The first time I met Lady Diana Spencer was in 1980, in the editor’s office. The engagement had been announced and she couldn’t go anywhere without being mobbed. Her sisters had worked at Vogue and we thought we might be able to help with her image. I’d called in far too many clothes because I had absolutely no idea of the kind of thing she liked. By the time she arrived, I was shaking like a leaf, but I took one look at her and thought, this isn’t going to be too difficult after all. She was about five feet ten and completely in proportion. Her eyes lit up when she saw all the racks – I don’t think she had any idea how many lovely things there were out there – and her enthusiasm was contagious. After that, I’d trundle over to Kensington Palace with a rail full of clothes for her to go through and we’d sit on the floor in her drawing room, looking at sketches and swatches of fabric, while the butler brought endless coffee.
Diana had been called a Fashion icon, but at the start she was incredibly unsophisticated about it all. Her taste was typical of her background; upper-class English girls weren’t as knowing about clothes as they are now – there were no It girls then. But she was very open to ideas. The fashion press would have liked her to be more fashionable, but it would have been completely inappropriate. Recently I showed her a few slip dresses but she just rolled her eyes, and the one time she did wear a Dior lingerie gown, the press gave her a roasting. She was also aware of what the other members of the Royal Family might be wearing. She didn’t feel she could wear Hervé Léger since she might be treading on Serena Linley’s toes. It was the same with Ferre and Princess Michael and Armani and the Duchess of Kent. She wanted to be modern rather than fashionable. I couldn’t get her out of big jewellery (she loved fooling people with fakes) and although I gave her a pair of beautiful delicate Angela Hale earrings for her birthday, I didn’t ever see her wearing them.
Fashion might not have been a priority but she loved to experiment. One birthday I gave her a pair of Pucci leggings with some Gap T-shirts and she was delighted that I thought she might wear something this zany.
We were always laughing, even at the disasters. Once, I showed her a picture of Naomi Campbell in a beaded Versace column which she loved, so I asked the Versaces if they’d make one up for her. She was waiting with her bags packed for a trip to New York and as she wanted to take the dress with her, I rushed round to Kensington Palace with it. When we opened the box it was the wrong dress and did nothing for her. But she sent it back with a charming note (and, incidentally, despite being HRH she always insisted on paying for everything).
She rapidly learned how to make an impact. She knew that the midnight-blue velvet dress by Victor Edelstein, which she wore when she danced with John Travolta at the White House, was one heck of a number and it thrilled her. Once she asked me whether I minded if she called her husband into the drawing room to ask him what he thought of a black Murray Arbeid, with a huge oyster-grey waterfall skirt, and he just stared at her in it and said, “You look absolutely wonderful”.
She enjoyed sitting for portraits (not just for the press; the members of the Royal Family traditionally give their charities and visiting dignitaries signed photographs of themselves). She especially loved Terence Donovan, who made her laugh, and Patrick Demarchelier, who was incredibly flirtatious and not remotely deferential. Snowdon, perhaps, understood better than anyone what was required. Inevitably, the glamour tag became irksome and the names of her designers, whom she’d been happy to promote, were left off her press releases. She was desperate to get a more serious image and Catherine Walker was indispensable in helping her forge one. She always felt more comfortable in tailored clothes. Over the years, Catherine devised a simple system of suits and tailored dresses that required a minimal number of fittings.
She knew what she liked – and she could be difficult to sway. Quite recently, I persuaded her to buy a grey coat that I thought she looked divine in, and she did – to please me, I think. When I went to see her a few months later she said, “I think you’d better have that coat, Anna – I’ve never worn it.” That was her way of telling me it was a mistake.
In the early days, we didn’t know what was expected. There were so many functions and we also had to get a trousseau together. There always had to be something black in case she was suddenly called to a state funeral. And soon after the wedding she was – to Princess Grace’s. It’s hard to imagine now, but she really had nothing in her own wardrobe – a few Laura Ashley blouses and skirts and some bobbly jumpers. That was it. My first thought was tea at Balmoral, because she told me that the Royal Family changed for afternoon tea. (It was a myth that she hated Scotland. She loved going for walks in the hills; she just didn’t enjoy the fishing and found the formality of Balmoral claustrophobic).
Fashion might not have been a priority but she loved to experiment
She wanted to wear British because she felt it was something positive she could do for the fashion industry. She was a very English girl and the romantic style suited her. Everyone was thrilled to do things for her; there was such a feeling of euphoria that here was this young, glamorous girl who loved clothes. Stephen Jones even sat up all night, embroidering the Prince of Wales’s feathers into the tam-o’-shanter she wore to the Braemar Games. People always went the extra mile for her. Once, she wanted to meet Linda Evangelista for coffee in Joe’s Café. Joe’s was closed in the mornings and so that she wouldn’t know they’d opened especially for her, we roped in a cast of “extras” to make it look busy.
She made a conscious decision to dispense with formality very early on. I ordered dozens of suede gloves in every shade for her because the Royal Family always wore gloves. Heaven knows where they all went because she never wore any of them. She wanted flesh to flesh contact. Hats, on the other hand, were something she didn’t feel able to dispense with for years, and in this respect she did spark a trend, though on the whole, she responded to fashion rather than set it.
Once you had her trust, it was implicit, which made the responsibility even greater. I’d pore over the newspaper photographs – and she did – to see which outfits worked. I remember looking at those pictures of her sitting next to Prince Charles by a stream at Balmoral on the honeymoon and thinking that she’d transformed completely from the girl I’d met eight months earlier. She was wearing a tweed suit, with those bare brown legs, and she looked great. It wasn’t just the weight loss, which was dramatic, and the blonde hair – she was, I think, very happy at that time.
She was amazed at her approval rating and this new-found confidence made her blossom. We got braver and there were mistakes. The majorette outfit she wore to meet the troops was widely berated yet she intended it to be a compliment to them. Her turnover of clothes was phenomenal and she was criticized for being extravagant, so she recycled. Outfits were either endlessly altered or given away to her sisters and to friends.
The earliest lesson was that things had to fit like a glove. The beautiful, infamous silk Emanuel ball gown hadn’t been made to measure and she fell out of it. The wedding dress was also criticized for not fitting, but her weight constantly fluctuated. I didn’t know at this time that she had an eating disorder although I was shocked to see her arms one day in a ruffled one-shoulder Bruce Oldfield dress, and told her how thin she’s become. She said simply, “I know.” Yet even at her most insecure, she never fretted about her looks. Once, when the papers were saying she’s had her nose done, she turned to me and said laughingly, “Honestly, if I’d had my nose done, do you think I would have chosen this one?”
She had two alternating dressers and a walk-in-wardrobe – not ridiculously big, but the kind we’d all love to have, with lights that came on when you opened the doors. We learned that we must have poppers sewn into necklines so that nothing gaped when she bent over. At that stage I had to get everything in for her because she couldn’t move without being mobbed, although for a time she used to go shopping in Sainsbury’s for little things like yoghurts, because she was so desperate for normality. She soon had to give that up. I remember one frantic phone call when she said she needed some bras. She was incredibly vague about her size, so I went into Fenwick and practically cleaned them out of their stock.
From the start she used clothes to make gestures; on her first visit to Wales she wore the Welsh colours – a green and red silk suit; for her arrival in Japan she wore Yuki and for a trip to Paris, Chanel. But the turning point style-wise in her marriage came on the second tour to Australia when she began playing with glamour and becoming much more daring. I wasn’t mad on one-sleeve dresses but she loved them and, by then, I’d learned that she couldn’t be convinced on certain things, so I popped a beaded white one-sleeve Hachi dress on the rail and trotted over to Kensington Palace. Sure enough she made a beeline for it, and when I saw the newspaper pictures of her wearing it, I realized her instincts had been right. She looked sensational but the establishment hated it. It was too revealing; they didn’t think it was Royal. After that she was dubbed Dynasty Di and rarely wore full skirts. She was proud of her figure, laterally especially, and of how feminine it was – and she wasn’t going to be pushed around. Years later when everyone complained about an outfit, she said to me, “I’m certainly going to wear it again,” and I said, “I think you should… If you really have faith in it.” I don’t think she did wear it, but she’d made her point.
She’d ask advice but not necessarily take it. once she asked me what I thought of the kohl she wore and I told her it was a little heavy, perhaps. Obviously I was completely ignored. I discovered that it was pointless to be didactic. As she became more independent, the heels got higher, the skirts shorter – it was almost a semaphore of clothes to signal her state of mind (as she well knew).
After the divorce she was much freer. She wore a lot of Versace – the sample shift dresses and evening columns that he and Catherine Walker were doing for her this past year were probably her most successful look to date. Everything became more streamlined and somehow athletic, in line with her role as a committed charity worker and she moved to navy-blue, greys and pastels. She often did her own make-up – Barbara Daly had given her lessons in the early days, followed by Mary Greenwell – and Sam McKnight had given her a sleek hairstyle that she could do herself. She adored Sam; he’d become a confidant and she said to me, “Thank you, Anna, for Sam.” The clothes she wore for her trips to Angola and Bosnia – the crisp white shirts, cotton chinos and Connelly shoes – were her own idea and entirely appropriate.
It is said she was more beautiful in the flesh. 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.
Diana: Her Fashion Story is now open at Kensington Palace, www.hrp.org.uk