Make no mistake, it will be the dress of her life. The gown Camilla wears as she is crowned next to King Charles in Westminster Abbey on May 6 will define her as no other outfit has done yet, or will hence.
So perhaps it’s understandable that the news that the Queen Consort has chosen one of Diana’s favourite designers, Bruce Oldfield, to create her Coronation dress, has caused some surprise. Wearing the gown of a man so indelibly associated with your husband’s late ex-wife on such a landmark day could be seen as a risky move.
I, however, feel precisely the opposite. Bruce, whom I have known for many years, is the perfect match for Camilla.
More than being just the ideal craftsman for such an occasion in terms of style and sartorial skill, he’s the dream man for such a high-pressure occasion. The kind of designer who puts a woman in a dress and gasps along with her, as thrilled as she is by the result, he’ll be as invested as Camilla in her Coronation robes.
Back in black: Diana at the Barbican in 1985 and Camilla at a movie premiere in London in 2019
Gala glamour: The Princess at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel in 1988 and, right, Charles’s 70th birthday party in 2018
And forget the chance of it being as ill-fitting as Meghan’s wedding dress, or as crushed as Diana’s Emanuel-designed bridal gown as she emerged from her fairytale carriage. If I know Bruce, he’ll be there on the day, pinning Camilla in to absolute perfection until the very last moment. Camilla simply couldn’t be in better hands.
As well she knows. For all his past association with Diana, Bruce, 72, has been dressing Camilla, 75, with great success for a decade now, and they get on like a house on fire. After all, choosing a designer you’ve never worked with for such a huge occasion would be rather akin to using a hairdresser for the very first time on your wedding day. As he puts it himself: ‘She is a good egg. We get on bloody well.’
But there’s far more to Camilla’s choice of Bruce than his genius at constructing internal corsets —ideal for holding in middle-aged figures — or the fact that he’s British, a vital consideration for an occasion of such national significance. Camilla could just as easily have steered clear of him so as to not invite comparison to Diana. But I feel it shows she is no longer avoiding comparisons with Diana — because that battle is finally over.
And Coronation day will show it. Confident in a way almost unrecognisable when compared to the early days of her relationship with Charles after Diana’s death, Camilla doesn’t need to over-analyse her choices any more. She can just be herself.
Perhaps there’s a chance that her choice of Bruce might even be a subconscious nod to the late Princess, an olive branch of sorts. Surely, despite all the pain of the past, Diana’s sons will appreciate her choice on the day, this acknowledgement of their mother in some way. And really, considering that both women loved Charles so, is it any wonder that Bruce won both their hearts, too?
Ladies in red: Lady Diana in Melbourne in 1985, left, and the Queen Consort in London last year
Effortless elegance: Diana in Canada in 1983, left, and Camilla in Sri Lanka in 2013
Pink parade: Diana on a Royal visit to Coventry in 1986, left, and Camilla in Colombia in 2014
All white now: Diana at Somerset House in 1990, Camilla at 2016 State Opening of Parliament
Bruce has a lot in common with both women — wonderfully warm, and with a terrific natural empathy, he has as good a sense of humour as Diana famously did, and as Camilla most certainly has.
Today, Bruce is understandably tight-lipped on the Coronation. But he has spoken about his relationship with both royal women, saying: ‘I gave Diana her glamour and Camilla her confidence.’
After meeting Diana in 1980, when she asked him to make her something to wear to switch on the Oxford Street Christmas lights, he steered her away from Sloane Ranger style into something far more chic. She was, he has said, ‘the perfect client’. She once wrote to him admitting that she was his ‘No 1 fan’.
In those days, I worked opposite Bruce in Knightsbridge, in the Beauchamp Place shop. Bruce’s dresses were the ultimate. Anything but froth — the antithesis of the Emanuels — Bruce exemplified great structure and femininity. Business boomed for him. Celebrities including Joan Collins, the ultimate 1980s fashionista, and Faye Dunaway adored him.
Then came the 1990s and the royal divorce, after which Diana dropped Bruce. Her new single life meant she didn’t have as much need for his formal wear. He was a casualty in a war very much not of his making. ‘Oh no, I no longer need to go to Ascot. I hated it anyway,’ she apparently told him.
The loss of her patronage, in favour of European designers such as Versace, whom she understandably sought out in her post-divorce reinvention, was a blow.
‘We were shunned,’ he has said in past interviews. “We were p***** off, I can tell you. It wasn’t good. It means everybody looks at you as if to say, “You’re rubbish. We’re not going to buy from you any more.” ’
Supporting Barnardo’s: Bruce Oldfield with Princess Diana in 1988
Supporting Barnardo’s: Bruce Oldfield with Queen Consort Camilla in 2016
Indeed, the recession which struck in the 1990s saw Bruce sell his flat and use the money to shore up his business. A deeper cut came for him when Diana — again, understandably — streamlined her charity commitments in 1996 after her divorce.
Among those charities to lose out was Barnardo’s, of which she had been president. This was a cause close to Bruce’s heart. Born in London to a young half-Irish woman and a Jamaican boxer, he was given up for adoption shortly after his birth. His seamstress foster mother in County Durham taught him to sew and he developed a love of fashion and clothing.
Described as ‘uncontrollable’, Bruce was placed in a Barnardo’s home in Yorkshire when he was 11. It didn’t stop him passing the exams to attend Ripon Grammar School, however. He first trained as a teacher, but in his early 20s moved to London and was the star pupil in his year at Central Saint Martins. Today, he remains vice-president of Barnardo’s.
Discussing the split with Diana, he once commented: ‘We were more angry about the Barnardo’s connection. To lose your president in such a visible way, we were pretty upset.’
Today, in another uncanny echo, Camilla is patron of Barnardo’s.
Bruce, when he does speak of the Queen Consort, is clearly enamoured: ‘She’s fabulous,’ he told one interviewer several years ago. ‘I’m really pleased that people are warming to her. In America it was quite difficult, because people were very pro . . . somebody else [Diana]. But it’s 20 years ago, you know? Please!’
It seems testament to Bruce’s talent that he can make women of such divergent styles — Diana, a fashion icon by the end of her life; Camilla, far more traditional — look so elegant. The ranginess of the late Princess of Wales would appear to be easier to dress than Camilla’s 5 ft 6 in frame. But there are similarities. He is singularly unfussy in his clothing, preferring block colour rather than patterns, and tailoring to flounces.
No doubt Camilla and Bruce are entirely in tune as they mull what shades suit her best. Just witness the creations he has crafted for her already. The narrow, pale turquoise gown with lace he made for her for a tour of Sri Lanka in 2013. That dazzling white number at the State Opening of Parliament in 2015 and 2016. He elevates her into the kind of regal elegance the late Queen was known for. It seems certain that Camilla will choose something pale for the Coronation, and will choose with care.
I’m lucky enough to have met Camilla just the once. Our families are friendly, and I know her sister Annabel well. And the sisters are known to be great fun. Both have a wonderful sense of style: clean lines and uncomplicated with no unnecessary fuss or frills.
But where Bruce will come into his own is the trust that Camilla already has in him. Over 50, all a woman ever wants from a dress is to be confident. And yes, some of his detractors might say that Bruce is a bit ‘mother of the bride’, but there’s a security to him that Camilla would so need on this biggest of all days. She will be able to have a wobbly in front of him, and know she’s in safe hands.
One interviewer asked him whether Camilla ever spoke to him about Diana. The answer was so endearingly, wonderfully Bruce: ‘I don’t have many clients who discuss their husband’s previous wives with me. It just doesn’t happen. Moving on! I think Camilla has become more relaxed and — what’s the word? — confident. In dealing with me, she’s much more accepting of what I propose, you know? Trusting, that’s the word.’
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