Remembering the Life and Style of the “People’s Princess”

Princess Diana
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Princess Diana would have celebrated her 57th birthday today. Here, 21 years after her death, Savoir Flair looks back at her life, her style, and why she was known as the “People’s Princess”.

On July 1st, 1961, a beautiful baby was born to Viscount Althorp John Spencer and his first wife Frances. Named after a distant relative, Diana Frances Spencer was the third of three daughters, with a younger brother named Charles, who came later. She was born into aristocracy and grew up on the Sandringham estate owned by Queen Elizabeth II in Park House. As a child, she played with her sisters Sarah and Jane, as well as her brother Charles, alongside Prince Andrew and Prince Edward, meaning her ties to the British royal family ran deep long before she married Prince Charles.

Nicknamed “Shy Di”, she showed an aptitude for ballet, piano, swimming, and dancing, but was less academic. In fact, she failed her O-Levels twice in school. However, her real passion was working with children, and she eventually became a kindergarten teacher at the Young England School. This passion would later come to inform her philanthropic work.

In the summer of 1980, she caught the eye of Prince Charles, who was dating her older sister Sarah at the time. Later, he invited Diana for a sailing weekend to Cowes on the royal yacht Britannia, which is fairly auspicious as far as first dates go. On February 24th, 1981, their engagement became official.

The couple made their first public appearance together at a charity ball a month later at Goldsmiths’ Hall, and the country quickly developed an interest in the doe-eyed Diana. It had been 300 years since an Englishwoman was engaged to the heir apparent, making her the first royal bride in centuries to hold the honor and the first to have had a paying job prior to getting married.

In the summer of 1980, she caught the eye of Prince Charles.

The two wed quickly – mere months after their initial engagement – on July 29th, 1981. When the media dubbed the event “the wedding of the century”, it wasn’t being hyperbolic. In fact, 750 million people worldwide tuned in to witness the royal nuptials, with more than 3,500 guests in attendance. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was filled with the who’s who of British aristocracy and European royals, as well as other notable guests like First Lady Nancy Reagan.

The fantasy wedding began with Diana arriving in a glass coach, reminiscent of a fairytale. A three-and-a-half-minute processional up the aisle, three choirs, three orchestras, and some controversial vows (they omitted the word “obey”) later, the two walked down the aisle as husband and wife. A year later, she gave birth to Prince William.

Princess Diana wedding gown
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Although it looked perfect from the outside, Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles was fraught with turmoil. The young bride was not used to having every aspect of her life picked apart by the media, causing an initial strain. She also questioned her husband’s close relationship to Camilla Parker Bowles, who would later find herself at the center of a media firestorm of her own.

Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century.

With her privacy invaded on every front and her husband’s faithfulness constantly in question, Princess Diana became depressed. Unfortunately, this too became public knowledge as the invasive press released private tapes that cast both her and her husband in a negative light. In 1994, Prince Charles publicly confirmed an extramarital affair with Parker Bowles, citing an “irretrievable breakdown” in his marriage to Princess Diana. The two officially divorced a year later on November 20th, 1995, but the tabloids only became more interested in Diana.

Aside from the public scrutiny, the pressures of being a royal princess weighed heavily on her. However, the graceful royal rose to the challenge, involving herself in 191 official engagements in 1988 and 397 in 1991. That’s a pretty stacked calendar, if you ask us. In fact, Stephen Lee, Director of the UK Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers, claimed this about her contributions: “Her overall effect on charity is probably more significant than any other person’s in the 20th century.”

Her work was primarily with charities dealing with serious illnesses like HIV/AIDS and leprosy, but she also focused her philanthropic work on children in need. She was a patron of dozens of charities in her lifetime and was rightfully presented with many awards. One of her most profound legacies is changing the public perception of AIDS because she was not squeamish about touching patients afflicted with the deadly disease.

At the time, during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, most people thought the diseases were transferable by touch, which is vehemently incorrect. Her incredible compassion towards those who suffered from HIV/AIDS helped change people’s minds. In South Africa, President Nelson Mandela marveled at her kindness, saying, “When she stroked the limbs of someone with leprosy or sat on the bed of a man with HIV/AIDS and held his hand, she transformed public attitudes and improved the life chances of such people.”

Prime Minister Tony Blair dubbed her the “People’s Princess”. Her brother Charles, meanwhile, described her by saying, “Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world, she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”

Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty.

In addition to touching the lives of millions with her compassionate care and charitable work, Princess Diana was one of the world’s biggest style icons. In fact, Eleri Lynn, the curator of a fashion retrospective called Diana: Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palacedeclared, “She is stepping into that same sort of space as an Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy – a fashion icon whose style is so emulated and so loved, really.”

In her youth, “Shy Di” preferred sweet pastel skirt suits and pussybow blouses, but she later became a powerhouse of style. One of the elements that set her apart during the 1980s – the decade of excess – was her ability to wear clothes that really flattered her, rather than the era’s ugly volumes. She streamlined some of those silhouettes especially well but occasionally appeared in enormous ball gowns with padded shoulders.

Eventually, she found her groove with designers like Catherine Walker, whose designs she wore hundreds of times, but she also appreciated a generation of emerging fashion designers like Gianni Versace. When it came to style, she was a quick study, as is evidenced by the iconic nature of her wardrobe. After all this time, many of the looks provided to Kensington Palace for her fashion exhibition were utterly timeless.

As a beautiful, stylish, and powerful member of the royal family, Princess Diana was one of the most photographed women in the world, but this fact led to her tragic demise. The world was rocked to its core when she and her companion Dodi Fayed were killed in a car accident on August 31st, 1997. As the subject of intense paparazzi interest, the princess and Fayed were being driven through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris by the Deputy Head of Security at the Hôtel Ritz ParisHenri Paul, who was speeding to avoid a gang of photographers in hot pursuit.

The verdict after the crash stated that it “was caused, or contributed to, by the speed and manner of the driver of the Mercedes and the speed and manner of the following vehicles,” although Paul’s inebriated state also contributed heavily to the loss of vehicle control. An international outpouring of grief followed in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Public offerings and tributes were left outside Kensington Palace for months, while Elton John re-wrote the lyrics to his famous hit “Candle in the Wind” so that they would address Princess Diana’s lasting magic. Her funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on September 6th, 1997, but her legacy endures as one of the most influential, inspirational, and stylish women of the 20th century. In the gallery, below, we look back at a handful of Princess Diana’s sartorial highlights.

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