Queen of cool: how off-duty Diana became style’s new muse
For the first time ever, Princess Diana is cool. Diana has been many things – the fairytale bride, the ill-treated wife, the pioneer of revenge dressing and, finally, the queen of hearts – but hip is the one thing she has never been. At her wedding in 1981, and again at her funeral in 1997, she was a tabloid goddess. In between, she was a Vogue cover star. But she was never an avant-garde muse – until now.
Virgil Abloh made his name as Kanye West’s creative director, and his Off-White label is now one of the hottest in the fashion industry. A profile in W magazine called him the “king of social media superinfluencers” and “a canny translator of youth culture”. His show in Florence last month was an installation combining fashion and poetry created in collaboration with the American artist Jenny Holzer; a political statement that Abloh described as being about “immigration and the plight of refugees”. Abloh has art-directed an album for Jay-Z and designed limited-edition sneakers for Nike.
You get the picture: Abloh’s point of view is a fashion hot take. Last week, he released – on Instagram, naturally – his moodboard for next season. With a caption reading, “One woman, 40 Off-White looks in the works come September”, the moodboard was a collage of photographs of Diana: Diana laughing in a green baseball jacket at Alton Towers with her sons; Diana in denim dungarees at the polo; Diana leaving the gym in cycling shorts; Diana in a grey marl sweatshirt with a HARVARD slogan; Diana with a white polo neck worn layered under bright knitwear; Diana in a calf-length skirt.
Her status as a muse for Off-White officially makes Diana the coolest style reference of the moment. What’s more, Abloh’s moodboard highlights how Diana’s off-duty wardrobe – overlooked in the homages to her glamour that focus on her blockbuster gown-and-tiara moments – looks uncannily modern. That college-style baseball jacket? Revived by Ashish at his London fashion week show this season. Denim dungarees? Worn by Alexa Chung (with nothing underneath) in the campaign for her latest collection for AG. Cycling shorts? Kim Kardashian is on a mission to bring them back. Logo sweatshirt? Swap out Harvard for Kale and you have got one of Beyoncé’s most memorable looks. The white polo neck as an underlayer? Straight out of the Céline catwalk playbook. The calf-length skirt? I’m wearing one now. You probably are, too.
This is a new take on Diana, and the first one that positions her as cool. Diana as a style icon is not new, but her previous incarnations have been very different. We had Diana the red-carpet bombshell, glinting with diamonds and wafting Elnett, with glamour straight out of an episode of Dynasty (and the love-rat storylines to match). That Diana was glamorous, but not hip. After that, the dreamy, engagement-era innocent Diana in the pie-crust collar was adopted by east London fashionistas. Chung turned this look mass, when she revived the pie-crust collar for her collection at Marks & Spencer last year. That look was too heavily sardonic to count as true championing of Diana, and too self-consciously ironic to be sexy.
The new framing of Diana – more sexy, dynamic and modern – can be traced back almost four years, and it starts with Rihanna. In 2013 – at about the time the singer was photographed wearing a two-tone baseball jacket very similar to Diana’s, as it happens – Rihanna told Glamour magazine that the princess was her fashion hero. “She was like – she killed it. Every look was right. She was gangsta with her clothes. She got oversize jackets. I loved everything she wore.” Last year, Rihanna was snapped wearing Diana’s face on an oversized tribute T-shirt, worn as a minidress over thigh-high spike-heel boots.
Since then, versions of Diana’s off-duty looks have been heavily referenced by street-style stars. Those blazers with the disproportionately wide shoulders that Balenciaga did last year, and which have evolved into the double-breasted numbers that will be infiltrating our wardrobes this autumn? Add white jeans, ballet pumps and car keys, and you have single Diana in the mid-90s. The rise of the one-piece statement swimsuit as the summer look that trumps a bikini? Nobody did it better than Diana. (Think of that unforgettable image of her alone on a diving board in a pale blue one-piece, taken in her last summer.)
Diana-nostalgia in this new form is a mirror image of the sentimentality for the 80s that Stranger Things tapped into. Just as Stranger Things celebrates a popcorny version of 80s Americana, big on backpacks, Pop-Tarts and Spielberg references, so the new version of Diana celebrates a more carefree image of her life than the traditional narrative. This Diana is more about log-flume rides and Chelsea gym sessions than betrayal, divorce and revenge. A new generation of fashion consumers has only a sketchy recollection of Diana as the doomed young bride or the scandalously wronged woman. Two decades after her death, this generation is celebrating Diana at her most alive.