There can be no doubt that Princess Diana is a fashion icon of the twentieth century.
The first royal to wear trousers to formal events and arguably the first ever fashion influencer, Diana was an expert in sartorial diplomacy who, as she gained global notoriety, was able to make the fortunes of the brands she wore in a way now emulated by Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.
And it’s an influence that endures today. Designers often cite Diana as inspiration for their collections, and her late 80s power suits, slinky ball gowns and early 90s off-duty looks of cycling shorts and oversized sweatshirts are popular Instagram fodder for a nation of nostalgia (and Diana) obsessives.
But, watching Emma Corrin sensitively and powerfully portray the young Lady Di in season four of Netflix’s The Crown (released Sunday), I have been struck by how remarkably on-trend for 2020 much of her earlier - and lesser 'grammed - wardrobe is.
From the oversized collars, dungarees and flower-embroidered cardigans she wore as a late teen when she first met Charles, through to her young princess wardrobe of oversized smock dresses, polka dot blouses, big-shouldered skirt suits and pearl chokers – iterations of Diana’s less glamorous early eighties wardrobe were all over the AW20 runways.
And yet while it’s having a moment in 2020, it’s worth noting her wholesome, Sloaney style is not what was ‘cool’ at the time.
When she first went on a date with Charles, Diana was an innocent 19-year-old nursery assistant with a wardrobe to match. She wore brightly coloured patterned jumpers, Laura Ashley blouses, knee-length pleated skirts and pie crust collars. From the purple sweater vest, floral blouse and pleated skirt she wore for official images taken outside the Kindergarten where she worked in Pimlico in September 1980, to the youthful ensemble of Liberty-print blouse and pastel yellow dungarees she wore to attend the polo in July 1981 (the same month she and Charles announced their engagement), her early wardrobe was a jumble of girlish innocence and the somewhat mumsy uniform of Sloane Rangers.
The pale blue flouncy Regamus gown Diana wore for her debutante ball in 1979 was a perfect example of this aesthetic. The dress was “very frilly, very lacy, and very far removed from the fashion icon that she would become,” Eleri Lynn, the woman who curated the 2018 exhibition “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” told Vanity Fair.
“You really see the frills and the ruffles of her early romantic style disappearing quite quickly, as she realized that didn’t work very well for press photographs. It made her look cluttered. So around the 80s you see the silhouette sleek down, and all the decoration becomes surface embellishment.”
This streamlining was likely thanks, at least in part, to British Vogue’s fashion editor Anna Harvey, who helped upgrade Diana’s wardrobe after she featured in the title in 1981.
“She really had nothing in her own wardrobe – a few Laura Ashley blouses and skirts and some bobbly jumpers,” Anna later told the magazine. This was corroborated by Diana herself, who said in an interview in her biography that when she married Prince Charles aged 20, her wardrobe comprised “one long dress, one silk shirt, one smart pair of shoes, and that was it”.
Harvey migrated the young princess out of the pastel ruffles and into a sleeker silhouette of power-shouldered Catherine Walker suits, figure-hugging velvet evening dresses and tailored trouser suits, and as a result Diana made the transition from ‘Shy Di’, as the tabloids had nicknamed her, to a more polished, Dynasty-inspired Di; albeit with fewer sequins and more royal-appropriate hemlines.
However, while elegant and undeniably glamorous, Diana’s upgraded early eighties wardrobe was still far removed from the labels and silhouettes the cool kids were lusting after at the time.
Let’s remember that the early eighties was the era of Madonna’s first album (1983) – all heavy eyeliner, lace corsets, punky leather bracelets and scruffy perm - thriving gay clubs (G-A-Y opened in 1976, Heaven in 1979) and flamboyant pop bands like Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran, the era of Face magazine and ID (both of which launched in 1980), Vivienne Westwood’s punky aesthetic, Katharine Hamnett's jumbo political slogan T-shirts and the first billboard campaigns of sexy women in jeans.
True fashion at that time was rebellious, experimental and exuberant. Staid society Sloane it was not.
And yet now, we can’t get enough of it.
The oversized collars Diana wore in her youth have been a major trend this season, first kicked off by Danish label Ganni, which featured supersized collars heavily in their autumn 2019 collections, and later embraced by brands like Miu Miu and Chanel. As have the sweater vests she regularly paired with piecrust collars when she and Charles were courting, with everyone from Prada to Lacoste, Ganni and Dior sending the granddad knits down their AW20 runways.
The Liberty and Laura Ashley prints are also having a major revival, with vintage Sloane Ranger-style Laura Ashley dresses now selling on EBay for upwards of £200 a pop. While the polka dot dresses, ruching, metallic and asymmetric shoulders that Diana embraced mid-eighties would have been bang on trend for 2020’s party season, had it been going ahead.
Diana’s early style might not have been particularly fashionable at the time. But my god is it cool now.