Diana: the shy rebel princess with a cause
Republicanism was gaining traction in Britain before the shy, quiet Diana first appeared as Prince Charles' wife-in-waiting. Ultimately, and perhaps improbably, she saved the British monarchy
If you head to Newbridge Silverware's 'Style Icons' museum in Kildare, you'll catch the latest exhibition. Alongside Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, crowds are gathering to see dresses belonging to Diana, Princess of Wales who died 20 years ago this month.
The outfits, apart from one - the 'Revenge' dress, designed by Christina Stambolian which Diana wore the night Prince Charles gave his 'tell all' interview to Jonathan Dimbleby, in order to (successfully) knock him off the front pages - are not particularly spectacular.
The centrepiece is her wedding dress - although to be clear - it is not the actual dress, with its acres of parachute-like silk damask, thousands of seed pearls and sequins and exquisite lace, but the toile, a calico copy used to 'size' the final version. It is devoid of frippery and in truth, plain. It doesn't matter.
The day I visited, the place was packed. Middle-aged women (and it was all women) crowded around a giant screen looping moments from this young woman's life, to a sound track of Elton John mangling 'Goodbye England's Rose', the rewrite of 'Candle in the Wind', hastily cobbled together for Diana's funeral.
Like Marilyn, about whom the song was written, Diana died an iconic figure, aged just 36. A car crash, rather than a drug overdose, both lives had been lived in the spotlight of celebrity, and both remained enormously underrated figures in life. One propelled a presidency, the other a monarchy.
An underrated figure
It is easy to write off Diana; consign her to the fashion pages as a naïve, silly girl who morphed, simply by donning a band of gold, into a global fashion superstar or a self-absorbed, frothy nincompoop (take your pick), but to dismiss her would be entirely wrong.
Few historical figures can truly claim to have changed the face of the 1,000-year-old British monarchy, but those that did were all women.
Without Anne Boleyn's restraint against being just another mistress, Henry VIII's infatuation would not have led him to split the Church of England so decisively from Rome so he could marry her. Being refused an annulment from Catherine of Aragon led him to create a 'new' church, promptly appointing himself supreme leader, which in Ireland, exacerbated centuries of bloody conflict.
His daughter, Elizabeth I, was arguably Britain's greatest ever monarch; reigning for 45 years (at a time when life expectancy was just 35 years old), this scholar and linguist launched a golden age of culture and arts. She championed exploration of foreign lands, fought wars, promoted science. Amid objection, she enacted Poor Laws - a form of social security - and transformed her nation from a poorly run (and poor), religiously divisive country to the world's most affluent empire, doing so in an entirely man's world.
Much later, it would be another woman, "That Woman", as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother deridingly referred to her, who would almost bring down the monarchy itself. Wallis Simpson's lover, Edward VIII, was so enthralled by the American divorcee he was abdicated his kingship in 1936. The disgrace almost ended the line of succession.
The ensuing World War II allowed the institution to hang on by a thread and it bobbed along, aided in no small part by another woman, the present Queen Elizabeth whose quiet dedication to duty and (almost) complete lack of scandal forestalled further clamour from the proletariat.
Nothing much then was expected to rock the royal boat from the quiet, child-like 19-year-old girl thrust upon the 31-year-old Prince of Wales after his paternal and maternal grandmothers, despairing over him ever settling down, 'found' Lady Diana Spencer with the right qualities and, crucially, her all-important virginity intact.
She was from a good aristocratic family, albeit a dysfunctional one; her parents divorced acrimoniously when she was a child and her father was granted full custody of four children he really didn't want, before marrying Raine McCorquodale, twice divorced, already mother of four and daughter of romantic novelist Barbara Cartland. The Spencer children hated her but Diana hoovered up her step-grandmother's frothy novels which formed her idealistic and unrealistic view of the romance expected from a future husband.
Upon marriage, Diana was expected to quietly dissolve into her new family, churn out future heirs, keep her mouth shut and smile; it had been ever thus. That Charles was deeply in love with someone else was not disclosed to her until just before the wedding and this is widely believed to have been the trigger for her eating disorder.
Charles and Diana met just 13 times (and rarely alone) before arriving at the steps of St Paul's Cathedral in July 1981.
A rising Republicanism
Britain was in social turmoil throughout much of the 1970s. With four different prime ministers, hung parliaments, picket lines, 30pc inflation and an IMF bailout, the monarchy was the least of people's problems, but republicanism was running high. The fuddy-duddy queen and her stuffy family with their liveried servants and pampered corgis, costing the taxpayer a fortune, led to heightened calls for it to be scrapped. A presidency was modern and could be answerable to the ordinary Brit.
The queen's jubilee of 1977 provided a fillip, but it was really the royal wedding and specifically Diana, the country-girl earl's daughter, who arguably saved the monarchy, and more importantly, the notion of monarchy, for Britain. This is not to overstate her capacity.
On paper, she had little going for her. Barely an education, no skills (save a little child-minding), high-born but dull, a malleable child.
But she could be moulded and agreed to carry out the only duty required of her, which by 1984 with Harry's birth, was complete. By 23, she could now be metaphorically dropped on the scrapheap, leaving Charles to get on with his life, and his love, Camilla.
What nobody expected was Diana's maturing and, horror, forming opinions of her own.
Lurking beneath the shy smile, fancy hats and psychological illness, was a steely stubbornness, a latent self-awareness of personal power, and finally finding her 'causes'. They were deeply unfashionable (landmines, HIV and homelessness), politically dangerous and anathema to the ribbon-cutting royals. But in them, Diana found her voice. And the people found their princess.
We women visiting the Newbridge display are middle-aged, with families of our own and lives irrefutably removed from the princess wistfully depicted.
We were teenagers when she married her fairy-tale prince on that sunny summer's day. We gasped at the dress, the tiara, the bridesmaids togged out like mini-mes. We followed her life across the front pages; we bought the magazines and we believed her life to be perfect.
The people's Princess
We cried when she died; we too had small children and couldn't bear the heartbreak of watching two boys walking behind her draped coffin and her unloved marriage. Some of us queued around the British Embassy to sign the book of condolence that week, perhaps feeling faintly foolish but buoyed by the enormous line of co-mourners for a woman none of us knew.
Kate, Beatrice, Eugenie, Sophie, even baby Charlotte will all live now with the definition of 'Princess' that Diana invented. A nice frock and wave is no longer enough. The public demands they 'do' things, 'become' someone, earn their buck and justify their existence.
Despite their fervent efforts to the contrary, the royal family had better hope the public does not forget Diana, for in so doing, it may simply forget all of the others, too.