The Diamond Dress
from Gown Guru Ian
(Pictured in Christie’s catalogue Page 94 and 95, Lot 50 and various album and programme covers)
This gown was designed by Doug Darnell in 1955 and is one of his first gowns for our Dame.
It began life as a fitted bodice with a white net skirt as in the picture shown on the 1958 Philips album ‘The Bewitching Miss Bassey’.
In 1960 it was remodelled into a straight sheath dress, covered in 156,000 crystals
It must have been a very heavy dress for Dame Shirley to wear, it weighed 6 kilograms!
Dame Shirley was the first artist to use the now world famous Swarovski crystals.
In the late 50’s they had a tiny shop in London, now the crystals are used by TV, movie and music celebs and their designers.
Dame Shirley wore the Diamond Gown many times in the late 50’s and 60’s.
It was give a new look in the 80’s when Doug put purple ostrich feathers on the bottom of the hem.
Gowns that are particular favourites of our Dame often get a face lift over the years as DSB loves wearing them so much.
Doug Darnell tells a lovely story that in the 1950’s when flying, people were very restricted as to the amount of luggage they could take. As the dress was very heavy, he put it in a four pound chocolate box so that DSB could have it on board next to her on the flight to Milan disguised as a box of chockies!
Extract from the description & Notes from the Christie’s catalogue
The Diamond Dress – a dazzling stage gown by Douglas Darnell, the fitted bodice and skirt encrusted with thousands of Swarovski aurora borealis crystals varying in size from the hem, the flowing train and hem elaborately trimmed with ostrich feathers in graduating tones of purple [added later]; and a corresponding sleeveless stage coat with flowing train by Douglas Darnell, circa 1970s, the ivory silk chiffon ground lavishly embellished with silver sequins and close bands of ostrich feathers in graduating tones of purple, lined in silver silk tissue; and a pair of corresponding stiletto heeled sandals customised by Darnell, the thin straps decorated with iridescent lilac sequins.
Weight of gown: approx. 6kg.
Referred to by Dame Shirley as The Diamond Dress this is the earliest in her collection. She recalls wearing it initially at the age of 18 in 1955. According to Darnell, it began life as a crystal-studded bodice attached to a white starburst skirt.
The bodice was later attached to a black velvet skirt and then in late 1959-60, to a full-length skirt made with corresponding Swarovski crystals to match the bodice. At this point it was reported that the dress weighed 28lbs. Although the skirt has been altered since then it seems that this reported weight may have been somewhat exaggerated as the gown currently weighs 6kg., i.e. 13.23lbs.
The ostrich feathers were added to the hem of the gown in the 1980s, and the ‘Diamond Dress’ in it’s various guises has been worn by Dame Shirley throughout her fifty year career.
Going through her collection of gowns prior to this auction catalogue being produced, Dame Shirley discussed the ‘Diamond Dress’ with Douglas Darnell, Kate Stephenson and Carey Wallace:
DSB: Feel this dress …it’s so heavy…that was on my body
CW: It’s amazing to think that you wore this dress in the ’50s and you’re still wearing it now…
DSB: I used to wear it [until quite recently] yes….holding up the dress for a photograph DSB lifts it up and down and comments ..that could be a good workout – you don’t need to go to the gym…
Kate: You could bring out a video – ‘Dame Shirley’s Workout’ [all laugh]
DSB: What a good idea — holding up one gown and then the next [more laughter]…
DD: ..This one began life as a diamond bodice with a very big crinoline skirt
DSB: No …it was a black skirt [good humoured bantering between DSB & DD commences]
DD: It was a white skirt with diamond starbursts all over it
DSB: No…Black velvet
DD: I said “Where are you going in that”? I took the bodice off and put on a black velvet skirt…Then we put the diamond skirt on. CW:…Doug, how many crystals do you think there are on this dress?
DD: God knows. They are Swarovski crystals. Everybody has heard of Swarovski now…You [DSB] had them when they just had a little tiny shop in London…This [gown] is a work of art…because the stones start from nothing and then they just get larger as they go down all the way through, and each stone has tiny bead sewn on top….
Images displayed with kind permission of Christies Images Ltd. © 2002
Finally, from my eyewitness report on the auction:
Finally Lot 50 The Diamond Dress. The most famous DD from the 1950s. Everyone was standing to see it at the side of the auction room.
Auctioneer: “If we could all sit down…” DSB “Me too?”
Shirley agree to sings Diamonds are Forever to boost the bidding. But “I don’t care if I keep you here all night … it’s got to go on until… (Laughing) even if I have to sing a note at a time…”
Then she sang the first line of DAF. “No, I’m singing one line at a time between bids.” This sparked off the highlight of the evening. “Can I get up here?” She got up on to the rostrum “I can’t have you higher than me.” she teased the auctioneer. “Give everyone a drink…” The Christie’s staff looked shocked at the idea of serving a packed room, it was logistically impossible, but Shirley wanted to reward everyone for their generosity and making it so much fun. “You deserve a drink.” A manager said that they had no more champagne left, which might have been a porkie but he was clearly relieved when she accepted it, and stopped calling for drinks on the house.
More bids, more lines sung, and on request sang This Is My Life. And how. Perfectly with no music. What a loud voice, no need for a mike. Then Shirley broke down in tears. Bouncing back she sang again to achieve £35,000.
Just short of £250k someone suggested she sold the dress she was wearing. “Do I have to take it off now?” Then she started a hysterically funny take on The Stripper, dah-de-dahing the tune as she pretended to strip. “Oh you can see my tit tape! In my day we used glue, gum…” The auctioneer just gave up.
Then finally she sang The Party’s Over extremely well. And joked “OK I’m not Shirley Bassey, I’m an impersonator…”
Picking up the masquerade line from the song she said “All these gowns, now THAT was a masquerade…”
Lots of thanks, hugs, and she finally exited stage right. Simply the most astonishing Shirley experience I have ever had after decades of concert going.
We felt closer to her than ever, realising what a beautiful personality she has. Playful, intelligent, social, sophisticated, quick witted, risqué, an antidote for all that’s wrong in the world. She is more beautiful than all the gowns put together. They fetched a price, but she is priceless.