Fashion

Why the Fashion World Still Looks to Princess Diana

princess diana walks along grass in white pants and a sheep sweater

Princess Diana Archive

Princess Diana wore many different coats—her style shape-shifting as she moved from young bride to mother to empowered divorcée—and we’re seeing them all this year. Fresh on the heels of the biopic Spencer, starring a Chanel-clad Kristen Stewart, and the Broadway version of Diana: The Musical, in late 2022 we’ll see Elizabeth Debicki portray Diana in the fifth season of The Crown. Each project represents a new chance to interpret her style, including iconic looks that have been echoed on recent runways. Nearly a quarter century after her death, why are we still trying to dress like the Queen of Hearts?

Of course, those who were there recall and relate to Diana’s endearing personality and private struggles—but her style also has a hold on a younger generation who may have no direct memories of her. That may have a lot to do with Duchesses Kate and Meghan: As today’s royal watchers follow the pair’s evening gowns and day-to-day looks with fascination, it’s only natural that their interest would extend to their shared fashion predecessor. (Both have paid tribute to Diana through their wardrobes: Kate’s engagement ring once belonged to her mother-in-law, and she has worn collared dresses and polka-dotted pieces that pay direct homage to Diana. Meghan has been photographed in a Cartier watch once owned by Diana, and during a visit to New York, she carried the Dior Lady D-Lite, a bag so associated with Lady Di it was renamed in her honor.)

princess diana in a houndstooth suit and dior bag

Diana with a Dior bag.

Tim Graham

Eloise Moran, who was only a child when Diana died in 1997, has been documenting Di’s post-divorce looks since 2018 through her Instagram account @ladydirevengelooks, and is also the author of the upcoming The Lady Di Look Book: What Diana Was Trying to Tell Us Through Her Clothes. Her posts feature vintage shots of Diana in a later—and freer—stage of her life, when she opted for bike shorts with oversize sweatshirts, varsity jackets, and sharp-shouldered blazers. These looks feel acutely contemporary.

Moran began Lady Di Revenge Looks after watching a Netflix documentary on Diana. In her mid-twenties and glum after a recent divorce, she was shocked by how much she related to a woman she’d never thought much about. “I was surprised at how connected I felt to her and her story. All those things she went through, and getting married so young,” she says. “I started doing research and coming across photos that I hadn’t seen before. At the time, on Instagram, nobody was posting that much on Princess Diana. She wasn’t having her moment the way she has been over the past few years. I came across this series of ’90s outfits, and I was like, ‘God, these are amazing.’”

“She was doing streetwear before streetwear was a thing. She was mixing high and low.”

The fact that Diana’s image would inspire TV, film, theater, and fashion today comes as little surprise to Moran. “She was the most commercial person to exist, and I think that still holds true to this day,” she says. “Whether it’s Netflix or Gucci”—which recently reissued a “Gucci Diana” capsule of bamboo-handled handbags beloved by the princess—“I think all of these brands have really clocked on to that. Brands and media networks and podcast networks, everybody wants a piece of Diana.”

kristen stewart portrays princess diana in spencer

Kristen Stewart in Spencer.

Courtesy of Neon

Pablo Larraín’s film Spencer follows Diana through a three-day Christmas holiday in the early ’90s, as she neared her separation from Prince Charles. While reviewing thousands of images to prepare for her work on the movie, costume designer Jacqueline Durran was able to gain an understanding of the trajectory of her style. “There were much more exciting things going on in ’80s fashion than the things she wore,” she says. “When she first started in the early ’80s, she really didn’t have a handle on what her potential was in fashion, because it was all so new and she was so young. She discovered it as she grew older.” Combing through the images helped Durran determine a pattern to Diana’s wardrobe choices. “There’s a thing that they say about the royal family: It’s part of their job or public persona that they are bright so that people can see them clearly in a crowd,” she says. “There’s a performative element to what they wear.”

For Stewart’s first scene, Durran outfitted her in a plaid jacket, modeled after one of the many Diana wore at the time, that would look right at home in a street-style photo today. “Using it at the beginning of the movie lets the audience know what you’re going to do. We haven’t replicated a particular one exactly, but we’ve done something in the mood of her style,” she says. “Kristen’s Diana is Kristen’s version of Diana. Nothing is exactly re-created, and it’s not a documentary. It’s about setting up the mood of it, which is really what the fashion re-creations are doing as well. They’re just capturing the aura.”

elizabeth debicki as princess diana in the crown

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in The Crown.

Courtesy of Netflix

Labels including Off-White and Tory Burch have released their own Diana-inspired collections. And last fall, the cult-favorite brand Rowing Blazers took a more literal approach and reissued two of Diana’s best-known sweaters in collaboration with the designers who originally produced them decades ago. One was her favored “black sheep” design, created by the brand Warm & Wonderful. Lanvin, See By Chloé, and others have put out their own versions of the style.

The release of the Warm & Wonderful x Rowing Blazers collaboration coincided with the sweater’s appearance on the fourth season of The Crown, and the response was immediate. Rowing Blazers founder and CEO Jack Carlson had long kept an image of the original Warm & Wonderful sweater on his mood board; he recalled his mother wearing the style when he was a child. “It’s been copied by so many different brands. I didn’t want to do that, and I was aware that the real thing had not really been made since the early ’90s,” he says. “It’s just such a fun design. It’s whimsical, irreverent, a little bit cottagecore…It evokes a different time, but somehow feels very relevant to today. People have just gone crazy for it.”

The Diana renaissance has had a tangible benefit for the companies that partnered with Rowing Blazers. Both Warm & Wonderful and Gyles & George, the brand behind a Diana sweater bearing the phrase “I’m a Luxury,” which was re-released last year with Rowing Blazers, are resurrecting their businesses as a direct result of new interest sparked by the collaborations. Warm & Wonderful creators Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne, who launched their business from a stall in Covent Garden, are now selling their wares through a new e-commerce site and a holiday pop-up shop in London, their first store since the ’90s.

princess diana with prince william at a polo event

Diana at the Guards Polo Club with Prince William in 1988.

Princess Diana Archive

While many single out the distinctly ’80s and ’90s elements of her wardrobe, Carlson sees Diana’s style as being far ahead of its time. “As an inspiration or as a muse, I think she cuts across gender and certainly across time,” he says. “She was doing streetwear before streetwear was a thing. She was mixing high and low. She was even blurring the lines between menswear and womenswear. She’d wear sportswear with things that weren’t sportswear. You think of her wearing the British Lung Foundation sweatshirt, the blazer and the jeans, and she’s got the flat-brimmed embroidered cap with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police badge. It just looks like what a really cool guy or girl in 2021 would be wearing.”

The current cultural moment, steeped in nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s, might be particularly primed for Diana’s influence. But Moran believes the multitude of roles she played in her life gives her enduring, near-universal appeal. “There’s a different Diana for everyone,” she says. “If you think about Diana’s life in terms of being in the public eye, it was 17 years, which isn’t that much time at all. But think of all the metamorphoses she went through. Every couple of years, she changed direction. It tells this full-circle story.”

This article appears in the December/January 2021 issue of ELLE.

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