Published On: Sat, Aug 26th, 2017

Princess Diana: How the fashion icon used her wardrobe as a powerful communication tool


Princess DianaGETTY

Princess Diana had a sartorial taste in fashion

When Lady Diana Spencer married the Prince of Wales on Wednesday July 29, 1981, I was 10 years old.

I have vivid memories of sitting on the floor of our family home, mesmerised by the unfolding fairy tale on our television set. 

As the bride emerged from her carriage I watched enthralled as bridesmaids Sarah Armstrong-Jones and India Hicks helped unfurl that magnificent 25ft long train on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, and designer David Emanuel smoothed the now crumpled taffeta gown he had created with his then wife Elizabeth.

Even at such a young age I was bewitched by this breathtaking bride and the significance of her sartorial choices.

My fledgling passion for fashion was fuelled by her transformation from demure, bashful Sloane to the blushing wife of our future king.

And, as the years went by, the power of her wardrobe to make subliminal – and some not so subtle – statements and convey her state of mind through different phases of her life was a constant fascination both personally and professionally as I progressed to become a newspaper fashion editor and TV correspondent.

Diana was one of the most influential women of modern times. 

Princess DianaGETTY

Diana looking stunning in a Christina Stambolian creation known as the ‘revenge dress’ in 1994

But, as a 19-year-old aristocrat thrust into the royal spotlight, the new Princess of Wales was a reluctant fashion plate.

Like most women emerging from their teenage years she was yet to establish a personal style and made mistakes – only hers were played out in the glare of a modern media, with colour-print newspapers and later, the internet.

Just a week after her betrothal to Prince Charles was announced, an unworldly Diana carried out her first public engagement, attending a recital at London’s Goldsmiths Hall.

As the door to her limousine was opened, the waiting cameras went into overdrive, capturing her heaving embonpoint in a series of titillating images that were splashed across the front pages the following day.

Clad in a strapless black taffeta gown by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, she would have looked stunning when she checked herself in the mirror before departing but the unfortunate, unladylike angle of the photos was decidedly risqué and “un-regal”, and left her reeling.

Critics suggested her choice of black was ill-advised, decreeing that in royal circles it should be worn only in mourning. 

Princess DianaREX

Diana at the Royal Albert Hall to see Swan Lake Ballet in June 1997

To casual observers though, here was a beautiful young woman wearing the kind of glamorous gown that many would aspire to wear for a sophisticated evening out.

Despite her unwitting breaches of royal etiquette Diana triggered her first fashion trend and throughout my teenage years I and my friends could be found rustling our way through parties in strapless taffeta concoctions with vast skirts – very much the style du jour.

In November 1981, just four months after her marriage, the Prince of Wales’ new wife opened an exhibition at London’s V&A museum on the day it was revealed she was pregnant with their first child.

Her ethereal off-the-shoulder white and hyacinth-blue chiffon gown by Bellville Sassoon sealed her position as the ultimate fairy tale princess.

Later in the decade her svelte, statuesque frame was the perfect foil for a dazzling array of Dynasty-esque evening gowns, created by the likes of Victor Edelstein, Murray Arbeid, Bruce Oldfield and Catherine Walker.

Dancing with John Travolta at the White House in 1985, wearing an off-the-shoulder column of midnight blue velvet that finished with a swirling fishtail hem, she was nothing short of enchanting, and her position on the bestdressed lists was assured from that day onward.

As her confidence grew and her evolving style received critical acclaim around the world, Diana carried with aplomb the exaggerated shoulders that looked faintly ridiculous on mere mortals. She managed to make head-to-toe sequins seem chic when on others they might resemble a drag queen’s costume.

Somehow she navigated the atrocities of 1980s fashion – puffball skirts, shoulder pads and brash colours – with a finesse that few others found. Remember the silver sun-ray pleated lamé gown by Bruce Oldfield?

It was of its time but has somehow stood the test of time in that it put the princess on a pedestal as a fashion force. 

Under the tutelage of Anna Harvey, a Vogue fashion editor assigned to act as what we now know as a personal stylist, Diana had blossomed into a vision of poised sophistication, never putting a Jimmy Choo or Gina-clad foot wrong.

One of my personal favourites was a pale pink satin, full-skirted, longsleeved evening gown by trusted couturier Catherine Walker (responsible for more than 500 creations for the Princess over her lifetime), featuring a bodice with double-breasted button detailing and a white-silk picture collar.

Diana was fond of this dress too as it made numerous appearances at engagements between 1987 and 1990.

With her long neck and short hair, the off-the-shoulder neckline was both alluring and elegantly regal and a style that she favoured over many years.

In 1989, for a gala concert at the Barbican, David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon paid playful homage to the classic tuxedo with a black sequinned bodice and sleeves, trimmed with a white satin collar and cuffs and a black satin bow, while Victor Edelstein’s 1987 Edwardian-inspired scalloped lace style, teamed with strings of pearls owed more than a little to Madonna’s style.

I was particularly fond of a Catherine Walker crepe gown with a twisted neckline worn originally for a 1993 state banquet in Malaysia, and later modelled by the princess for a 1997 Mario Testino photo shoot promoting an auction of her clothes.

The relaxed studio portrait was one of the most compelling and seductive images of Diana in later life.

There was the sassy off-the-shoulder Christina Stambolian cocktail dress, worn to the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, the night her husband admitted his extra-marital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles in a TV interview.

The sexy style, showcasing her cleavage and lithe, gym-honed legs became known as the “revenge dress” and proved the perfect illustration of her ability to use clothes to communicate more than her taste in colour and fabric.

I remember Diana attending the British Fashion Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in 1989, wowing onlookers by wearing what was quickly referred to as her Elvis dress: a strapless ivory silk column encrusted with pearls, with a matching bolero jacket featuring a high stand-up collar and elbow-length sleeves.

Created by Catherine Walker it was one of her biggest style statements during her marriage to the Prince of Wales and epitomised her metamorphosis into a modern, would-be queen. 

Princess DianaREX

Diana visiting the Golden Years Club, Battersea in 1990

Under the tutelage of Anna Harvey, a Vogue fashion editor assigned to act as what we now know as a personal stylist, Diana had blossomed into a vision of poised sophistication, never putting a Jimmy Choo or Gina-clad foot wrong.

One of my personal favourites was a pale pink satin, full-skirted, longsleeved evening gown by trusted couturier Catherine Walker (responsible for more than 500 creations for the Princess over her lifetime), featuring a bodice with double-breasted button detailing and a white-silk picture collar.

Diana was fond of this dress too as it made numerous appearances at engagements between 1987 and 1990. With her long neck and short hair, the off-the-shoulder neckline was both alluring and elegantly regal and a style that she favoured over many years.

In 1989, for a gala concert at the Barbican, David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon paid playful homage to the classic tuxedo with a black sequinned bodice and sleeves, trimmed with a white satin collar and cuffs and a black satin bow, while Victor Edelstein’s 1987 Edwardian-inspired scalloped lace style, teamed with strings of pearls owed more than a little to Madonna’s style.

I was particularly fond of a Catherine Walker crepe gown with a twisted neckline worn originally for a 1993 state banquet in Malaysia, and later modelled by the princess for a 1997 Mario Testino photo shoot promoting an auction of her clothes.

The relaxed studio portrait was one of the most compelling and seductive images of Diana in later life. There was the sassy off-the-shoulder Christina Stambolian cocktail dress, worn to the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, the night her husband admitted his extra-marital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles in a TV interview.

The sexy style, showcasing her cleavage and lithe, gym-honed legs became known as the “revenge dress” and proved the perfect illustration of her ability to use clothes to communicate more than her taste in colour and fabric.

I remember Diana attending the British Fashion Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in 1989, wowing onlookers by wearing what was quickly referred to as her Elvis dress: a strapless ivory silk column encrusted with pearls, with a matching bolero jacket featuring a high stand-up collar and elbow-length sleeves.

Created by Catherine Walker it was one of her biggest style statements during her marriage to the Prince of Wales and epitomised her metamorphosis into a modern, would-be queen. In later years following her separation and subsequent divorce Diana felt liberated and stepped out with renewed self-assurance as a single woman, developing a grownup, sexy style that was to define her last years.

She turned to Jacques Azagury, Versace, Dior and her friend Catherine Walker to create a series of slinky cocktail dresses with provocative necklines and come-hither hemlines that flattered her supermodel figure and reflected her position as the world’s most eligible woman.

Princess DianaGETTY

Diana wearing a Bruce Oldfield dress during a visit to Venice in1985

Still retaining a regal dignity as the mother of the future king, her newfound comfort in her skin was clear and gave her the confidence to experiment with her style.

A sexy black halterneck gown worn to Versailles in 1994 showed a woman in her prime, while the plunging pale grey halterneck beaded cocktail dress worn to a 1995 gallery opening was possibly her most daring number to date.

Attending the Met Ball in 1996, she wore a beautiful lingerie-inspired navy slip dress by John Galliano for Christian Dior, while the midnight blue crepe Catherine Walker gown she wore to a 1995 dinner in New York was particularly memorable, with its criss-crossed spaghetti straps and the slick, wet-look hairstyle she debuted that night.

Yes, there were the chic pastelhued suits and the off-duty clothes that sealed Diana’s place as a modern working royal but her legacy as a public figure who left a lasting style legacy was largely down to her sensational evening wardrobe and the charisma she injected into every one of her stunning gowns.


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