Princess Diana, photographed 12th November 1980
Princess Diana, photographed 12th November 1980
Image: Photo by Central Press/Getty Images

It seems brilliantly apposite that in a year in which we have already seen the advent of a celebrity US presidency, the spectre of nuclear proliferation, a distinct cooling of the west's relationship with Russia, rail strikes and women taking to the streets to protest the erosion of civil rights, Kensington Palace should have announced the unveiling of a show dedicated to Princess Diana's style. It's further proof, perhaps, that as a society we have unknowingly hit some kink in the time-space continuum, only to be spat out in a landscape that very closely resembles 1984.

Diana: Her Fashion Story, which opens on February 24, traces the evolution of the princess's wardrobe from mousy ingénue in puffed-sleeved tafettas, as captured by the late Lord Snowdon to commemorate her engagement to Prince Charles, to the slick-haired glamazon who shimmered in a Catherine Walker gown for Vanity Fair shortly before her death in 1997.

Diana, Princess of Wales attends the London premiere of 'In Love and War' at the Odeon Leicester Square, 12th February 1997
Diana, Princess of Wales attends the London premiere of 'In Love and War' at the Odeon Leicester Square, 12th February 1997
Image: Dave Benett/Getty Images

The exhibition aims to illustrate Diana's emerging sophistication and understanding of her wardrobe as an expression of her social significance. (A practice that has been adopted by many political wives and silent partners ever since.) However, given the current vogue for historical retro-activism, I find the earlier outfits far more interesting. Forget the chic Valentino gowns and va-va Versace dresses in which she was latterly recognised as global fashion plate, and focus instead on the pussy-bow blouses, plaid skirt suits, pilgrim collars and pillbox hats that characterised her first public appearances. For it is these outfits, once disregarded as the epitome of gauche Chelsea Sloane, that have become the essence of 2017 cool.

A model in a boater hat during the Gucci Cruise 2017 fashion show at the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey in London, in June 2016
A model in a boater hat during the Gucci Cruise 2017 fashion show at the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey in London, in June 2016
Image: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Fashion's debt to Diana's 80s style has emerged most powerfully on the catwalk: just look at those ribboned boater hats and cricket sweaters at Gucci, or the oversized pinstripe blazers at Jil Sander. Do those puffball sleeves at Ashley Williams ring any bells? How about the cutesy little motif knits at Tory Burch? Nothing is so on-trend this season as slinging a knotted sweater around your shoulders, adding knickerbocker trousers and a cone-heeled shoe. Still struggling to find your spring inspiration? Check out those early paparazzi pictures of Diana watching polo at Cowdray Park.

Model wears oversized pinstripe blazer at the Jil Sander show Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017 on September 24, 2016 in Milan
Model wears oversized pinstripe blazer at the Jil Sander show Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2017 on September 24, 2016 in Milan

Fashion lore would have it that Diana came to despise her Windsor-wife ensembles, banishing many of them to Christie's, which auctioned them off to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1994. But it was in these outfits I loved her best. That tweedy bomber and skirt ensemble she wore while honeymooning at Balmoral? Heaven. Diana tripping around Venice in 1985 in a green checkered coat with mega lapels and matching midi-heels? My dear, it's just so Balenciaga resort.

As a child, I would study the finer details of Diana's wardrobe in a state of near-transcendent rapture. I grew up in a family that regarded an interest in fashion with a distrust bordering on disdain, and Diana was my gateway drug to a life-long clothes addiction. And she had so many of them. I was, in particular, transfixed by the attention paid to each ensemble — how the primrose-yellow trim of a dress would exactly match the shade of her hat and handbag. In the pitiful yore of a world without the internet, where Sunday supplements stood in for Google image searches, I pored over papers detailing, for example, the royal tour of Australia, like a devotee in possession of a holy relic. I wasn't alone among my peers either. One fellow junior was so Di-mented, she put together a storybook of felt-tip illustrations detailing her fairytale progress. It earned her a trip to the Palace and a spot on Blue Peter.

But time went by. I grew up, discovered Molly Ringwald and found a new girl to style-crush on. Diana moved on too, exchanging her Emanuel silks for logo sweatshirts, shorts and Reebok trainers in which to flaunt her newly gym-honed legs (a style that the Russian provocateur Gosha Rubchinskiy must have admired in the creation of his retro cult street label). Eventually, she graduated to the Italian houses and the elegant English designers credited with "streamlining" her 1990s fashionability. Mario Testino photographed her at her most radiantly composed.

But I missed the Diana of old. You can keep the cold war, pre-Euro cuisine, power politics and yuppie rhetoric of the decade we now seem to have returned to, but I'll take 80s Diana any day. Eighties Diana was the best: flouncy, frilly and fantastically naive. It's about the only feature of that era I feel any fondness for at all.


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright the Financial Times Limited 2017

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