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The Glamour of Princess Diana

Stephen Gundle is Professor of Film and Television Studies at Warwick University, and has written widely on European culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on the mass media, the cultural aspects of politics, and the impact of American modernity on European popular culture. His latest book, Glamour: A History, is recently published in paperback, and below is an excerpt from the book, dicussing the glamour of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

You can read Professor Gundle’s previous OUPblog post here.


When Lady Diana Spencer became engaged to Prince Charles in February 1981, she was a young woman from an aristocratic family whose modest education and limited experience of life were reflected in her demure appearance. A pretty and naïve 19-year-old, she seemed the archetypal English Rose. Thrust unknowingly into the media spotlight, she quickly became the nation’s darling. Her wedding to Prince Charles in St Paul’s Cathedral in July 1981 was given blanket press coverage and was watched by an estimated worldwide television audience of one billion people. The marriage was presented as a fairy-tale union of an eligible prince and a beautiful commoner, the aristocratic standing and royal ancestors of Diana’s family receiving less emphasis than her more commonplace status as a young working woman. A decade later, Diana’s public image was quite different. Her marriage to Charles bore two sons, but by the late 1980s it was on the rocks. The Prince and Princess of Wales formally separated in December 1992 and were divorced in 1996. Throughout this period, the press scrutinized every aspect of their body language and public appearances, separately and together, for indications of the state of their relationship. Both the prince and Diana briefed the press through friends and blamed each other for the breakdown of the marriage. Public sympathy was firmly with Diana and the affection for her was amply demonstrated in the emotional public reaction to her death following a car accident in Paris in August 1997. As she emerged from the shadow of her husband, Diana invested ever more energy in charitable works. Having herself suffered from the acrimonious divorce of her parents, and living the breakdown of her own marriage, she was in a position to offer comfort to others. Subsequently, she helped publicize the international campaign against landmines and to overcome discrimination against AIDS sufferers. Like a secular Mother Teresa of Calcutta, with whom she established a connection, she became identified with selfless devotion to the causes of the ill and suffering.

Diana was not originally associated with glamour. Mainly, she was presented within the framework of royalty. In the course of the twentieth century, the British royal family had had a complex relationship with glamour. It had flirted with the press, the movies, and publicity, but fundamentally it remained a thing apart, an institution that was theatrical, certainly, but respectable and not a little stodgy. Its capacity to enchant was founded on history and tradition, and was more ceremonial than personal. Thus Diana’s spectacular wedding endowed her with a conventional aura, that of the fairy-tale princess. With its puffed sleeves, nipped waist, embroidered pearls and sequins, and 25-foot taffeta train, the bride’s creamy silk dress contributed to the fantasy. The pomp of the wedding impressed not only the thousands who lined the streets leading to St Paul’s, but the millions who watched the ceremony on television or read about it in the press. Over time, Diana’s image evolved as she became more womanly and the press found that use of her image never failed to boost sales beyond measure. Designers competed to dress her and magazines ran features on her wardrobe, knowing that women regarded her as an inspiration. In subsequent years, as she acquired an independent profile and began to detach herself from the royal family, her conventional aura was displaced by glamour. She became a figure of beauty and style whose photogenic qualities turned her into the most photographed person of the age. Speculation about her love life in the final stages of her marriage and in the period prior to her death intensified interest in her to the point that almost her every move was tracked by paparazzi.

Diana’s beauty was central to the transition she made from demure and virginal princess to woman of glamour. Her girlish good looks at the time of her courtship and engagement drew some favourable comment but no one in those early days saw her as a great beauty. Rather, Diana grew into her body, which she turned by sheer dint of effort into one of her main tools of communication. A tall and well-proportioned woman, her appearance became splendid; she was toned, tanned, slim, blonde, and radiant and at no time more so than in the five years between her separation and her death. ‘Providence gave her beauty, but it was she who contrived to project it until it radiated to every quarter of the globe,’ noted the historian Paul Johnson in the days after her death. The most important thing about her in this regard was that she was superbly photogenic. ‘This was not merely beauty,’ commented another senior male observer; ‘this was beauty that lept through the lenses. She seemed chemically bonded to film and video.’

The most remarkable series of photographic portraits appeared too late to shape responses to her, although they may have had some small influence on the reaction to her death. In 1997 Vanity Fair published in its July issue a series of pictures under the title ‘Princess Di’s New Look by Mario Testino’. The Peruvian photographer’s work ensured that she exited the world at the height of her splendour. More than any of his colleagues, Testino had a gift for giving his subjects an electric charge of fabulousness. They positively glowed and glistened and always looked like euphoric, yet not unnatural, versions of themselves. In Testino’s lens, Diana looked relaxed, rich (her rumoured £80,000 per annum grooming budget was evident in her beautiful skin, cropped and highlighted hair, and movie-star smile), and totally confident. The spectator could not but be mesmerized by her relaxed air and sleek surface. It took Diana some time to understand how she could use fashion to establish a public identity and communicate messages but, once she did, she harnessed its power to maximum effect. Her glamour was inextricably bound up with her dazzling use of fashion. In 1994 one newspaper estimated that her wardrobe had a value of around one million pounds. In fact, the charity auction of seventy-nine of her dresses in New York in June 1997 (for which the Testino photographs were a promotional pitch) raised a total of $3.25 million. As the Prince of Wales’s wife, her choice of designers was limited to the British or British-based, with exceptions being made only on royal visits for designers from the host countries. The London designers Catherine Walker and Bruce Oldfield were perhaps the first to see her glamour potential. They helped her forge a fashion identity that was varied but generally discreetly eye-catching during the day and fabulous for evening occasions. Diana dressed at first to please—to please above all her distracted husband by showing she could win the adoration of the gallery—but then increasingly for effect. Demure dresses gave way to striking red and black gowns, chic pastel combinations, and toned down looks for everyday charity work. By the mid-1990s, she had turned into a toned, tanned, and designer-clad blonde vision of incomparable allure. She wore international labels and showed a particular predilection for the creations of Gianni Versace, the Italian designer who was hailed after his murder in Miami Beach in July 1997 as the ‘king of glitz’. Versace showered her with suits and dresses and she became a regular customer at the label’s Bond Street store. She did not wear his starlet numbers but rather opted for the simple, sexy outfits that suited her fashion persona. One of the last memorable pictures of Diana is of her comforting a disconsolate Elton John at Versace’s funeral in the Duomo in Milan.

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