22 April 2011

Flashback Friday: Diana's Transformation

We'll call this one the mother of all transformations.
I suspect the only people that don't know this story are those that have been living in the wild, amongst wolves, for the past thirty years. It's the story of a shy teenager that became one of the most famous and most watched women in the world. And that story can be told rather well in clothes alone, because they completely reflect a woman in the process of finding herself.

Here's a change that was painfully easy to see coming: after all, Diana was only 19 years old when she and Charles announced their engagement. Few among us keep the same style from the age of 19 on, and Diana was no exception. What most people, especially the royal family, didn't see coming was the extent to which Diana would take her transformation.

Diana's style always seemed a bit lost to me, at the beginning. Such a young girl doesn't yet have a definitive style to call her own, so she relies on others to guide her. In Diana's case, she stuck with the principles of royal dressing and with a cache of British designers including the Emanuels (of wedding gown fame) and Bellville Sassoon.
Ruffles and frills abound, and the overall effect is both too young and too old for her, curiously enough. The result of storybook princess fantasies rendered into shape by a group of designers accustomed to working for royals much older than the Princess of Wales, I suppose.

This hazy-edged dream way of dressing lasts until sometime around Prince Harry's birth (1984). It's hard to say what prompted the change; certainly by this time Diana was gaining confidence in her royal role, and she was gaining a handle on her press attention (and how to use it). And for what it's worth, this is said to be the time period in which the cracks in the Wales's marriage begin to deepen beyond the point of repair.
Combine the reasons however you want, the outcome quickly earned the nickname 'Dynasty Di' from the press. Designers like Catherine Walker and Bruce Oldfield became trusted go tos for her wardrobe, and they began to mold her in a different direction. This is a more confident Princess; her style is louder, more attention-getting, and the trends of the 1980s begin to heavily filter in. There's a bit of a wink involved, too: playful details like costume pearls strung down her back, or polka dots all over the place. It's like a sartorial reminder that, even though she was the future Queen and a mum of two, she was still just a girl in her early twenties that liked to experiment with her style.

Up until the real war between Diana and Charles begins, we see a continuing evolution of style. Diana becomes more sophisticated, she grows up. The trends of the eighties are swapped out for the cleaner lines of the nineties. The playful details begin to disappear, and she fine tunes the art of using her clothing as a public relations tool.

When we reach the point of the Wales's separation (1992), that public relations tool becomes a weapon. For so long, she'd battled criticism that her style was grabbing attention away from others when she didn't mean it to; now, she put it to use. After more than a decade spent as one of the most photographed women in the world, Diana now knew exactly what to do to tell her side of the story.
Any appearance in jeans at all was a coup compared to Charles, who was tailored to the point of stiffness. She wore a bright, stand out Catherine Walker suit alone at the Taj Mahal, knowing that those colors would make for a statement photograph. On the night that Charles gave a television interview to tell his side of the divorce story (admitting to adultery in the process), Diana showed up at an event in a black dress as slinky as can be: low cut, high slit, high heels, her signature choker to top it off, and stole all the headlines. And on the other end of the spectrum, for her infamous Panorama interview, she wore clothing of no note. A simple, business-like suit was the best way to focus attention on her words.

As the divorce progressed and passed, Diana was finally able to say goodbye to the restrictions of princess style that had held her through her marriage. Though she remained a patron of British fashion design, she opened up the field and found great success with international designers. Versace, in particular, created many of her last memorable gowns.

There were still prim and ladylike suits, and she still worked the casual look better than any other royal on the block, but Divorced Diana was allowed to get a lot more daring. Gone was the Princess that carefully avoided cleavage after a single black dress episode during her engagement; New Diana's necklines were cut to showcase her assets. Gone were the low heels that kept her from towering over her husband, and the respectful skirt lengths; in were high heels and short skirts meant to show off a memorable pair of legs.

It seems to me that this is the real Diana, this style that emerged just in the very last years of her life. I would argue that this is really where we see a fashion star on the rise, not in her earlier years. She was, for once, not trying to adhere to royal requirements, not trying to be a brand ambassador, and finally not trying to be the princess that everyone thought she should be. And that's really the saddest fact of all: that she found herself with so little time to spare.

Which era epitomizes Diana for you?