By Caitlin Ball
Since the mid-twentieth century, stepping into the royal family has become synonymous with stepping into the public eye, and arguably nobody- before or since- has weathered the vehemence of its glare quite like Princess Diana.
The sheer influx of Diana-based media we have seen in recent months- including both the fourth season of The Crown and the upcoming film Spencer (starring Kristen Stewart as the young royal) – is but testament to the endurance of her infamous legacy and icon status.
While this icon status is definitely a product of her vast portfolio of humanitarian work and overtly progressive social attitude (which was profoundly rare to see in a woman of her position at that time), the influence of her fashion sense boasts unparalleled longevity. So much so that designers very much rooted in urban 21st century fashion still laud her as their muse (for proof beyond doubt see Virgil Abloh’s spring/summer 2018 collection for Off-White).
Widely deemed ‘the most photographed woman in the world’, the Princess’ paparazzi pictures have also been plastering the Pinterest and Instagram explore pages of teenagers for years and have now become a boundless source of inspiration for Generation Z- the vast majority of whom weren’t even born during her lifetime.
On social media, recent obsessions with the candid and the spontaneous coincide with Diana’s reputation as effortlessly photogenic. Most popular with the younger generation at present are pictures snapped post-workout, where she generally opts for plain cycling shorts and sweatshirt combos that are now considered staples in the majority of Gen Z wardrobes. Iconic – but accessible.
Diana’s departure from the frilly, puffy and boxy silhouettes of the late 70s and early 80s fashion into the sleek, sophisticated, and dignified silhouettes of the mid-80s to late 90s marked her transition from girlhood to womanhood, from timidity to self-assuredness in her role as a public figure.
And since her death, a growing understanding of some of the more unhappy and tumultuous circumstances of Diana’s personal life has meant Gen Z are now viewing her fashion choices as evoking dignity and steadfastness in the face of adversity. Take the infamous ‘Revenge Dress’, for example – a chic black mini dress by Greek designer Christina Stambolian which Diana wore in 1994, on the same day a documentary aired in which her husband publicly confessed to adulterous affairs during their marriage.
Arguably it is this attitude that young people, increasingly more attuned to the push for self-confidence and expression online, now aspire to.
In a world where mental health has become a global epidemic, the drive to ‘be kind’ and thoughtful among Gen Z is also stronger than ever, and Diana’s remarkable self-awareness when it came to the impact of her clothing meant the worlds of humanitarian charity work and fashion were, in her eyes, never far apart.
If she were visiting a children’s hospital, she made sure to wear vivid colours and ‘jangly’ jewellery so that they might be entertained by it. If she were visiting the blind, she would wear velvet or other uniquely textured fabric to encourage sensory stimulation through touch as opposed to sight.
Refusing to follow royal protocol by discarding her gloves and prioritising skin-to-skin contact when greeting and comforting those involved with the charities she worked with also made a profound social statement- especially in regards to the stigma surrounding the AIDs crisis throughout the 1980s.
Nowadays, when celebrity clothing sometimes appears to lack profound meaning and purpose, existing purely for aesthetic value, it is understandable that Gen Z would still look to idolise a woman who, in the words of Guardian fashion journalist Jess Cartner-Morley, ‘wield[ed] her glamour like a superpower’.
There’s a reason Diana is called the People’s Princess- and not just for the people of the late 20th century. Her personal values and distinctly individual flair for fashion- which only skyrocketed further once the restrictive royal corset she had donned for so long began to loosen- strikes chords with Gen Z in a way it hasn’t for previous generations. And I think I can say with a fair degree of certainty that her influence won’t be lost on future generations either. The only question is: in what way will her style legacy be interpreted next?
Illustration: Anna Pycock