A Royal Stroll through J.C. Penney

Princess Diana ponders a Rolls Royce sedan balancing on Wedgwood teacups on display at the J.C. Penney department store in Springfield, Va., Nov. 11, 1985. Their Royal Highnesses walked through the closed store in the Washington suburb. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty) 1985
Princess Diana ponders a Rolls Royce sedan balancing on Wedgwood teacups on display at the J.C. Penney department store in Springfield, Va., Nov. 11, 1985. Their Royal Highnesses walked through the closed store in the Washington suburb. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty) 1985

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana touched down at the Andrews Air Force base on November 9th, 1985, they were greeted by mass hysteria from Americans, and the political elite of Washington.[1]  Thousands descended upon the city to see the royal visitors and, in particular, the almost mythical Princess Diana. Indeed, Washingtonians watched her every move – and what she wore – with great interest as she made the usual circuit of glamorous parties and embassy dinners.

This infatuation is precisely what publicity coordinators for the J.C. Penney department store had in mind when the company approached the British Embassy with an idea.[2] What if the Princess of Wales took a shopping trip while she was in Washington? After all, the purpose of Diana’s visit to America was to make her familiar with the country and what was more American than a shopping mall? Furthermore, Diana’s visit aligned perfectly with the release of a special British clothing collection, complete with mock Rolls Royce’s situated around Penney’s Springfield Mall store.

British authorities liked the idea, which one of the trip coordinators quipped would be “the most populist” event on the royal family’s itinerary.[3] But, there was a lot of legwork that needed to be done – in secret – before the event was green lit.  It all started when several employees made the trip to Britain, in search of pieces for the collection. During this time, they met with several British Trade Commission officials, as well as embassy contacts.[4] The embassy asked that J.C. Penney corporate officials draw up a proposal for a royal visit, and soon enough an agreement was reached. However, that agreement didn’t happen before Charles’ very own personal secretary scoped out the department store months beforehand. It was all very secretive, and only seven employees in total knew, and they had to do their absolute best not to tell anyone until the Embassy was ready.[5]

For the store, the visit had the obvious benefit of bringing lots of media attention, which executives hoped would help establish a new image for J.C. Penney, apart from its old days as a dime store.[6] As PR manager Harvey McCormick put it, “It sort of underscores the overall direction the company is taking with both the taste level of our merchandise and the décor of our stores.”[7] This was in part due to the extensive amount of business J.C. Penney had conducted with businesses in London and around the U.K. For years, several London-based companies had been the main supplier of suits for the department store.  When it came time for J.C. Penney to rebrand itself, their first step was to look overseas for inspiration.   

When the big day came, only store employees, corporate employees, and a few guests were permitted inside.[8] There were no cars allowed in the mall parking lot, but bystanders were allowed to stand there, many waiting eagerly for the arrival of the Princess.[9]  It was a different sight for the rest of the mall; everything was business as usual, because it was highly unlikely that Princess Diana would suddenly have a craving for a giant cookie or a soft pretzel.  Those who were the most committed fans of the royal couple, lined up outside J.C. Penney’s in the very early hours of the morning. 

Many were willing to wait all day if necessary, but luckily the royal motorcade arrived on time.[10] When the princess, with the somewhat less interested Prince Charles in tow, did arrive, she was greeted by 6,000 excited Americans, who were all waiting to see Diana’s outfit choices for the day and what might catch her eye in the store.[11]  The air was filled with frantic screams, and plenty of British themed balloons floating about.  The royal couple was rushed into the store within seconds of their arrival, but that didn’t stop almost 400 people pressing themselves against the locked glass doors at the entrance.[12] Among the horde were a few familiar faces, although the royal couple were not all too keen to see them.  A few veterans of the British paparazzi had hopped across the pond, intent on documenting every second of Diana’s first visit to the United States. However, their hopes of catching Diana trying on a fake tweed suit were dashed, as security officials kept the cameras behind ropes.[13]

Once she was in the store, the Princess of Wales made a beeline for the suit section.  There she was greeted by James Bradford, the owner of a London-based clothing company, who proceeded to show Diana all of J.C. Penney’s finest suits.[14] However, Princess Di was not a fan of single breasted suits apparently.  After James Bradford has showed her a few from the collection, the princess remarked “Don’t you have double breasted suits in this country?” which shocked the staff.[15]  Mr. Bradford explained to Diana that a single breasted suit was much more customary in America, but the Princess insisted that double breasted suits were much more flattering.[16] This promptly motivated J.C. Penny’s staff to come up with ideas for a new double breasted suit collection that would undoubtedly be in honor of Diana.[17]

Prince Charles stops to chat with a sales clerk at a costume jewelry display in the Springfield, Va., J.C. Penny store on Nov. 11, 1985. Princess Diana looks at the jewelry. (AP Photo)
Prince Charles stops to chat with a sales clerk at a costume jewelry display in the Springfield, Va., J.C. Penny store on Nov. 11, 1985. Princess Diana looks at the jewelry. (AP Photo)

Although the goal of the visit was not to make a sale, the Springfield store manager admitted that “we were hoping, but we didn’t really expect her to buy anything”.[18] To their delight, Diana settled upon purchasing an eight dollar scarf, which the public then desperately tried to get their hands on after she left.[19] After all, it’s not everyday someone could wear the same scarf as the Princess of Wales. Washington was obsessed with her because, in the words of fifteen year old Serena Smith, “she’s just really neat”.[20]

Footnotes

  1. ^ Elizabeth Kastor. "The Royal Couple Arrives." The Washington Post. Nov 10, 1985.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ Jacqueline Trescott. "All Prepared, Penneywise." The Washington Post. Nov 11, 1985.
  4. ^ Ibid.
  5. ^ Ibid.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Ibid.
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^ "Keeping Up with the Waleses." The Washington Post. Nov 12, 1985.
  13. ^ Lloyd Grove Washington. "The British Press: Agony of the Odyssey on the Royal Beat." The Washington Post. Nov 13, 1985.
  14. ^ "Keeping Up with the Waleses." The Washington Post. 1985.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ Ibid.
  18. ^ Ibid.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ Ibid.