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Princess Diana, A Twentieth-Century Icon

Diana was undeniably one of the most beloved figures of the 20th Century and her indelible mark on fashion continues to shape the trends of today. This article considers how and why her style evolved over time.

Diana and the Cultural Zeitgeist

It is hardly surprising given the recent success of The Crown and the British publics’ intense fascination with the Royal family that Princess Diana’s unique sense of style would once again be a topic of discussion. Few people were perhaps as influential in defining 20th-century fashion as her. But Diana’s style wasn’t always as elegant and sophisticated as many of us may well remember.

The so-called Sloane Ranger’

Before her meteoric rise to global superstardom Diana’s wardrobe was relatively sparse, predominantly inspired by the so-called ‘Sloane Ranger’ aesthetic. The Sloanies were a major cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. What were the Sloanies exactly? Well, in many ways they were the UK’s answer to the preppy Ivy-league schoolboys of the US or France’s Parisian bon chic bon genre crowd. In short, they were a subculture of young British socialites who mainly lived in London’s Chelsea and Knightsbridge areas and travelled in the same exclusive social circles. The female Sloanies typically worked as nannies while their male counterparts, affectionately known as the ‘Hoorah Henry’s’, worked in the 80s booming financial sector. Belonging to some of the UK’s most distinguished families, the Sloanies divided their time equally between their London apartments and lavish country estates.

The Sloanies wore a distinctive “uniform”, their business casual dress generally consisted of sensible, modest attire accentuated by small designer accessories. According to Ann Barr’s The Official Sloane Range Handbook (1982) most women wore a paisley Laura Ashley skirt offset by Dior tights, a Harvey Nichols belt or even a Hermes head scarf. This would often be paired with a cashmere sweater and distinctive high neck blouse. The guiding principle of the Sloanie aesthetic was practicality while still appearing fashion-forward. Meanwhile, the Sloanie’s country get-up was decidedly equestrian, using mainly a khaki colour palette with tweed padded jackets and Burberry overcoats.

From Preppy Schoolgirl to People’s Princess

So how did Diana’s style evolve from preppy teenager to sophisticated, regal princess? Well, the transformation did not exactly occur overnight, in fact for the British publics first taste of the young socialite on the official announcement of her engagement she wore a plain blue suit purchased off the rack from Harrods.

Despite her relatively understated choice of outfit, Diana’s debut made a striking impression. In fact, Kate Middleton even paid homage to the cobalt suit by dawning a blue form-fitting dress for her own engagement announcement to Prince William some 29 years later. Soon after the announcement of her royal betrothal Diana struck gold once again with her black, strapless Frou Frou dress worn to her first official public engagement. While the dresses provocative silhouette and low-cut neckline was generally met with disapproval from the palace, the gown was a watershed moment in the evolution of Princess Diana’s style. It was a drastic departure from the shy persona Diana had projected previously and a testament to how she could use the theatricality of costume to shift public perceptions of her.

But perhaps her most striking fashion moment was the now iconic meringue-style bridal gown she wore on her wedding day. Designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel, the dress’ spectacular sequin encrusted train, 153-yard tulle veil and voluminous skirt were all designed to evoke the enchanting qualities of classical fairy tales. Diana also wore the Spencer family tiara, by opting to wear this familial heirloom rather than borrowing a piece from the Royal collection she was still able to subtly assert her own individuality separate from the institution of the monarchy.

Following the breakdown of her marriage with Charles in the late 1980s Diana increasingly capitalised on fashion as a means to control her narrative in the press. In one instance, the Princess attended a pop concert wearing tight, form-fitting leather trousers by Jasper Conran, the outfit was not only a convenient photo opportunity but also a blatant rejection of the established royal dress code. No future Monarch could possibly wear an outfit so unapologetically risqué, it seemed abundantly clear Diana knew she would never be Queen. From this point onwards Diana made a concerted effort to distance herself from the monarchy and appeal to ordinary people, firmly establishing herself as “The People’s Princess”. Whether it was her brightly coloured Belville Sasson robe and blue tights worn in 1988 to the London Fashion Week or her casual Harvard roll neck worn in 1989, Diana proved she could effortlessly switch between Haute couture and casual streetwear, appearing both sophisticated and relatable.

Before Diana, the royal dress code made little allowance for personal expression, it was seen as an extension of the monarchy’s institutional brand and singularly performed a stately function. Despite resistance from within the institution itself Diana still managed to develop a style that was distinctly her own, she could perform the role of a public servant and stateswoman while still asserting her own individuality. Fashion Journalist Georgina Howell argues that Diana implicitly understood how to use fashion as a powerful visual language “to get her message across to her public”, every resounding fashion success or potential misstep would be subject to ruthless scrutiny by the tabloids and so she was highly conscious of her public image. It was precisely this acute awareness that made her “one of the great communicators of the century”.

Mia Warren


Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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