There is a photograph of Diana, Princess of Wales, taken in August 1997 during a trip to Bosnia. She is wearing one of the most utilitarian outfits she was ever seen in during her years in the public eye, and yet it may be the most perfect: a loose white cotton shirt – cuffs pulled up to reveal bronzed arms – high-waisted, stonewashed jeans, a tan belt and, out of shot, Tod’s loafers.
Diana took to wearing riffs on this ensemble during the 1990s. Often, she would add a tailored blazer in navy or houndstooth. The shirt could be replaced with a cream knit, or she might swap the jeans for chinos or jodhpurs (too elegant to save for riding – which she didn’t enjoy anyway).
It is a way of dressing so timeless and ageless that you are as likely to see it replicated now, two decades later, on a 20-something student as on a 60-something lady from the Home Counties.
At first, it was only when she was running errands in Kensington that she was seen in this understated look, but as she shook off the constraints of royal protocol, it became a uniform for humanitarian engagements, where the neutral colour palette and lack of adornments suggested a non-glitzy, businesslike attitude. She told her private secretary that she wanted to be seen as a ‘work horse, not a clothes horse’.
For evening, this chapter in Diana’s style evolution meant cocktail dresses that were sleeker and shorter than those she had previously favoured. She could show her décolletage, but was savvy enough to hold an Anya Hindmarch clutch to her chest to avoid revealing photographs as she stepped out of the car.
‘It was much freer after the separation,’ says Anna Harvey, Diana’s stylist. Tanned and toned, regal Diana was replaced with continental-luxe Diana; she looked chicer than ever.
‘Those cluttered ’80s silhouettes didn’t necessarily play very well in press photographs,’ says Eleri Lynn, curator of Diana: Her Fashion Story, the exhibition currently at Kensington Palace, ‘so she really slicked down her image. She realised that timeless elegance was what worked best on a princess with a profile such as she had.’
This stripped-back look was as calculated and laden with messaging as the frou-frou ballgowns and sharp-shouldered tailoring that Diana wore in the 1980s, at the height of her time touring the world as a royal.
The off-the-shoulder black chiffon cocktail dress with floating scarf detail that she wore to the Serpentine summer party, on the night in 1994 that the Prince of Wales confessed his adultery in a televised interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, was one of the early high points of this era.
It has become a benchmark for the act of ‘revenge dressing’. According to Christina Stambolian, the designer of the dress, the Princess plucked it from the back of her wardrobe, where it had languished for three years because she had previously feared it ‘too daring’. That night, it spoke of independence and defiance.
Another designer with whom Diana worked closely during this period was Jacques Azagury, who says she revelled in wearing LBDs, having previously been warned against black because of its association with mourning. The new Diana could wear it as a symbol of grown-up glamour instead.
There had been suggestions for years that Diana’s natural territory was this refined ease. In 1983, she wore a cream, one-shouldered column gown by Japanese designer Hachi to the premiere of Octopussy.
‘It was the first long, fitted sexy dress that she’d ever really worn, quite far ahead of the game at that time,’ remembers Harvey. ‘It was not particularly well received. It was considered a bit “much” for the Princess of Wales and too sexy – she looked too good.’ It took years for the world to accept just how good she could look.
In 1997, Diana was photographed wearing the same gown in the shoot by Mario Testino to promote a Christie’s charity auction of 79 of her dresses. It looked as fresh and modern then as it had 14 years earlier, especially with her newly slicked-back hair, masterminded by hairdresser Sam McKnight, and radiant but natural make-up.
On holidays and at polo matches during the 1980s, too, this instinct for minimalism had emerged in the cotton jumpsuits, dungarees and denim favoured by Diana. ‘She would often want chinos or jeans, white shirts or leggings for the gym, so I would round up a massive selection and she’d choose what she wanted,’ says Harvey.
The 1990s saw the introduction of a fresh roster of international designers to Diana’s wardrobe, which inevitably resulted in a more luxurious, high-octane effect. She became so enamoured of Dior’s quilted top-handle Chouchou bag that it was renamed the Lady Dior in her honour; she would pair one with a neat skirt suit for charity visits or lunches in London.
Another standout look of the era was the navy negligee-style dress she wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala in New York, honouring Christian Dior, in 1996. It was one of John Galliano’s first designs for the maison and a playfully non-royal statement for Diana just months after her divorce had been finalised.
Versace, too, became a mainstay in her wardrobe after a discussion between Diana, McKnight and Harvey on the set of a photo shoot. ‘She was feeling braver and felt she could step out of the box,’ Harvey says of Diana’s decision to mix her beloved London designers, such as Catherine Walker, with a few international labels.
The Versace team would fly into London to do fittings at Kensington Palace for the slinky, jewel-hued evening looks that Diana chose. She became so close to Gianni Versace himself that one of her final public appearances was at his funeral in July 1997.
‘Although they were fashionable, there was an element of timelessness to the clothes she chose in the ’90s, which is a real skill,’ reflects Lynn. ‘That’s what elevates her in the fashion stakes, with Jackie Kennedy or Audrey Hepburn.’
Of course, Diana is strikingly different from those women in that she was experimental with her style in the public eye, morphing through frills, power shoulders and popping prints to eventually land on the confident glamour she adopted in her 30s. Sadly, that is where her evolution stopped. But she could have worn that look for forever.