This month marks 20 years since the death of Princess Diana, who fashion has come to consider an icon of 20th century glamour. Seemingly always cognizant of the power her wardrobe choices afforded her to communicate to the public at large, Diana transformed from a shy teenager (whom the press nicknamed “Shy Di”) to an elegant, compassionate stateswoman, clinching herself a spot among the best-dressed women in history, says Eleri Lynn, curator of “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” which opened at Kensington Palace in February.
“She is 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,” Lynn told Vanity Fair in n interview earlier this year. And while Diana, who reportedly loved shopping and fashion, in general, (according to the New York Times, her annual expenses in her most dedicated clothes-horse years had been estimated to be $1.2 million, including "separate five- and six-figure bills" for items like clothing), rarely opted to speak out on the public stage, thereby allowing - or better yet, forcing - her wardrobe to speak for her on many occasions.
“It is very surprising how little footage there exists of the Princess actually speaking. We all have a sense of what we think she was like,” Lynn told Vanity Fair. "So much of it comes from still photographs, and a large part of that [idea] is communicated through the different clothes that she wore.”
Quick to master the rules of a public wardrobe, Diana “learned to bend them. She used fashion creatively, dressing with deliberate informality to convey approachability and break down barriers,” wrote the Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley earlier this year. She was deeply aware of how clothing might shape her public image.
Of key interest to many were the looks Diana chose for philanthropic visits, which helped to cement her reputation as a humanitarian. Her efforts in this space were most heavily tied to organizations that focused on AIDS, leprosy, and cancer research. She was also active in supporting charities for sick children and the English National Ballet, of course.
In curating the exhibition, which is scheduled to conclude in February 2018, Lynn said: “You know she was using clothing and fashion in order to really hammer home [a] message." Likely one that centered on her belief that she was not a “political figure but a humanitarian figure.” And it worked. As the New York Times noted at the time of Diana’s death in 1997, “She had succeeded in the effort to change her image perhaps more than she knew.”
As Lynn told Vogue, “You’ll notice she is not wearing gloves. That’s a royal protocol that she ditched because she liked to hold hands with people and make skin-to-skin contact. The original sketch came with a hat, but she didn’t wear a hat because she said, ‘You can’t cuddle a child in a hat,’” says Lynn.
In terms of achieving fashion icon status, Diana had a knack for choosing pieces that suited her, whether it be Catherine Walker skirt suits or embellished Versace dresses – rather than what seemed of the moment. “That’s what sort of takes somebody above daily fashion,” Lynn told Vanity Fair, “and helps make them a fashion icon: they have that elegance that is theirs and doesn’t move with the changes of fashion.”
* This article has been updated to include quotes formerly unattributed to Vanity Fair.