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Diana, Princess of Style

Di in minimalist look/AP
In London on June 3, Diana chose a minimalist look.(File Photo by Jacqueline Arzt-AP)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 1997; Page C01

If Princess Diana leaves any gift to fashion, it would be her love for it.

She embraced the fashion industry in a way that few public figures outside of Hollywood do, and with more passion than any statesman dares. She did not live long enough to develop an iconic style, but she had enough time to discover and embrace the power of clothes.

She became increasingly daring with her style, veering away from traditional and conservative clothes and toward more form-fitting and revealing ones. Fashion seemed to both fuel and benefit from her growing self-confidence. And by the time she died, she had discovered that the jaw-dropping appeal of a simple evening sheath could make the world both look and listen.

"In the last few years, she was so much more confident in the way she was dressing," says Vogue editor Anna Wintour. "In the early years, she tended to walk with a bit of a slump, as if she was worried about her height."

Over time, her shy glances took on a hint of the seductive. Her commanding height was transformed from a girl's burden into a young woman's best asset. And her awkward innocence blossomed into graceful self-awareness.

Di at fashion event/Reuter
1995: A slicked-back, subtly sexy look at a New York fashion awards event.(File Photo/Reuter)
In the beginning, while she was still under the thumb of the House of Windsor, she did not look at the pages of fashion magazines, the runways or her contemporaries for a style sensibility. She relied on tradition and fairy tales.

Her image resulted from "the demands of the job and even, at times, the subliminal needs of the British public," wrote Vogue European Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles.

She dressed in the manner that the world demanded -- like the princess of our imagination. Bows, ruffles, pastels. Fantasies, though, tend to be frozen in time. They are removed from the modern world. Her look back then was not sophisticated, elegant or sexy. It was pure froth.

"Her style was extremely conventional," says Anne Hollander, fashion historian and author of "Seeing Through Clothes." "Her clothes at the beginning of her time as a princess were faintly ridiculous."

The silliness is apparent now, at a time when we are surrounded by sleek evening gowns and when even the wealthiest and most celebrated blushing brides turn to designers such as Vera Wang for understated grandeur.

Di in evening fashion/AP
Tall, fit Diana confidently dressed in revealing evening fashions.(File Photo/AP)
As Princess Diana stepped further away from the control of the royal family, she -- like many young women -- began the long process of self-definition. And while her essential sense of self came from her head and her heart, she used fashion to add details and flourishes.

"She loved fashion; she adored it," Wintour says. "She was very concerned with the way she looked. . . . I think because she was photographed so much, she was looking at her picture and how she looked."

With her death, the British fashion industry has lost one of its most recognizable champions. Not only did the princess wear the work of British designers, but she took an active role in supporting and publicizing fashion in the United Kingdom. During London's fashion week, when designers present their collections before the world's press, she hosted cocktail parties for visiting editors. She even brought along Prince William to one such event. The princess dropped in on the fashion trade shows, even attended the catwalk presentations.

"For us, many of the things that she did came at a time when London fashion week was not doing as well as it's doing now," says John Wilson, chief executive of the British Fashion Council in London. "There was a recession and designers were not performing as well as they're doing now. . . . I think her contribution is immeasurable and irreplaceable."

Now, the British fashion industry suffers not from lack of attention but from too much of it. French design houses have been poaching the brightest British stars to take over moribund collections. John Galliano now designs for Christian Dior, Alexander McQueen for Givenchy, Stella McCartney for Chloe.

The British community, which must fight for attention amid the high-profile Italian and French fashion industries and the American celebrity machine, has lost part of its precious allure and glamour. Its best representative on the world stage is gone.

Moreover, fashion as a whole has lost one of its most striking ambassadors. Princess Diana didn't set trends, but, with increasing success, she had incorporated them into her wardrobe.

When she was no longer Her Royal Highness, she didn't have to limit herself mostly to garments created by British designers. She never deserted them, but she branched out. She wore clothes from Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel and Gianni Versace. In July, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing a Versace dress.

When she began to carry an urbane little handbag by Christian Dior, it soon was casually referred to by her moniker and was selling out of boutiques worldwide.

Styles That Surprised

Diana often wore dresses that left a lasting impression, and winked at royal tradition. There was a black taffeta dress that she wore on her first official evening engagement with Prince Charles. Its low-cut neckline that revealed more royal bosom than had ever been seen before left tongues wagging. Later, there was the white beaded "Elvis" dress with its standing collar that screamed Hollywood. She appeared in New York in 1995 at a gala sponsored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her usually bouffantlike hair had been slicked back into a style that was faintly masculine, subtly sexy and certainly not what was expected from a conservative royal.

The princess had discovered a glamour that worked for her. It was a turning point.

Her version of glamour had little to do with choices of clothes -- they were not particularly inspired or risk-taking. She was not a Nicole Kidman wearing lavender Prada or chartreuse Dior to the Oscars. She was not like the daughters of duty-free mogul Robert Miller who have developed a reputation for buying and wearing edgy couture fashion.

In many ways, Diana seemed to be like a lot of women around the world who slowly -- through trial and error -- figure out what styles look good and feel comfortable.

"Recently we'd been seeing her in these incredibly slinky, sexy but not overly revealing evening dresses," Wintour says. She had a "fantastic figure and great arms and she was happy to show them off."

In Washington last year at a gala to benefit the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University Medical Center, she wore a Catherine Walker full-length, halter-style evening dress embroidered with white sequins and lace. Few guests could refrain from commenting on her toned arms, her muscled back.

She stood straight and confident. She had learned how to balance strength with vulnerability. She understood that the simplest gesture, coming from her, carried significance -- a feminine glance over a shoulder, a graceful handshake. It all became part of her style.

She looked to other oft-photographed women and followed their fashion lead. She took to wearing simple, well-tailored suits in monotones. "Diana's approach to dressing has . . . been refined to a businesslike art," Bowles wrote this summer. She kept her accessories to a minimum. The woman -- with her long limbs, blue eyes and blond hair -- stood out more than her clothes. (She also benefited from the stylelessness and aloofness of the rest of the royal family. She looked particularly smashing because they, by comparison, looked so dowdy and unapproachable.)

In the last few years of her life, Princess Diana followed fashion's lead and turned to minimalism to define her style. She threw off the ruffles and bows and kept the beads and lace to a minimum. She rid fussiness from her repertoire.

Many will remember her fondness for the evening sheath. Next spring, someone might even say of a simple formal gown with a plunging back that it is a Princess Di dress.

But she is not likely to become a style icon. She had not yet made any silhouette completely her own -- the way Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did. When a woman ties a scarf around her head and under her neck -- in preparation for an outing in a convertible, perhaps -- she immediately conjures up the image of Kelly. Onassis -- America's version of a princess -- will be always be known for her clean-cut, slightly boxy Oleg Cassini suits and pink Halston pillbox hat. Princess Diana still was finding her way.

"She didn't have a particular way of dressing. She wasn't that strong of an aesthetic presence. Mrs. Kennedy had a stronger view on how things should look," Hollander says. "What will be remembered is that figure, by that I mean the personage moving about in those simple clothes."

Princess Diana was a beautiful, stylish young woman who embraced fashion but most likely will be remembered for what she did rather than for what she wore.

And that, in the end, is the more enduring legacy.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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