Diana was the people’s princess — and we’re still madly in love with her fashion

Three images of Diana, Princess of Wales, over the years.
(Getty Images)

Meghan Markle, perhaps better known as the Duchess of Sussex, might be responsible for the biggest shakeup of the British monarchy this century, swapping Buckingham Palace for sunny Santa Barbara and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for a multimillion-dollar Netflix deal with her husband, Prince Harry.

However, long before Markle arrived on the scene, there was another royal rebel for the monarchy to contend with: Harry’s mother, Princess Diana.

Now, almost a quarter of a century after her death, the princess is once more at the vanguard of fashion and media. A TV version of Diana, played by British actress Emma Corrin, makes her debut in the eagerly anticipated new season of “The Crown,” starting Sunday on Netflix. Season 4 of the royal family drama largely focuses on Diana and her relationships with Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth and the royal family.

Diana, Princess of Wales, with a young Prince William.
Diana, Princess of Wales, with a young Prince William at Guards Polo Club outside London. Diana is casually dressed in jeans, boots and a sweatshirt with the British Lung Foundation logo across the front.
(Tim Graham / Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

In other Lady Di news, Kristen Stewart has been cast to play a silver-screen version in an upcoming biopic, “Spencer,” due to start production next year. And early next year, Netflix will stream a filmed version of “Diana: A Musical,” which was due to premiere on Broadway just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck following the show’s successful 2018 run at the La Jolla Playhouse.

There might be fresh buzz about these new Princess Di-focused projects in Hollywood, but the fashion industry has long had Diana-mania, including several recent and new collections inspired by the people’s princess.

Photo of Lauren Livia Muehl, left, and Jeanna de Waal
Lauren Livia Muehl, left, and Jeanna de Waal on stage during the La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere musical “Diana.”
(Little Fang)

In 2017, Virgil Abloh, men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton, presented a Diana-inspired runway show for his own label, Off-White, in Paris, the city where Diana died from injuries sustained in a car accident.

Designer Tory Burch also took inspiration from Meghan’s mother-in-law for her spring and summer 2020 collection shown at New York Fashion Week. Also, the September 2019 issue of Paris Vogue saw Hailey Bieber donning a plethora of Diana’s iconic off-duty looks — think oversized sweatshirts with Lycra cycling shorts — for a multipage spread.

A photo of Off-White founder Virgil Abloh with Naomi Campbell and models.
Off-White founder Virgil Abloh, center, with Naomi Campbell and other models as part of Off-White’s Paris Fashion Week show on Sept. 28, 2017.
(Richard Bord / Getty Images)

The pandemic hasn’t put a damper on fashion’s Diana fetish. In October, Corrin appeared on the cover of British Vogue, styled as her royal counterpart, while the headline on a trend piece in the Times of London read: “Princess Diana has inspired these statement cardigans.”

Across the Atlantic, preppy New York brand Rowing Blazers offered its first womenswear collection, which was inspired by Diana. Not only did the company look to the British blue blood for style ideas, the label also tracked down the designers behind two of Lady Di’s most iconic sweaters — one knitted with a repeating sheep print and the other emblazoned with the slogan “I’m a Luxury” in uppercase — to help re-create them.

A photo of Rowing Blazers' "I'm a Luxury" sweater.
The “I’m a Luxury” sweater from Rowing Blazers’ fall and winter 2020 collection was inspired by a sweater Diana once wore.
(Rowing Blazers)

“She’s always been a style inspiration to me because she sort of blurred the lines between men’s clothing and women’s clothing, or she would mix high and low in the way she dressed,” Rowing Blazers’ founder Jack Carlson told The Times. “She was very ahead of her time.” The $295 reproduction sweaters sold out immediately, Carlson said. “We didn’t anticipate anywhere near this kind of reaction.”

That a brand conceived by and targeted at millennials chose to focus on a woman who, if still alive, would be of a similar age to moms of millennials speaks to Diana’s enduring legacy. As trends from the 1980s and early 1990s — when Diana-mania first peaked — swing back into style, she is being recast as a modern muse.

A photo of a sheep sweater from Rowing Blazers.
This sheep sweater from Rowing Blazers’ fall and winter 2020 collection is reminiscent of a sweater that Lady Di wore decades ago.
(Rowing Blazers)

“She was obviously majorly ahead of her time in general and [in] what she represented,” said British-born, L.A.-based writer Eloise Moran, who runs the Instagram account @LadyDiRevengeLooks, which posts photographs of the people’s princess at her most stylish, coupled with “The First Wives Club”-style captions. The social media account has more than 56,000 followers.

It might be Instagram, which Moran said has been “Diana-heavy” for a couple of years, that is driving Diana’s second posthumous wave. Photographs of Lady Di are ubiquitous on the picture-sharing site, and there are hundreds of Diana fan accounts, a number of which have amassed tens of thousands of followers.

“She was the most photographed woman in the world for almost two [decades],” Moran said. “I do think if you’re the most photographed woman in the world, that has a ripple effect that comes back.”

In a post-#MeToo world, it appears that younger women see Diana not only as a style icon but as a feminist role model who struggled to find the balance between her public and private selves. To the selfie generation, that’s relatable.

A 1982 photo of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales.
Prince Charles, left, and Diana, Princess of Wales, at Westminster Abbey in London for a centenary service for the Royal College of Music on Feb. 28, 1982.
(Fox Photos / Getty Images)

But Diana’s off-duty look also was carefully cultivated, whether she was wearing double denim while on mom duty with a young Prince William or a white USA-emblazoned Ralph Lauren sweater following her divorce. “She spoke to the world so much through what she decided to wear,” said Jessica Hobbs, who directed two of the Diana-focused episodes of “The Crown” Season 4. “In my generation, she was such a fundamental leader in the way that you could present yourself as a woman, and I loved her for that.”

All of which meant that, when it came to depicting Diana onscreen, fashion was front and center. “It was a real privilege to work on a story [set] around that time, that kind of burgeoning of independence and that sense of self she started to display by the way she chose what to wear,” Hobbs said. “Even her delight in using much stronger colors and palette [and] what she would reveal in terms of skin.”

We trace Princess Diana’s fashion evolution in this photo timeline, from her courtship with Prince Charles to the months before her untimely death.

Nov. 13, 2020

Hobbs recalled a conversation with “The Crown’s” costume designer, Amy Roberts, in which Roberts pointed out how each member of the royal family has a “set silhouette” they tend to stick to. “Diana broke all those rules; she would not stick to a silhouette,” Hobbs said. “She revealed her legs. She revealed her arms. She revealed her back and she did those things quite deliberately. And it was really interesting, once we started talking to people [who knew her], as to how she herself managed that.

A photo of a model on the runway during Tory Burch's New York Fashion Week show.
A model walks the runway wearing a look inspired by the wardrobe of Diana at Tory Burch’s spring and summer 2020 show during New York Fashion Week on Sept. 8, 2019.
(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images)

“She was one of our first influencers,” the director said. “Well, she probably wasn’t our first, but she was an early influencer. And the way that we see [fashion influencers] online now — she did it so brilliantly.”

In London, the style set is keen to see how Diana is depicted on “The Crown.” “We can’t wait to see the new series,” said Chris Owen, chairman of British modeling agency Premier, who has worked with supermodels including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford. “I mean, it’s a huge talking point with all the fashion cognoscenti all over the world.”

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Oct. 30, 2020

Thinking ahead of Sunday’s premiere, Owen said he particularly hopes to see Netflix re-create Diana’s infamous dance with John Travolta at a White House gala dinner in 1985, where she wore a floor-stopping off-the-shoulder midnight blue evening gown, as well as some of the “My Fair Lady”-esque outfits she liked to wear to race meetings such as Royal Ascot.

“I think fashion people will look at the iconic pieces and celebrate them and will be influenced by them again,” he said.