Princess Diana’s Life, and How Her Legacy Lives on in Fashion

 The life and legacy of Princess Diana

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Princess Diana wearing the ‘Elvis dress’ during a visit to the Culture Centre in Hong Kong

Had Princess Diana still been alive, she would have turned 60 just last month. She was known for several things – among these, she was probably best known for her charity work, impeccable style and untimely death. She championed various causes, and most notably fought against the stigma surrounding AIDS patients. Princess Diana was also known as a style icon, for she single-handedly revived dying fashion trends as the clothes and accessories that she was spotted wearing often flew off the shelves, racking up millions of sales. Sadly, her life was cut short when she died in a tragic car accident at the young age of 36.

Although 24 years have passed since her death, the legacy of Princess Diana is still very much alive and well. Posthumously, she was named one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century by TIME magazine, and even ranked higher than the Queen in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, coming in third place. In 2020, she was also included in TIME magazine’s list of 100 Women of the Year. In fashion, Princess Diana’s name continues to carry weight, not only among younger royals but also among high-fashion houses like Chanel.

Princess Diana’s life and marriage

Princess Diana was extremely well-loved by the public, not only in the United Kingdom but also around the world. This was in part thanks to her philanthropic work and fashion sense, but also amplified by her turbulent private life. Due to her immense popularity, every detail of her private life was thrust into the spotlight. She was criticised as much as she was well-liked – many condemned her for using her prominent public profile to her advantage, which supposedly devalued the Princess of Wales’ royal position. Critics also argued that her charity work was actually self-serving, born out of her personal ambitions, rather than a genuine want to solve a societal issue. In an article for The Guardian, Peter Conrad wrote that Diana’s awareness that journalists and the paparazzi were the source of her power caused her to ‘overburden’ herself with public duties, eventually destroying the veil between her private and public life.

The timeline of her birth, marriage and divorce also shows the big part that the press played in shaping her life.

1961: Diana’s Birth

On July 1, 1961, Diana Frances Spencer was born in Norfolk, England. She was born into British nobility – her father was John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer and her mother was Frances Shand Kydd (previously Spencer), The Honourable. She had five siblings.

1975: Becoming a Lady

Diana became known as Lady Diana after her father inherited the title of Earl Spencer in 1975 – before her father was the Earl Spencer, he was known as Viscount Althorp.

1977-1978: Meeting Charles for the First Time

Diana first met Charles, the Prince of Wales, in 1977 when he was dating her older sister, Sarah. At that time, she was only 16 while Charles was 29. Although Charles and Sarah broke up in early 1978, the sisters remained close to him.

1980-1981: Courtship, Engagement and ‘Fairytale’ Wedding

They had a year-long courtship throughout 1980 before Prince Charles proposed to Lady Diana on February 6, 1981 at Windsor Castle. In the documentary ‘Diana: In Her Own Words’, Diana said, “We met 13 times and we got married.” This engagement was kept secret before it was formally announced to the public on February 24.

Charles and Diana got married on July 29, 1981 in what was described as a ‘fairytale wedding’ at St Paul’s Cathedral. 3,500 guests made up the congregation at the cathedral, while 600,000 spectators lined the streets, and another 750 million people watched the televised ceremony globally.

She wore a gown designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. With its 7.6 metre-long train and elaborate design, it set the ‘gold standard’ for wedding fashion, becoming one of the most legendary wedding dresses of all time.

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The Prince and Princess of Wales leave St Paul’s Cathedral on their wedding day

At the age of 20, Lady Diana Spencer became the Princess of Wales. She ranked third-highest in the order of precedence in the United Kingdom, behind the Queen and Queen Mother.

1982-1984: Birth of William and Harry

On June 21, 1982, the Prince and Princess of Wales welcomed their first son, Prince William, followed by Prince Harry on September 15, 1984.

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Prince Charles and Princess Diana pose with their sons in the wildflower meadow at Highgrove in Tetbury, England

1986: Extramarital Affairs

Just five years into the marriage, the couple had become unhappy, and both had extramarital affairs. Prince Charles sought out his ex-girlfriend Camilla Parker Bowles, while Princess Diana had an affair with army captain James Hewitt, the family’s former riding instructor. Due to supposed physical similarities between Prince Harry and Hewitt, many speculated that he actually fathered Harry, though all allegations have been denied by Hewitt and others.

1987-1992: Public Unhappiness

Reports of marital trouble and their often distant demeanour during public appearances frequently appeared in the press.

1992: Her True Story and Their Separation

Then, in 1992, journalist James Morton published ‘Diana: Her True Story’, a scathing tell-all exposing their tumultuous marriage, affairs and Diana’s contemplations of suicide. Recordings from Diana’s secret interviews with Dr James Colthurst, a close friend of Diana, were used as a source for the book.

In December, then-Prime Minister John Major announced to the House of Commons (the U.K. Parliament) that Charles and Diana were separating, though not divorcing. He read, “There is no reason why the Princess of Wales should not be crowned queen in due course”, meaning that they would live in separate palaces and hold separate courts. According to the Washington Post, Buckingham Palace said the couple had no plans to divorce. They would co-parent the two princes, and from time-to-time attend family occasions and national events together.

1995: Queen of People’s Hearts

In a candid interview with the BBC, Diana confessed, “I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts, but I don’t see myself being queen of this country. I don’t think many people will want me to be queen. Actually, when I say many people I mean the establishment that I married into, because they have decided that I’m a non-starter.” When speaking about her marriage, she also said, “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”, referring to Camilla, who was periodically romantically involved with Charles throughout his and Diana’s marriage.

1996: Divorce

After the BBC interview, the Queen wrote to Charles and Diana, advising them to divorce. And so they did – the divorce was finalised on August 28 1996, where she received a lump sum settlement of £17 million, equivalent to £32,144,626 (RM 187,944,473) in 2019. Diana lost the title ‘Her Royal Highness’ though she was still known as Diana, Princess of Wales.

1996-1997: Her Tragic Death

Diana dated a British-Pakistani heart surgeon, Hasnat Khan, but their relationship ended in July 1997. In the same month, she got into a relationship with Dodi Fayed, a film producer who was the son of Mohamed Al Fayed, the billionaire former owner of Harrods department store.

Dodi invited Diana on a vacation to France. When the couple left the Hotel Ritz Paris to drive to Dodi’s apartment around midnight on August 31 1997, they were swarmed by paparazzi. While fleeing the paparazzi, Paul, the driver, lost control of the car and it crashed at the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. The car was going over twice the speed limit of the tunnel. The sole survivor of the crash was Diana’s bodyguard, Rees-Jones. Dodi and Paul (who was later found to be intoxicated while driving – his blood alcohol level was 3.5 times the French legal limit) were pronounced dead shortly after the crash, while Diana was rushed to hospital where doctors failed to save her. She later died in hospital around 4am.

In commemoration of Princess Diana

In the years since Diana’s death, there have been several events in commemoration of the Princess’ life. 

In 2007, on the 46th anniversary of Diana’s birth, William and Harry organised the Concert for Diana, with proceeds from the concert going towards Diana’s charities. Many famous entertainers performed, including Elton John, Duran Duran, Fergie and Kanye West. The performance was broadcast in 140 countries with potentially 500 million viewers worldwide.

On July 1 2021, on what would have been Princess Diana’s 60th birthday, Princes William and Harry unveiled a statue of Diana in the Sunken Garden of Kensington Palace, which was known to be Diana’s favourite spot. The statue was commissioned by her sons, to honour her charitable work and her ‘love, strength and character’.

Diana’s style has withstood the test of time, proving to be relevant years later. In 2013, ten of Princess Diana’s dresses were sold for over £800,000 (RM4,682,500) at a London auction. In 2017, on the 20th anniversary of her death, an exhibition entitled ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story’ was opened at Kensington Palace, with many of Diana’s iconic outfits put on display.

Fashion that’s fit for royalty

Even today, Diana is seen as a style icon to many, including her daughters-in-law Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. The two duchesses often pay homage to Diana in their dressing, wearing styles inspired by the Princess and jewellery that she once wore. Renowned designers also take inspiration from Princess Diana, as seen from Diana-inspired clothing in Virgil Abloh’s SS18 collection for Off-White, and Tory Burch’s SS20 line for her eponymous brand.

Diana’s personal style was a seamless blend of both the royal family’s requirements and trendy styles at that time. She was always dressed for the occasion, for example wearing a sharp sailor suit-inspired outfit at a naval base, and casual slouchy blazers paired with jeans when ‘off-duty’.

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Princess Diana arrives at the naval base in La Spezia, Italy during the Royal Tour of Italy

Princess Diana has had plenty of notable looks, but the look that would arguably be the most legendary would be the Revenge Dress, a black cocktail dress that she wore to a Vanity Fair fundraiser on June 29 1994 – the night that Prince Charles admitted to adultery on television. Her bold choice of dress was lauded for its ingenuity, as it allowed Diana to reclaim the narrative (her dress, rather than Charles’ admission of infidelity, made the headlines the next day) and also showed Charles what ‘he was missing out on’. In the 1998 book Diana, Her Life in Fashion, the author Georgina Howell described the dress as ‘possibly the most strategic dress ever worn by a woman in modern times’ as it ‘flipped her husband clean off the front pages’.

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Princess Diana arriving at the Vanity Fair fundraiser in her ‘revenge dress’

After her 1996 separation from Charles, Diana’s personal style transformed. Prominent designers like the Versace siblings became part of her inner circle, influencing her style. She incorporated more street style and suits, pairing them with handbags from Chanel, Dior and more. Those styles quickly became synonymous with her, and bags she was spotted carrying in the 80s and 90s continue to be best sellers even today. All these fashion houses have since named (or renamed) bags after the Princess of Wales. These bag styles still sell well, and some even sell on the secondhand market for nearly RM100,000!

Gucci Diana

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Princess Diana entering the Chelsea Harbour Club with her sons, carrying a Gucci bamboo tote

Gucci has recently revived one of its most popular styles from the 90s, and renamed it in honour of Princess Diana. She loved the bag, and often carried it out with her while on errands. The Gucci Diana – a leather tote bag with the fashion house’s signature bamboo handles comes with removable neon belts on the handles, meant to maintain the curve of the bamboo, while also adding some pizzazz to the bag.

The eponymous bag comes in multiple colourways and three sizes – mini, small and medium. They retail at USD2,650 (RM11,105), USD3,100 (RM13,020) and USD3,980 (RM16,716) respectively. This range also includes small leather goods – see the full collection here.

Lady Dior

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Princess Diana visiting Liverpool in an orange Versace suit and her Lady Dior gifted by Bernadette Chirac

Probably Dior’s most timeless and iconic style, the Lady Dior handbag is one of the most recognisable handbags ever created. Originally unofficially named the Chouchou, it was a bag commissioned by the former French first lady, Bernadette Chirac, for the princess’ September 1995 trip to Paris. It immediately became her favourite, to the extent that she purchased numerous versions and touted this bag during various public appearances and state visits. In 1996, the bag was officially renamed the Lady Dior.

This classic style is still wildly popular today, sold in many colours, prints, sizes and materials. From versatile nude hues to a wacky red dinosaur print, there’s bound to be one for everybody. Prices range from USD3,500 (RM14,733) for a micro size and go up to USD6,500 (RM27,362) for a unique rendition with bead embroidery. Check out the full Lady Dior range here.

Chanel Diana

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Princess Diana at the Northwestern University in Chicago, carrying a Chanel bag

This chic Chanel bag was designed by the legendary Karl Lagerfeld and loved by the Princess of Wales. She was spotted carrying this bag on visits to Chicago and more, and as an homage to Diana, Lagerfeld renamed it after her. Made with luxurious 24K gold hardware and buttery soft leather, it truly was a bag fit for a princess. The bag was even reissued in Chanel’s Spring 2015 collection, but it is no longer available for purchase directly from Chanel.

Although the Diana has been discontinued by Chanel, they continue to not only hold, but appreciate in value. Purchasing one of these bags from the preloved market will set one back anywhere from RM26,500 to a whopping RM93,000 for a bag in pristine condition.

Ferragamo Diana Clutch

This sleek clutch from the Italian house of Salvatore Ferragamo, retrospectively named after the Princess of Wales, was an essential part of her wardrobe. She loved this bag so much that she reportedly owned more than 20 bags in this style – believable, if one considered the sheer number of public appearances she made with this clutch in different colourways.

Perhaps the most affordable of the lot, the Ferragamo Diana Clutch retails for USD1,550 (RM6,540) and also comes in an adorable mini version for USD1,150 (RM4,852).

Princess Diana died before her time, but her legacy is still well and alive today. It can be seen in her sons, in the clothing that her daughters-in-law don, and in her various charities. It can even be seen when one carries a Diana bag, or looks to her for fashion inspiration. And perhaps, it can live on in the form of kindness too. As Princess Diana once said, “Carry out a random act of kindness, with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day, someone might do the same for you.”

Written by: Natalie

Edited by: Jamie

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