‘Vogue’ Gave Princess Diana a Fashion World Foothold as Marriage Crumbled

From her first introduction to the world’s press in 1980 to her tragic death in 1997 and beyond, the public has been fascinated by Princess Diana, so much so that in a November 2022 poll she was still the fourth-most-popular royal in Britain.

Part of Diana’s international appeal was her beauty and unquestionable style. The royal has become so closely associated with a number of defining fashion moments that after her death, the dresses she once wore are now almost regarded as relics.

Key to helping shape Diana’s image as a fashion icon was her long association with style bible British Vogue, which would offer her a lifeline as her marriage crumbled in the 1990s. This association has been charted by authors Robin Muir and Josephine Ross in their newly published book, The Crown in Vogue.

Princess Diana for British "Vogue"
Lady Diana Spencer (L) photographed by Lord Snowdon for British “Vogue” in February 1981, and (R) as the Princess of Wales, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, in 1994. Part of Diana’s international appeal was her beauty and unquestionable style.
Lord Snowdon/Patrick Demarchelier

From a pre-engagement inside scoop to the breakdown of her marriage and posthumous assessment of her legacy, the princess’ public life featured heavily inside the pages of the magazine.

“Diana, Princess of Wales featured on three covers during her lifetime and one posthumously, as well as one for U.S. Vogue,” Muir told Newsweek of her collaborations with the title.

The three British Vogue covers published during her lifetime (August 1981, December 1991 and July 1994) “coincided with significant moments in her life. The latter ones as she strikes out on her own,” Muir continued.

“She also arrived at a moment when popstars, celebrities and social figures dressed not necessarily to be different, but to be noticed, and Diana, who instinctively understood the power of fashion, was determined to cut a figure that no one could ignore.”

“1989 saw the cracks begin to appear in the royal marriage, so it was almost imperative for the Princess to develop a new narrative, one that showed her as a woman of independent ideas with a bold fresh approach to the job. And through those various covers and cover stories, Vogue was instrumental in reflecting this carefully crafted image.”

Diana’s association with the magazine began long before her marriage breakdown, though, with her two elder sisters both working at times for the title.

Princess Diana by Lord Snowdon 1985
Princess Diana photographed by Lord Snowdon for British “Vogue” in 1985. She had a close relationship with the magazine.
Lord Snowdon

Through her sisters she met fashion editor Anna Harvey, who was dispatched to help style the then-girlfriend of Prince Charles after a fashion faux pas occurred where the press photographed her in a revealing pose after the sun made her light cotton skirt look see-through in pictures.

Harvey helped Lady Diana Spencer, as she then was, and arranged for her to be privately photographed by Princess Margaret’s ex-husband Lord Snowdon.

The portraits of the 19-year-old first appeared in the pages of Vogue in February 1981, perfectly timed to coincide with the announcement of her engagement to Prince Charles, and beating competitors in the battle for an exclusive photograph.

“As Lady Diana Spencer, photographed just pre-engagement by Snowdon—a real coup for Vogue who had inside knowledge that an announcement would be made and were able to act on it—she looks remarkably young but assured and entirely photogenic,” said Muir.

“I think Snowdon’s fashion photographer’s eye really sees the glamour in her early on (especially in the rarely seen portrait of her in blue ruffles by the Emanuels) and, of course, with a poise and elegance long before it became the biggest weapon in her armoury.”

As the 1980s progressed and the public fully embraced the princess, she began to experiment with her style, moving away from the excessive designs typical of the decade which earned her the nickname “Dynasty Di” and more towards the classic streamlined aesthetic of the 1990s.

As her marriage to Charles deteriorated, first separating in 1992, then divorcing in 1996, Diana’s image centered increasingly around the ideas of strength and independence as she also increased her charity work.

Princess Diana by Patrick Demarchelier, 1994
A portrait of Princess Diana in 1994 by Patrick Demarchelier, displayed before being auctioned in London, on March 15, 2019. He became a friend and trusted visual expert.
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

One of the photographers who captured her image in this period was Patrick Demarchelier, who became a friend and trusted visual expert.

“Patrick was one of those great European fashion photographers who came to prominence in the mid-1970s and by the time he gets to work with Diana, he is highly proficient in the art of artifice,” Muir assessed.

“Rails of clothes would be called in, hair stylists and makeup artists hired, fashion editors and assistants would mill around. The results were as polished as any Vogue fashion shoot–which in essence they were–and the Princess emanated this cool stylised glamour.”

Many of Demarchelier’s portraits would be used in tribute coverage of the princess’ life after her death in a high-speed Paris car crash at the age of just 36. The photographer died in 2022 at the age of 78.

Writing of her style protégé in the October 1997 issue of British Vogue, Anna Harvey reflected on the princess’ relationships with photographers, designers, stylists and make-up artists, concluding that at the end of her life, she had developed beyond the help of others into her own person.

“It is said she was more beautiful in the flesh,” she wrote. “Once, on a visit to Vogue, the art department, who’d been quite cynical about her, were agog.

She had sparkle. It was simply magnetic and, in the end, it transcended her clothes.”

The Crown in Vogue, $29.99, published by Thunder Bay Press is available in the U.S. now.

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