Dresses on a mission

Diana, Princess of Wales, would have been 40 years old Sunday.

As the “people’s princess,” she spent a great portion of her last years pursuing philanthropic deeds such as helping those with AIDS and cancer while maintaining her unique sense of style.Now, four years after her death, a part of Princess Diana’s legacy continues to travel the globe in order to raise money for those in need.

Housed between Victoria’s Secret and Gameworks in Centro Ybor, the “Dresses for Humanity” exhibit displays a collection of Princess Diana’s dresses and a majority of the revenue will be granted to charities.

Each dress stands tall and rigid, cloaked over a mannequin standing under the dim lighting in its own glass case. Most of the dresses are made primarily of velvet or silk, and a description of the dress and its designer is posted at the bottom of the case.

Almost a year before her death, Princess Diana auctioned a collection of her dresses for charity after her divorce on Aug. 28, 1996, in an attempt to show a new fashion style for her future. The suggestion came from her son, Prince William.

In New York City on June 25, 1997, $3.6 million dollars was raised at the Christie’s auction after 79 of the princesses’ dresses were put up for bid.

“Clothing was no longer as important to (Diana),” Lisa Brock, spokesperson for the Dresses for Humanity exhibition said.

While placing bids over the phone, one anonymous buyer purchased 14 of the dresses, the largest number bought through the auction. With a certain budget in mind, local resident Maureen Rorech remained anonymous due to the hysteria of the event, and originally intended to buy the dresses for a business investment.

“She believed that in the future the dresses would have significant value because of (Diana’s) popularity,” Brock said.

According to Brock, Rorech’s focus changed from a business decision to a philanthropic mission after Princess Diana’s death.

Inspired by the princess’ efforts to help those less fortunate, Rorech decided to embark upon a tour with the dresses in order to keep Diana’s humanitarian legacy alive and raise additional money for charities across the globe.

“As the mother of three young sons, I was very moved by the princess’ example,” Rorech said in a message she wrote for the Dresses for Humanity Web site. “(After her death), the significance of my royal costume collection took on new meaning … 14 beautiful dresses now had an important job to do.”

The first public showing of the collection was housed at the Tampa Museum of Art for only a few days in October 1997. Since then, the collection has been to 14 different venues and out of the country, raising $1.6 million dollars for various charities during its 3-year tour. The last stop is in Centro Ybor, after which the dresses will be on display at Kensington Palace in London for 10 years. “This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (to see the dresses),” Brock said.

Twelve of the 14 dresses Rorech purchased at the Christie’s auction are currently on display. The remaining two dresses are on loan to Kensington Palace.

Brock said she wasn’t really a fan of Princess Diana, though she respected her for the role she played as a philanthropic figure and as a mother. Brock said she thought the dresses were “poignant” at first sight.

“It did really cause me to pause and think about the mark she made on the monarchy (and) the mark she made on women,” she said.

Each city the dresses have been exhibited in chooses a charity which was connected to the type of work Princess Diana encouraged, and the funds raised benefit those charities. The city of Tampa has chosen Metropolitan Ministries, a homeless shelter, and the Boys and Girls Club to receive the donations. Everything outside of the cost of the exhibit will be split between the two organizations.

The goal of the tour of dresses is to raise an additional $100 million for charities in the name of Princess Diana. According to Brock, Rorech intends to make an arrangement with the royal family to return the collection of dresses to Prince Charles and Prince William in honor of their mother’s charitable legacy after the funds have been raised.

Tickets cost $10 for adults and $8.50 for seniors.