As series 4 of The Crown is about to be released, all the buzz is around the arrival of the young Lady Diana Spencer on the Royal scene.
Early word is that the transformation of actress Emma Corrin from style-free Sloane to streamlined superstar is as convincing and mesmerising on screen as it was in reality.
And with it has come a slew of tributes to the late Princess’s wardrobe.
But as compelling and bewitching as the real woman was, she was absolutely never the fashion leader she’s being touted as today.
When it comes to the Princess of Wales, a warm and glowing filter often distorts and reshapes our views of the past – and that’s certainly the case with her clothes.
The Princess’s arrival in The Crown has seen a wave of glowing tributes to her wardrobe. But the ex-editor of Vogue has a controversial alternative view… Pictured: Diana in a figure-hugging evening gown
When Diana first appeared on the scene in 1980, in pie-crust collars, tank tops and blousy midi skirts, nobody with any fashion credibility looked, or wanted to look, remotely like her.
She was a central-casting Sloane Ranger – the brilliant label, conceived by journalists Peter York and Ann Barr in Harpers & Queen, for the Chelsea tribe of affluent young women whose uniform of navy tights, headbands and bottom-covering blazers was to fashion what garlic is to vampires.
Girls who cared about fashion at the start of the 1980s didn’t look anything like that.
They were coming out of the tail end of punk and it was all about fishnet tights, batwing sleeves, leg-warmers, black leather biker jackets and, sadly, dodgy perms.
Hemlines like the drab, calf-length ones Diana Spencer favoured were part of the 1970s.
To any forward-looking 1980s chick, it was about skirts getting shorter and shorter – reaching a final and hugely unattractive pinnacle with the rara, wisely always avoided by the Princess of Wales.
Although Diana’s acclaim as a fashion leader began only some years into her marriage, some of her early looks are being revisited today.
Her famous red woollen sweater – emblazoned with rows of white sheep and a black one at the centre – which caused such a stir when she wore it to watch Charles play polo in 1981 has now been reissued by an American brand.
Those white pie-crust collars, which at the time never looked anything other than frumpy, are gaining new popularity, possibly suitable for this woke era.
But none of this means Diana was remotely the fashion pioneer the rewriters of style history now claim.
At the time, although she looked pleasant, it was Diana’s suitability, not her wardrobe, that was her main calling card.
When Diana first appeared on the scene in 1980, in pie-crust collars, tank tops and blousy midi skirts, nobody with any fashion credibility looked, or wanted to look, remotely like her. Pictured: Diana as Prince Charles’ girlfriend
Wearing tweed on the river bank at Balmoral, or greeting dignitaries in voluminous taffeta ballgowns, she looked appropriate as the wife of the Prince of Wales.
Later, in avoiding any defined outline of her growing baby bumps, she simply followed a Royal tradition. Whereas the pregnant Queen had taken refuge in coats; Diana in vast smocks with Quaker collars.
All well and good, but it wasn’t what you’d call fashion and nor was it particularly admired.
The big change to Diana’s look began when Anna Harvey, who was my deputy editor on Vogue, took the Princess in hand as her unofficial style adviser.
Although Anna remained unfailingly discreet about her work with the Princess until her too-early death in 2018, it was she who steered Diana into the style for which she became famous. Anna was never about the cutting edge, where real fashion gets born. Instead, she epitomised elegant British chic, which was why she was the perfect woman for the job.
The thick pearl chokers, Catherine Walker suits, figure-hugging evening dresses, monochrome rather than patterned fabrics, and the navy, black and ivory tailored trouser suits that became her signature, were all introduced to the Princess by Anna.
I would suggest that it was Anna who gave Diana the confidence to show off her body rather than disguise it, although sadly, as we now know, for years she wasn’t confident or happy enough to conquer the bulimia that haunted her.
This style was conventional, British and, in the main, upper-class. It was worn by her tribe at Ascot, in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, at weddings and gala nights at the Royal Opera House.
You could see it in the Tatler Bystander photos from Oxbridge May Balls and Red Cross fundraisers: veiled pillbox hats or seriously ill-advised boaters, shoulder-padded tunic tops – soon to morph into the more ostentatious glitz of TV’s Dynasty – nude tights and navy pumps. And pearls. Designers such as Bruce Oldfield, Victor Edelstein, Jasper Conran and Tomasz Starzewski, as well as Walker, had thriving businesses that catered for the events of the traditional Season, which had become newly fashionable in part because of this attractive young Princess of Wales.
BUT the fashion world of this era was wholly different – and far less appropriate for a Royal. It was more Madonna’s wild-child persona and the workout wear of Fame. More Katharine Hamnett utility wear, like her anti-nuclear ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt that she wore to meet Margaret Thatcher. More influenced by the counter-culture clubs, like Blitz, that had sprung up all over London, and the redefining work of British designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Body Map.
That was fashion. Diana’s style was society.
SLOANE RANGER LOOK: Diana in calf-length skirts and sensible jumpers in the early 1980s
Diana’s type of outfits often looked dull on many of their wearers, but she was increasingly gaining a fabulous golden-girl lustre that invested her appearance with something unique. It wasn’t the clothes. It was her. With a gleaming complexion, greyhound legs, mesmerisingly blue eyes and unusual height, she was emerging as a woman of high-voltage, weaponised glamour.
Originally, in her role as wife of the heir to the throne, she adopted a streamlined uniform of velvet-collared skirt suits for charity visits, the ubiquitous brass-buttoned jackets of the time, and off-the-shoulder gowns that highlighted both her long neck and showed off her fabulous collection of jewels.
But as time went on, she was becoming courageous enough to wear a slogan T-shirt with jeans at a polo match in 1988 and to emphasise her height in heels rather than dowdy pumps – and, in so doing, making her husband look that much smaller.
But it was once the marriage had irrevocably broken down that she became the superstar of her last years. The person who knew exactly the effect of wearing a deeply plunging short cocktail dress on the day that her husband’s ill-fated interview with Jonathan Dimbleby was broadcast.
The Princess who could wear a simple, sleeveless, black shift dress – that staple of women around the world, although hers would often be Versace or Chanel – and make it look sensational.
I remember having lunch with her in the turquoise dining room of Mayfair’s Caviar Kaspia in the mid-1990s. As businessmen and fashion editors tucked into their baked potatoes and caviar, she strode briskly into the room, with her big smile, scooping up all the oxygen. Everyone was transfixed.
She was in an unremarkable single-breasted beige suit, but she radiated star power. It wasn’t as simple as fame. It wasn’t the mystique of royalty. It was an unidentifiable but undeniable magnetism. But even so, it certainly wasn’t fashion.