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Style icon Diana - how princess constantly reinvented herself

PUBLISHED: 10:30 15 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:09 16 November 2020

Diana, Princess of Wales in 1990, leaving St. Paul's Cathedral, with her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.  Picture: PA WIRE

Diana, Princess of Wales in 1990, leaving St. Paul's Cathedral, with her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. Picture: PA WIRE

Whether wearing a ballgown, jeans or her fairy-tale wedding dress, Diana, Princess of Wales always had her own distinctive style.

That fairytale dress - the Prince and Princess of Wales at Buckingham Palace after their wedding at St Paul's Cathedral Picture: PA WIREThat fairytale dress - the Prince and Princess of Wales at Buckingham Palace after their wedding at St Paul's Cathedral Picture: PA WIRE

And that public expression of her personality was one of the reasons why she captured the public imagination as few others have done.

As she journeyed from more traditional outfits to a highly individual wardrobe, often mixing formal and less formal elements, she changed royal fashion forever.And she helped to make it possible for others to create their own styles too.

Her support also helped to breathe new life into both the British and international fashion industry.

Over the years, she championed a wide selection of talented designers, including Catherine Walker, David Sassoon and Bruce Oldfield.

Prince Charles and the then Lady Diana Spencer, wearing her famous blue suit, after the announcement of their engagement. Picture: RON BELL/PA WIREPrince Charles and the then Lady Diana Spencer, wearing her famous blue suit, after the announcement of their engagement. Picture: RON BELL/PA WIRE

The first outfit of hers many will remember was her blue suit, bought from Harrods, and the blouse with its romantic bow.

That ensemble, which the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer wore for her famous engagement photos, was just the first of many to feature on the front pages.

Occasionally, there was an outfit which hit the headlines for the wrong reasons - like a skirt which proved to be see-through in the sunshine. But mostly, her styles inspired admiration rather than laughter.

‘Shy Di’ with her feathered hairstyle

Diana, Princess of Wales wearing a black pleated chiffon dress, with floating side panel, by Christina Stambolian, in June 1994. This iconic little black dress has been nicknamed the Diana, Princess of Wales wearing a black pleated chiffon dress, with floating side panel, by Christina Stambolian, in June 1994. This iconic little black dress has been nicknamed the "revenge dress". Picture: MARTIN KEENE/PA

As well as her fashion sense, Diana’s hair was also much discussed and imitated over the years - starting off with that feathered hairstyle in the engagement photos.

Years before Friends fans asked for a “Rachel” at the hairdresser, many women wanted to get a touch of the “Diana” look.

In those early days, she was nicknamed “Shy Di” by national tabloids, and the “Sloane ranger” frills, bows and piecrust blouses she favoured were admittedly not as individual as her later outfits.

Indeed, she once reportedly admitted that she had hardly any smart clothes before she married Prince Charles, and had to buy “six of everything” before the royal wedding in 1981.

But that all changed, and quickly. Diana’s wedding dress, designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel, was a stunning creation in ivory taffeta, with its 25ft train and puffed sleeves.

It has just been re-created for TV series The Crown, although the new dress is not an exact replica.

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Not many brides had the bank balance for such an elaborate dress, and not many could have carried it off even if they did.

But it was hugely influential, and dressmakers were reportedly busy creating copies within hours of the ceremony. Some elements of its dream-laden design were incorporated into many wedding dresses in the 1980s and beyond.

It has recently been revealed that Diana actually had a second Emanuel dress as back-up, just in case details of the original were leaked before the big day.

Over the years, Diana went on to further develop her own personal style, constantly changing with the times.

How Diana changed royal fashion

She challenged royal tradition by not wearing gloves for all those endless handshakes.

And, while she wore a succession of stunning gowns, she was also prepared to wear trousers to an evening event - something which was a lot more unusual then than it is now.

She also chose to wear colourful clothes on visits to children in hospital, to help cheer them up and make the visits feel more informal.

In the 1990s, particularly after her separation from Prince Charles, streamlined separates increasingly replaced the earlier frills.

Then there was the little black dress - most memorably her off-the-shoulder creation designed by Christina Stambolian, which came to be nicknamed the “revenge dress”.

This chiffon creation was her daring choice to wear to a summer party in 1994, the same night that a TV documentary was shown where Prince Charles spoke about his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles.

In the last few years, an exhibition at Kensington Palace brought together a selection of Diana’s most iconic garments, ranging from glittering evening dresses to sophisticated items from her 1990s working wardrobe.

Although the Diana: Her Fashion Story exhibition has now ended, Kensington Palace currently has a smaller display, Diana: Designing for a Princess, which visitors will once again be able to see after lockdown.

This display features the celebrated “Travolta” dress, in midnight-blue velvet, created for her by fashion designer Victor Edelstein in 1985. The princess famously wore the gown when she took to the dance floor at the White House, together with film star John Travolta.

The mini-exhibition also includes a selection of sketches by David Sassoon for different outfits worn by Diana over the years, including the going-away outfit she wore when going on her honeymoon, and a tuxedo-style evening dress. Diana’s own handwritten comments on the designs are included in the display.

For more details of the Diana: Her Fashion Story display, visit the Kensington Palace website.


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