Of all the national fault lines that have been ripped open by the latest series of The Crown, the argument about the late Princess of Wales’s style is the most tribal. Thirtysomethings can’t believe that many of my generation either didn’t consider Diana stylish, or, for great chunks of her marriage, didn’t give her much thought at all.
It’s not that we were Republicans, more that Diana didn’t seem relevant.
She ought to have been highly relevant, mind you – she wasn’t much older than I was. I loved her pre-marriage, New Romantic phase – the ruffled blouses, the strapless ball gowns, the cute hair cut courtesy of Keith at Smile on the King’s Road. (I knew every detail even though I was living in France at the time.) It was all so beguilingly original for someone about to be subsumed in royal protocol.
I was au pairing in Cannes on July 29 1981, but I duly dragged the TV into the garden to watch every moment, and duly dragged it back in again. It was a blazing hot day and I couldn’t see anything in the glaring sun. But if missing a day of tanning was the price of becoming part of a taffeta-meringue centred slice of history, I was happy to pay it. I wept when she died. You would have had to be truly stony of heart not to be moved by that funeral.
But do I want to dress like her now? I do not. Did I want to dress like her then? Perhaps, a few items during the first 10 months of 1981. I may even have bought a red, frill-neck dress similar to one of hers. I know I had shoes like hers, but we all did. They were in fashion even before she wore them. And who didn’t love the way she looked in the checked suit on her honeymoon in Balmoral, the hair a bit longer and more sun-kissed than outside the Pimlico nursery, but not yet set in rigor mortis?
After Prince William was born, her wardrobe began to solidify into something by turns stodgier and glitzier. Fashions were changing, and for the worse. And she had no role models – Princess Anne was a decade older and worlds apart in interests. The other mega female figure on the public stage, apart from the Queen, was Margaret Thatcher. Come to think of it, at one point, Diana’s helmet hair began to assume Thatcherian proportions, but I doubt it was deliberate. More a case of subconscious armour.
As for the Dynasty Di era with its heavy porcelain-blue kohl eye liner, garish colours, bulky silhouettes and the bow tights – it all looked like a child let loose in fancy dress. It’s almost as if the unhappier she grew, the brasher the clothes became.
It all seemed a million miles from the pages of Elle, which by 1987 was the style bible for young women my age. I don’t think the magazine ran a single article on Diana for years. They weren’t anti-her. But protocol meant she wasn’t even allowed to go bare-legged in the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot. The more the tabloids, many of which were top heavy with ageing, balding males, screeched about Diana’s style, the more many of us looked elsewhere.
Interestingly, so far, it’s Early Di millennials are going mad for – the sailor collars, the floppy collars, the pie-crust collars, the Liberty prints and the black sheep jumper. It looks so charmingly quaint and unspun. And there’s such highly charged emotional capital stitched into every seam that the clothes acquire an extra layer of fascination.
When I tell twentysomethings that most of us didn’t have a clue what she was going through at the time – that the term mental health was never used – and that by her final year, she regularly provoked a lot of national eye-rolling, they look sceptical.
For millennials, she’s the perfect emblem of just about everything – the wounded mouse that roared, to paraphrase Tina Brown. And so, like the youthful Pre-Raphaelite muses who took up the causes – and hairdos – of tragic medieval victims, or the French Revolutionaries who tried to reclaim the nation’s innocence by adopting classic Greek garb, they dress like their sacrificial young heroine. It would be weird, however, for my generation to do the same.
Lisa Armstrong's column appears each Saturday in The Saturday Telegraph and is published online every Saturday at 7am on Telegraph Fashion.