so much emotion felt bold in 1994 (especially for a member of the Royal family), now she has become a pin-up for Time’s Up-era attitude.
“Women are becoming more comfortable in speaking up, and calling out men and the ways in which they’ve been wronged (both professionally and personally),” notes Moran. “I think Diana is an embodiment of the movement. She was truly a feminist, and had a reputation for being rebellious – but at the same time held herself with so much grace. She’s an icon for women and represents the power that comes from being ‘alone’. I can’t imagine a time when that idea would ever become out of date.”
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