DIANA, FASHION STAR
Byline: James Fallon
LONDON — The death of Princess Diana has extinguished one of fashion’s brightest lights.
With beauty, status and wealth, Diana had all the ingredients to become a fashion icon. But she had something else few others possess: the ability to walk into a room and instantly command the attention of every person in it, a presence that did not depend on what she was wearing, but radiated from within.
Her clothes were not especially cutting-edge, but primarily those of Britain’s upper-class Ladies Who Lunch — well-cut suits for day and endless variations of evening dresses shaped to set off heirloom jewelry at night. Worn by any other Englishwoman, they would hardly have been remarked upon.
Designers rarely looked to her for inspiration, yet almost all of them were desperate to dress her. Even more, they wanted to meet her, for, in the end, her persona was unlike any in modern-day royalty.
She was indeed the Princess of Wales: regal, elegant and beautiful. But at the same time, almost anyone could relate to her. There are few people famous enough to be known simply by their first names. But every designer in the world knew her by a single syllable: Di.
“She was the one,” recalled Manolo Blahnik not long after the news of her death in Paris on Sunday shocked the world. “People were just drawn to her.”
“The clothes were almost unimportant to her attraction,” added Bruce Oldfield, who first made dresses for Diana when she was Lady Diana Spencer, a year before her 1981 storybook marriage to Prince Charles. “She was this charismatic child who blossomed into a luminescent figure before our eyes. She was Day-Glo.”
She was a star from the moment she was photographed standing below Prince Charles (who was significantly shorter) on the day their engagement was announced in February 1981. Her style then was more Sloane than Chanel and still had a girlish quality, with lots of big bows, long floral skirts and little makeup to cover her permanently blushing cheeks.
She was nicknamed Lady Dimples. She was only 19 and still believed in fairy-tale ideas of romance. The public thought of her as a sweet, slightly chubby nursery school teacher from a privileged background who was due to marry her prince. Even her ivory taffeta wedding dress by the relatively unknown British designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel seemed to fit the myth, with its almost ridiculously long train, exaggerated puffed sleeves, endless ruffles and full veil.
The Princess was far from a fashion plate in the first few years of her marriage as she veered from one style to another. Her look was dictated by what designer she wore, since she was obligated to buy only British. And she ran through them all — Oldfield, Caroline Charles, Victor Edelstein, Betty Jackson, Jasper Conran, Rifat Ozbek, Bellville Sassoon, Catherine Walker, Gina Fratini. Everything was big — the hair, the shoulders, the makeup, the jewels. It was “Dynasty” meets Royalty.
“Early on, she was trying to make all the clothes and accessories do the talking,” said Amanda Wakeley, who had sold her simple day and eveningwear to the Princess in the last few years. “She was using the clothes to hide her shyness.”
But she truly did love the glitz and glitter. One cannot imagine, for example, the Queen or Queen Mother turning up at the funeral of Gianni Versace — but Diana made a major effort to do so, and seemed completely natural there.
In the beginning, even though her style varied widely, there were outfits that caught the public’s imagination. She turned up at one event in the mid-Eighties wearing a Robin Hood-style feathered hat and claret-colored velvet gown that became the style of the season. Another time, at a reception at Crown Jewelers Garrard, Diana arrived in a high-necked gown wearing a cross as a pendant. Jewelers reported record demand for crosses. She almost singlehandedly revived British millinery by consistently wearing hats — from tiny caps to full-sized straw saucers — by such designers as Stephen Jones, Patricia Underwood and Philip Treacy.
As Diana became more confident of her style, she gambled more. Sometimes she won, and sometimes she didn’t. She also began concentrating on a few favorite designers, such as Edelstein and Catherine Walker, who was her main British designer. (Walker was still too distraught to talk about her most famous client on Monday.)
There was the majorette-style jacket she wore to review the troops and the mannish evening suit with waistcoat and black tie she wore to the dog races in 1988. Increasingly, her eveningwear featured long, slender columns either backless or off-the-shoulder, often with little bolero jackets.
But as influential as Diana’s clothes were, her changing hairstyles and her jewels were even more so. Those jewels are estimated to be worth up to $27.2 million.
There was a $560,000 sapphire brooch given to her by the Queen Mother, and a sapphire pendant on a diamond necklace, a gift from the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia that was valued in the millions. Her $45,600 sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring from Garrard launched a rage for engagement rings with colored stones which momentarily eclipsed the traditional diamonds. In 1985, Diana wore her $3.2 million emerald-and-diamond choker as a headband when she danced with the Prince of Wales during a state visit to Australia. Almost immediately, women all over the world copied the style, although with jewelry worth considerably less.
“She brought pearls back into fashion by constantly wearing her three-row pearl choker; she made costume jewelry acceptable by wearing it for day, and she also had people bringing their tiaras out of storage because they were fashionable again,” said Leslie Field, author of “The Queen’s Jewels,” which catalogs much of Diana’s jewelry. “She once told me that, to her, jewelry was just as important as the suit or the shoes.”
As for her hair, Diana’s bob was copied from Day One. Every time the British tabloids ran a picture of a new hairstyle, women across England would rush to replicate it, creating armies of Di clones walking down the streets. The slicked-back look she sported at the Council of Fashion Designers of America gala in New York in 1995, for example, led to an upsurge in hair-gel sales.
“I was at the gym today, and there were four women who had hair exactly like Diana’s,” said Oldfield. “I looked at them and thought, ‘What are they going to copy now?”‘
Designers agree that the Princess had been coming into her own, style-wise, in the last few years. Once she was separated from Prince Charles, there was no longer the obligation to limit herself to British fashion. She began wearing more foreign designers — concentrating on classic Ralph Lauren jackets, pants and shirts for casual wear and chic dresses and gowns by Chanel, Christian Lacroix or Versace for evening.
This Thursday, she was to have a final fitting for a Giorgio Armani gown (see sketch, page 7), she was going to wear later this month in Singapore at an AIDS-related event hosted by Christina Ong.
Diana was the first royal to be photographed in bicycle shorts and sweatshirts, helping to boost Polo Sport sales in the process.
Shoes were from J.P. Tod’s for day and, for evening, Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo, who says she used to help him repack his cases when he’d visit her at Kensington Palace. Handbags were a new obsession, and, in the last two years, she’d been snatching up endless variations of the Lady Dior bag. She’d been given her first by French First Lady Bernadette Chirac in October 1995.
The last two years had also seen the arrival of Sexy Di, split from her husband and out to show a more confident self. Dresses had short hemlines and plunging (almost dangerous) necklines, while shoes were high and spiky. Gone were the days of Shy Di, hiding her face and tilting her eyes to the cameras. Instead, at almost every public appearance, she now walked so assertively that those escorting her practically had to run to keep up.
At the same time, Diana chafed increasingly against her clotheshorse image as she threw herself into charity work involving children, AIDS research and a worldwide land-mine ban. That might have been one reason she decided to sell 80 of her gowns at Christie’s in New York this year, a fund-raiser for several charities, including the AIDS Crisis Trust.
That still left her with 95 gowns, 176 dresses, 178 suits, 54 coats and about 350 pairs of shoes. But she no longer bought a new dress for every occasion — or, as in the past, for almost every day.
Diana hated being called an icon, but there is almost no other way to describe the impact she had worldwide on fashion and style.
“It’s the Princess who matters, not the clothes,” Roberto Devorik, a friend of hers who owns the Lacroix and Krizia boutiques in London, once told WWD. “She is curious about fashion and evolves with it. But she is beyond fashion. Her beauty comes from inside of her, not from what she wears.”
Oldfield said it struck him on Sunday that the world will no longer see any more new photos of the Princess of Wales. An emotional Blahnik, who used to receive get-well notes from Diana when he was ill, said he will miss seeing her face: “She was my daily person. Everybody needs nice things in their life, and, for me, she was it.”
And, in a world where supermodels and super-designers continue to become ever more famous, Diana’s celebrity surpassed them all. At one of her last public appearances — the Tate Gallery’s centenary dinner hosted by Chanel in June — Diana was the magnet for such guests as Gerard and Valerie Wertheimer, Iman and Steve Martin, the center of attention in a room filled with celebrities.
As she mingled among the well-known guests at cocktails, the new face of Chanel, Karen Elson, stood nearby and eagerly gazed at her.
“All I came here to do,” she said, “was meet Princess Diana.”