In fairy tales, the handsome prince marries the beautiful princess, and the gown she wears as he lifts her veil and gives her the quickening kiss is at the heart of their romantic fantasy.
The public's fascination with the pretty, shy young woman the future King of Englandchose as his bride 16 years ago began before she walked down the aisle in an ivory taffetafull-skirted dress overlaid with pearl-encrusted lace. From the beginning, the clothes Dianachose, what handbag she carried, how her hair was styled, the amount of money she spent, how enthusiastically she shopped, even how much cleavage she revealed, all became part of the lore Diana-watchers savored.
It is too early to tell whether the Princess of Wales will be remembered as a style icon, simply because her look evolved as her sense of self did. But one thing is clear: People worldwide cared about how she looked because they had an affection for the radiant, modern young woman herself.
The tremendous sums fetched by her dresses auctioned for charity in New York in June had nothing to do with the design of the gowns. The bidders weren't buying a look. They wanted a piece of the person, an artifact of the legend, even if it was a fussy ball gown no one would ever wear again.
Unlike her counterparts from previous generations, Diana understood that clothes were part of a life, not a substitute.
"My husband gave up everything for me," Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, once said. "I'm not a beautiful woman. I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else. If everyone looks at me when I enter a room, my husband can feel proud of me. That's my chief responsibility."
Although Diana had other things on her mind, "my clothes are part of the job," she said. That remark was a response to early criticism that she shopped too often and spent too lavishly. And what young woman in her position wouldn't--especially one who was constantly on display, who enjoyed fashion and wore it well? Surrounded by royal relatives who were no one's role models when it came to dressing well, Diana brought some sophistication and glamour to a monarchy that was sadly lacking it.
Diana's official life was a constant round of formal occasions, and she was most often photographed in evening clothes, a fact that added to her image as a fairy-tale princess. Even if the gowns were traditional, her haircut was current, sporty enough to not be dowdy, yet accommodating to the spectacular tiaras she carried so elegantly.
As refreshing as her decision not to follow in the style-challenged footsteps of the rest of the royal family was, more often than not her adventurousness and taste drew a lot of heat.
Even though she followed the rules and wore only British designers, her appearance in a somewhat revealing strapless dress shortly after her engagement caused a minor scandal. When she pulled her hair back in a chignon for a state occasion, her hairdo got more attention than Queen Elizabeth's ceremonial opening of parliament.
"Diana was young and beautiful and statuesque and could wear anything she wanted," Hollywood costume designer Deena Appel said. "If she had had the freedom of a private person, she probably would have experimented more and would have developed more of a personal style. But it seemed that freedom was something she didn't have in any part of her life. She had to dress very appropriately and had to be concerned with an image. Any time she wore anything remotely daring or sexy, the reaction was shocking, and that's probably when she looked the most attractive."
Anyone could go to a costume party dressed as Jacqueline Onassis and be readily recognizable. Years from now, how would someone imitate Lady Di? With the exception of her hairdo, her wedding dress and the boxy, quilted Christian Dior handbag she began carrying a few years ago that the company renamed the Lady Dior in her honor, it would be hard to characterize Diana's style.
It changed as her life and personality did. As she grew more confident in her official role, she was photographed as frequently in workout clothes as in evening dress. The opulence of the '80s segued into the more severe, minimalist style of the '90s, and Diana's choices became sleeker and less fanciful.
When she was a sweet young thing, ostensibly in love with a prince, watching her wardrobe was a fitting sport. Gradually, the sad drama of her life eclipsed that. The charm of a willowy woman in a slender dress is marred by the knowledge that she's miserably bulimic, even suicidal. While Diana was suffering in an unhappy marriage, grappling with the responsibilities of motherhood, and then with a frighteningly public divorce and ultimately, it seemed, finding fulfillment in good works, her wardrobe just didn't seem that important.
The lesson, then, is that clothes don't make the woman. Initially, we read them for clues to the personality. Once an identity is revealed, they merge with it. The one constant of Diana's public appearance was appropriateness and dignity.
If there is a run on Lady Dior bags, or the J.P. Todd tote bag she recently began carrying, it will have less to do with fashion than with the power of a woman who was vulnerable, kind and caring to touch strangers throughout the world.