Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of eating disorders, which some readers may find distressing.
Diana, you may remember her as “The People’s Princess”, with her signature pixie cut and effortless glamour. The former Princess of Wales evolved her personal style throughout her life, starting out as a meek nineteen-year-old, in ruffles and skirts; she transformed herself into a muse, our friend, and a role model. From her innocent looks of the early 1980s, Diana evolved into a fashion icon, and the world watched as she utilised fashion to forge her own identity and break tradition. While many of us did not know Diana personally, she had a way of making us feel as though we knew everything about her, and her death felt like the loss of a close friend. Elizabeth Debicki’s recent portrayal of the late Princess in Netflix’s ‘The Crown,’ has resurfaced the attention from both those who mourned, and those who later learned of her legacy. Debicki captures aspects of Diana’s life and character with an even deeper insight into what we have seen before. “The Crown”, lays bare her life, delving into her work, thoughts, and alleged trials and tribulations. Diana solidified herself as one of the best-dressed women in history, selflessly grounding herself in humanitarian work, and embedding her morals and values into the minds of the next generation,; many of us still feel an affinity with Diana. As we reminisce, it is clear she is irreverent in leaving her mark upon the world.
Despite being born into an aristocratic family, and no stranger to royalty, Diana was often described as “The Girl Next Door”, craving a normal life before her engagement to Prince Charles. Prior to her sudden exposure to the public eye at just nineteen, Diana found satisfaction in looking after children, as a nanny and later as a nursery teacher. Images from this time in her life capture her feathery hair, long skirts, ruffled blouses, and innocent shyness. In July 1981, she was thrust into the spotlight, as 750 million people from all over the world tuned in to watch the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. Many viewers were desperate to catch the first glimpse of the soon-to-be Princess and her wedding gown, which has now been declared “the most closely guarded secret in fashion history”. The taffeta ivory dress, adorned with over ten thousand pearls, was designed, and produced by husband-and-wife, David and Elizabeth Emanuel. The exquisite frock, in which she had to be sewn into on the day after dropping around four inches from her waist due to an ongoing battle with bulimia, featured a twenty-five-foot-long train, still the longest train worn in royal wedding history.
Diana openly discussed her struggles with bulimia, later disclosing, “The bulimia started the week after we got engaged and (took) nearly a decade to overcome”. The world admired her unshaken vulnerability, so much so, that Diana began many important conversations with her honesty surrounding her own mental health. Eating disorders and the reasoning behind them are still very much misunderstood and carry a large amount of stigma. While it is gradually becoming more accepted now, it was rare for these issues to be spoken about by someone so high profile, perhaps the ‘Diana effect’ may continue to inspire more people to seek help or find role models they can relate to in an era of comparison and perfection, both within and outside the fashion industry.
Although she often hung her head when she spoke, coined “Shy Di” by the press, there was nothing shy about the late Princess, according to the ex-royal press secretary, Dickie Arbiter. Unlike other members of the royal family at the time, Diana was often seen interacting with members of the public, pictured kneeling down, bending, and lowering her head, conscious of her tall stature, she did not want people to feel beneath her. Although she was softly spoken and maintained her feminine image, she was not afraid of voicing her opinion to the cameras. The paparazzi were a constant theme in Diana’s life, and while she tried to escape where she could, she was often caught pleading for them to let her be, or to let her children enjoy their family holidays.
Striving to enforce change in more ways than one, Diana was a member and patron of over one hundred charities. Her wardrobe followed her onto overseas trips and into visits with charities and patronages. When visiting children, she created a “caring wardrobe”, which encapsulated cheerful and colourful clothes, to symbolise approachability and warmth, as well as chunky jewellery for them to play with. The Princess of Wales was often driven to break down societal stigma, her work fighting HIV and AIDS often saw her travel to South Africa, attending the first ever “women, children and AIDS” conference. She took great pride in educating others and going against the rhetoric at the time, often pictured going gloveless, shaking hands with, and hugging patients as onlookers stood aghast.
Alongside her philanthropic and activist work, Diana took great pride in her role as a mother and made sure to take William and Harry along to hospitals and orphanages, introducing them to a world beyond royal life. Ensuring her children regularly experienced ‘normal’ activities, Diana was regularly seen taking her children on public transport and going to eat in fast food restaurants. She wasn’t afraid to get involved in sports days, famously running barefoot in a race against other parents. All these traits emphasise Diana’s warmth and humility towards others. Nearly three decades after her tragic death, it is evident that her legacy is still shaping the royal family through the values she instilled in her children, along with the influence she continues to have on the work of the current Princess of Wales, Kate. She will always be remembered as the princess of the people and her soul lives on through the work she has done.
Illustration credit: Freya Rogers