People’s Princess: The Style of Princess Diana

The Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki was recently announced to be taking over the role of Diana, Princess of Wales in the final two series of Netflix’s The Crown. Debicki will be picking up from Emma Corrin, whose performance is hotly anticipated in the upcoming fourth series (due for release this November). Pictures of Corrin on set show that the costume department have remained particularly faithful to Diana’s sartorial transformation from shy “Sloane Ranger” to the most photographed woman in the world. 

Lady Diana Spencer’s frilly debutante ball dress seems a world away from the striking ballgowns she is best remembered for. The pale blue and white dress worn in 1979 was by society label Regamus – a popular brand among Lady Diana’s young aristocratic contemporaries. Other outfits from this period consisted of pastel ruffles, pie-crust collars and pearl necklaces. Her first foray into much bolder territory would be the blue two-piece suit from Harrods she wore to the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981. 

Perhaps the most iconic garment worn by Diana was her wedding dress, designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, in 1981. The pair were also behind the black strapless gown she wore to her first official appearance following the engagement earlier that year. The enormous ivory taffeta dress was embroidered with frilled lace, sequins and 10,000 pearls, accompanied by a 25-foot train and 153-yard tulle veil. The dress would go on to inspire countless copies, if not set the trend for full skirts and large puffed sleeves on brides throughout the decade.  

As well as the Emanuels, the new Princess of Wales established relationships with several other designers including Catherine Walker, Bruce Oldfield and David Sassoon. Royal engagements could range from charity balls and banquets to visiting hospital patients, so her wardrobe began to consist of a balance between practicality and increased glamour. 

Image: Sketch and fabric sample of the ‘Going Away’ dress worn by Diana Princess of Wales on her wedding day, 29 July 1981, design by Bellville Sassoon. Cantaloupe silk tussore dress and short sleeved bolero jacket. The dress has a white silk organza collar edged with a frill and a cummerbund sash at the waist; worn with a small tricorne hat trimmed with ostrich feathers by John Boyd. Courtesy of David Sassoon.

A midnight blue velvet dress designed by Victor Edelstein, was worn by Princess Diana to a White House Gala in 1985, where she famously danced with John Travolta. Last year, the gown was sold to Historic Royal Palaces for £264,000. The dress can now be seen on display at Kensington Palace, her former home.

Diana’s growing confidence also led to greater experimentation with her outfits, such as wearing designs by Zandra Rhodes. Speaking to Vogue, Rhodes said that she “loved dressing Lady Di… We both really wanted to have a huge slit up her dress but in the end she said she couldn’t possibly because the paparazzi would just try and take pictures of her knickers as soon as got out of the car.” In 1986, the Princess wore a pale pink off-the-shoulder chiffon dress by Rhodes to a state banquet in Kyoto, Japan. 

Images: (left) original sketch of the dress worn by Princess Diana to a state banquet in Kyoto, Japanin 1986. Courtesy of Dame Zandra Rhodes. An example of the same design on display at The Fashion and Textile Museum as part of Zandra Rhodes: 50 Years of Fabulous, 2019.

Being the most photographed woman in the world also led to her off-duty looks garnering just as much attention as her cocktail dresses or humanitarian campaigns. Towards the late 80s and early 90s, she could be spotted wearing oversized jumpers, cycling shorts, trainers, straight-leg jeans and baseball caps. Recent trends in athleisure and loungewear have unsurprisingly looked to these outfits for inspiration, with images of these casual looks being heavily circulated through Instagram and Pinterest. 

A black Christina Stambolian gown has been known as the “revenge dress” since it was worn to a party at the Serpentine Gallery in 1994, the same night Prince Charles confessed to his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles in an interview aired on national television. Kerry Taylor, whose auction house has worked with pieces that belonged to the Princess, describes the significance of the dress: “while some would have been like, ‘I can’t face it this evening,’ Diana went out in that dress looking drop dead gorgeous. She made a big statement right there.” 

In 1997, the Princess famously auctioned off her closet of evening gowns and cocktail dresses, raising $3.25 million for AIDS and cancer charities. Upon visiting an advance viewing of the items, the late comedian Joan Rivers remarked that ”it’s interesting to see how her style, thank God, changed”. Rivers added that ‘”it’s going to be even more fun next year to go to all the bar mitzvahs and see” who is wearing Diana’s castoffs.’ 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Eleri Lynn, curator of Kensington Palace’s past exhibition ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’, describes the Princess as: “stepping into that same sort of space as an Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy… a fashion icon whose style is so emulated and so loved, really.” Yet, her legacy has meant that the “People’s Princess” is remembered as much for her compassion and charisma, as her wardrobe. 

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