Diana: A life in style
Twenty years after her death, Diana's ability to tell a story through her clothes is still mesmerising, writes Liadan Hynes
For most women, the occasion would have seen them taking to their bed. It was 1994, and a documentary was about to air in which Prince Charles admitted to cheating on his young wife, an act that had devastated her during their marriage, and was now set to publicly humiliate her.
Diana had agreed to attend one of the most prestigious events on London's social calendar, the Serpentine Gallery summer party that night. Instead of cowering at home, she was determined that if nothing else, she would win this PR battle, ensuring that it was she, and not her husband or Camilla, who would dominate the next day's front pages. She arrived, boldly striding from her car, in a black silk figure-hugging dress, designed by Christina Stambolian. Off the shoulders, cut several inches above the knee, worn with a dramatic pearl choker, it was her most daring outfit yet. She looked fit, beautiful and confident. The designer recalled later she "chose not to play the scene like Odette, innocent in white. She was clearly angry. She played it like Odile, in black. She wore bright red nail enamel, which we had never seen her do before. She was saying 'Let's be wicked tonight!'"
Circumstances may have been painting Diana as the victim of a loveless marriage, but this outfit said she was anything but a victim. The dress had actually been designed for her three years before, but back then, the designer later recounted, Diana had been too nervous to wear it. Now, its bold, revealing design was exactly what she needed. "She wanted to look a million dollars, and she did," her one-time stylist Anna Harvey revealed. Diana was the one all the papers led with the next morning.
For such a public figure, Diana was incredibly circumscribed in her public utterances. A source of fascination and under public scrutiny from the age of 19, few have been so widely and obsessively judged, whilst simultaneously unable to speak for themselves. Clothes became for Diana an essential means of self-expression.
Anna Harvey was a Vogue fashion editor who worked with Diana for over 15 years, from the time of her engagement. "Diana was daunted by all the attention, and embarrassed to go into a shop and be recognised," remembered another Vogue editor, who suggested they bring clothes to Vogue and set up a rail there where she could try things on.
Even as 'Shy Di', the bashful young nursery teacher, Diana's outfits were capable of causing an outcry. Posing for photographers as a 19-year-old when news of her relationship with Charles first broke, her modest outfit of mid-length skirt, shirt and pullover was rendered unintentionally racy when the sun backlit her and the skirt became see-through. She was reportedly horrified at the now-famous picture.
In those days, before receiving a royal clothing allowance, some reports have Diana's wardrobe as limited to only a handful of pieces - at the time of her engagement, she apparently owned just three formal items of clothing, with the rest borrowed from friends and her older sisters, both of whom worked for Vogue at different times.
Early Diana is typical of her social class: for casual, all the Sloane ranger cliches; for formal, Laura Ashley-style frills. The most important outfit of her life was one of her first big style statements; her wedding dress. She had already worked with the designers, David and Elizabeth Emanuel, on several occasions, choosing one of their blouses to wear for an early Vogue profile, and a dress to wear on her first occasion being photographed with Charles - an outfit which led to some outcry when she leaned forward getting into the car and revealed more than was ideal. It was a mistake she was not to make twice. Designer Zandra Rhodes remembers discussing the design of the first dress she ever made for Diana, a wrap style, and the young Diana commenting: "Oh you're going to have to make that wrap much more 'over'. Because you can be sure when I get out of the car, there'll be a photographer waiting in just the wrong place."
The design of the wedding dress was a closely guarded secret, with the designers tearing up sketches after showing them to the princess. Featuring a 25-foot train and over 10,000 hand-stitched mother-of-pearl sequins and pearls, this dress was the sartorial manifestation of the happy-ever-after ending Charles and Diana apparently embodied. "I wanted the dress to reflect that she was going in as Lady Diana Spencer and coming out as The Princess of Wales," David Emanuel later commented of the 20-year-old bride.
Several years before his marriage, Charles had rather arrogantly declared "whoever chooses me is going to have a jolly hard job always in my shadow". With Diana though, he never stood a chance. Her easy, unaffected charm, and statuesque but natural beauty instantly won her the admiration of the people, and it was she who was mobbed wherever the couple went. At first pleased, Charles soon came to resent this love affair between his wife and her public.
Her wardrobe throughout the 1980s, whilst improving from the early days of aristocratic debutante dressed by her mother's choice of designers, was still mostly 1980s cliches; huge shoulders, big bows on ball gowns, boxy skirt suits worn with blouses like the blue suit worn for the engagement announcement, ruffled collars, dropped waists, puffball dresses, double-breasted blazers, off-the-shoulder velvet numbers, polo necks with padded shoulders, sweetheart necklines and pleated skirts, the occasional garish floral print and evening dresses that wouldn't have seemed out of place on the set of Dallas - including the famous blue sequined Catherine Walker dress she termed 'my mermaid dress'.
This dress, worn originally in 1986, was an early harbinger of the more body-confident pieces Diana would later favour. As it happened, this was about the time she had started an affair with James Hewitt. In the mid-late 1980s, as both the Waleses conducted extra-marital affairs, Diana's sartorial choices for official functions became bolder, unapologetically glamorous with a hint of sexuality - form-fitting silhouettes and daring off-the-shoulder cuts.
She also had realised that simplicity should be the cornerstone of her look. "Diana realised that timeless elegance was what worked best on a princess, and it's in 1985 that you see her develop a very sophisticated look," reflected Eleri Lynn, curator of the exhibition Diana: Her Fashion Story. There was the famous Victor Edelstein dress worn that year for a visit to the White House, in which she danced with John Travolta. Her fashion choices became more confident, and like her, playful; a tiara worn as a headband on a state visit; teaming a flamenco dress with one black, one red glove, bought from the high street; wearing a trouser suit to an evening function. There was a black Jasper Conran matador-style suit and a white tux suit found for her by Anna Harvey, to which she herself added a black dickey bow.
There was also what she termed her 'caring wardobe' - clothes worn in the course of her charity work. She rarely wore gloves, most noticeably when visiting AIDS patients at the height of the epidemic - the sight of Diana shaking the hands of a patient without surgical gloves became a hugely important moment. On visits to children's hospitals, she favoured bright colour outfits or floral dresses. Hats were abandoned and chunky jewellery that a small child could play with was preferred. On visiting hospitals with blind patients, she often wore velvet, for its tactile quality.
As her marriage secretly crumbled, Diana was increasingly less inclined to play the demure, retiring wife, consort to Charles. And whilst she was yet to publicly speak out about her husband's infidelities, her clothing choices were increasingly a signal of her imminent break from the House of Windsor. "None of Diana's dresses happened by accident; she always knew exactly which event they were intended for," recalls designer Jacques Azagury. "When she recorded the Martin Bashir interview for Panorama in 1995, she called me to explain that it was revealing, and that on the night it was to be televised she was going to be attending a fundraiser. She said 'Jacques, I'll be stepping out of the car just as the interview starts, so I'll need a really good, sexy dress.'" She chose a black dress, a colour she would not have been allowed to wear as a royal unless she was in mourning.
As a member of the royal family, Diana had mostly stuck with British designers. Post separation, she began to look further afield, most famously, perhaps, to the designs of Versace, whose sporty, easy, modern designs, best suited to the Amazonian beauty of the 1980s supermodel, were perfect for Diana.
"I couldn't have fashionable clothes because it wouldn't have been practical for the job," she once recalled of her wardrobe as HRH the Princess of Wales. Her preferred style post-divorce became simple body-con dresses, with straps, no sleeves, showing off her toned limbs and worn with no-fuss hair.
It was around this time that she declared her intention to be known "not as a clothes horse but as a workhorse", and much of her wardrobe became about simple, functional clothes - shift dresses and jackets, jeans and a t-shirt. "Like her life, Diana's taste in fashion became pared down and emphatic after her divorce," wrote Tina Brown in The Diana Chronicles. It was her best look, the ideal background for her athletic, healthy beauty.
"It was much freer after the divorce," says stylist Harvey of Diana's look post-divorce. "You will notice that necklines dropped and skirts rose." Shortly before her death, Diana would hold an auction for some of her most famous pieces. Held in Christie's in Manhattan, the 79 pieces raised $3.25m for the benefit of cancer and AIDS charities. For Diana, it was symbolic of closing a chapter in her life. She was said to detest the sight of her old clothes from her days as Charles's wife, and was thrilled by William's idea to auction them off. Meredith Etherington-Smith, who helped her curate the selection for the auction, describes their meetings as a sort of rehashing for Diana of the past in which she relived where she had worn each garment.
Ironically, 20 years after her life, Diana's casual style is now having a fashion moment. Virgil Abloh, designer and creative director to Kanye West, has named her as the muse for the next collection for his label Off-White. He posted a mood board full of her casual looks - a Varsity jacket on an outing with the boys, cycling shorts coming from the gym, a sweatshirt with the slogan HARVARD. Alexa Chung made the pie-crust blouse, a piece synonymous with Diana, central to her recent Marks & Spencer line. Midi skirts, mom jeans - all vintage Diana. All so now. Diana - gone, but still in our wardrobes.