The Fourth Season of ‘The Crown’ Highlights Princess Diana’s Enduring Influence on Fashion

Photo: Des Willie/Courtesy of Netflix

    Much of the buzz around the highly-anticipated fourth season of "The Crown" is focused on the introduction of the early-'80s newbie royal Diana, as uncannily played by Emma Corrin (the voice, the stance!). As portrayed in the Netflix hit series, she struggles to adjust in a marriage to a man in love with another woman and a newly regimented and very public royal life, while cycling through upwards of 80 costume pieces to chart her journey.

    A lot of the the lead-up to the premiere focused on the famous 1981 wedding gown, which was reimagined for "The Crown" by costume designer Amy Roberts. But I can't get over the the Emmy-winner's take on Diana's irreverent posh girl — or Sloane Ranger — aesthetic. Plus, her casual floral dresses, ruffled Peter Pan collars, ginghams and oversize knits felt the most impactful and inspirational for cozy #cottagecore dressing in winter 2020, while continuing an international fashion icon's enduring fashion legacy.

    But Roberts's intention was not to hint at the then-19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer's latent personal style. Instead, the costume designer utilized a hodgepodge of grandpa sweaters and knit vests (or "waistcoats" in British) thrown over whimsically patterned midi dresses and puff-sleeved and ruffled-collar blouses to convey a young woman still finding her confidence and her place in a resistant and impervious new family.

    An engaged Diana (Emma Corrin) goes ring shopping at Buck House.

    "She's not particularly fashion conscious," says Roberts, during a media roundtable over Zoom. "[The costumes are] taking that girl on this momentous journey, where she meets the handsome prince. She's engaged and then she's whisked away to the palace. I never feel she quite got her style."

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    As I politely (and silently) disagree in my Zoom tile, Roberts points to a just-engaged Diana's version of a princess gown (below), worn to her first formal dinner with fiancé Charles (Josh O'Connor) and future in-laws, including Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), at Clarence House. The pastel blue and white gingham dress looks especially sweet and naive, with short puff sleeves, a sweetheart neckline and fabric-covered buttons down the bodice. 

    Meeting the in-laws at Clarence House.

    Dressed in imposing military hues, the Royal Family essentially bully Diana for her unfamiliarity with their overly complicated, hierarchical greetings protocol. (Notably, during key moments, Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — played by red-carpet trendsetter Gillian Anderson — wear various versions of checks when meeting with the Queen, who's often dressed in her ancestral Royal Stewart tartans and plaids.)

    "She just looks awkward and like a little girl," says Roberts, adding that Diana's looks in season four are "just a nod into where she'll go in season five," into the '90s. While Roberts intended for Diana's dress choice to feel like a clumsy attempt, I can picture that look in a cotton-linen mix in a Dôen Spring 2021 collection. 

    "'The Crown' is quite interesting in that it is a mixture of accuracy and naturalism mixed with stylized chic and glamour," Roberts adds.

    For the show's brand of period authenticity, she and her team custom-designed Diana's dresses, suits and gowns with a mix of vintage fabrics and dyed contemporary materials. As opposed to duplicating a look when the script and historical moment calls, Roberts prefers "more flights of fancy."

    "I hate that word 'copying — it's more a nod to it," she says. (Unless she's designing the Queen's military regalia, of course.) 

    Diana at her wedding rehearsal.

    With this approach, Diana's '80s ensembles also resonate with a contemporary eye regularly reinterpreting the past. Calling Batsheva to mind, "The Crown" take on Diana's wedding rehearsal blue floral midi-dress (above) features a more delicate print, scaled-down ruffle trim and a belt for definition. Even her very of-the-time silk taffeta and antique lace wedding gown, with the famed 25-foot-train, is an inspired-by version of the David and Elizabeth Emanuel creation — with a blessing from the original designers, of course. (With the ruffles, lace cuffs and leg-o-mutton sleeves tamed, Roberts's version checks off more than one trend from the Fall 2021 bridal season.)

    Roberts also revived famous outfits for dramatized imagined scenes. The pastel yellow overalls Lady Diana wore in 1981 to Prince Charles's polo match over a lemon-printed Peter Pan collar top inspired a look in the season four premiere, when a teenage Diana casually runs into her future husband, flexing in his convertible, with the fruit-themed and eyelet collared shirt adorably mismatched with a chunky floral patterned cardigan that Harry Styles would borrow (below).

    Diana casually runs into Charles.

    For her approach to designing period costume through a 2020 lens, Roberts first takes an "osmosis" approach to researching visual references. After studying "everything about Diana" to learn her motivations and real life journey, she then distills that essence through costume. "You do all that and then you throw it all away," she says. "Just don't look at those pictures again and something's left there of that extraordinary girl that hopefully you can pull out of the bag." 

    While I found myself moved by a young Diana under immense pressure, I also finished the season wanting to wear all of her pastel, floral and cozy knitwear-infused outfits, especially right now, during a time of political change, pandemic time loops and stay-at-home orders. And I'm not alone. 

    "I don't want to use the word 'obsessed,' but, my mum and my mum's friends, they all love Princess Diana. I'm kind of emotional talking about it," says Charlotte Jacklin, the Lincoln, U.K.-based content creator and founder of The Content School, over Zoom. "I feel like they all aspired to dress like her and then we grew up with that." 

    Charlotte Jacklin in a very Princess Di-collared top.

    A scroll through Jacklin's Instagram feels like a romantic journey through early Princess Diana pastels, eyelet collars and Liberty floral prints. Similarly, Bristol-based influencer Karina Marriott frequently posts images of herself in floral printed, puff sleeve and ruffle-trimmed dresses, in the vein of early '80s Princess Di.

    "I've been very drawn to how color makes me feel, playing around with color combinations and just expressing myself through my style," she says, over Zoom. "It feels like there's so much going on this year and very little joy. It's just that small thing that I can control and it's a confidence booster. For my shape and my style, midi-dresses have always been my go-to."

    Creating fashion, lifestyle and body-positivity content at The Style Idealist, Marriott was a child when Princess Diana tragically died in 1997. But she's felt the international style icon's influence through her entire life and fondly remembers Diana's eventual anti-establishment and more accessible quality, as expressed through her famous style. 

    Karina Marriott in her own signature midi-dress.

    "Princess Diana was like the Rihanna version [of a royal]. She walks to the sound of her own beat and wore what she wanted, lived her life how she wanted and didn't let anybody dictate how she would do things," says Marriott. "That's inspiration for me." (Diana's '90s-era sweatshirts, chunky sneakers and biker shorts — which, to this day, are still referenced in clickbait headlines — remain her evergreen favorites.)

    In the vein of that spirit, British knitwear brand Warm & Wonderful, in collaboration with Americana label Rowing Blazers, recently reissued its sheep sweater, which was made famous by Princess Diana. The traditional-looking — but actually very cheeky — red wool jumper (below) is emblazoned with rows of livestock, with one black sheep spotted in the crowd. (In 1980, a tentative Diana wore the sweater over a white ruffled Peter Pan collar blouse and with dark wash jeans to Prince Charles's polo game and raised speculation of sartorial messaging.)

    The reissue of the Warm & Wonderful sheep sweater, in collaboration with Rowing Blazers.

    "She enjoyed it. She wanted to be fun. I don't think she's really saying, 'I'm a rebel," says Warm & Wonderful co-founder and designer Joanna Osborne, over Google Meet, alongside partner Sally Muir, who adds: "That's more in hindsight, really." 

    But the playful sweater does align with Diana's famous "naughty" sense of humor and casual uniform, which continued through the late '80s and early '90s, at Prince Harry and William school drop-offs. As future daughters-in-laws Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex also do, she made headlines at the time by repeating the sheep sweater years later, looking visibly more confident, matching her husband's polo colors with elevated white wide-leg trousers, a pointed flat collar blouse decorated with a black pussy bow, red flats and oversize sunglasses. (One headline read: "Diana's Royal Fashion Makeover — and she did it all herself!")

    "She introduced a sort of street style with a very smart, savvy way of dressing," says Osborne. "That particular time in the early '80s, people were wearing tracksuits and shell suits." (That sounds extremely familiar, considering the current loungewear and athleisure boom.)

    The reintroduction of the iconic sheep sweater makes for another example of how Diana's style can be reinterpreted, decade after decade. (Not to mention, the bright pattern and wink-wink message will liven up any Zoom.) Muir was excited to see Tan France's casual approach to the knit for his voting PSA on Instagram, and also appreciated the Rowing Blazers campaign styling, with very Di-like cycling shorts. 

    A 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer in November 1980.

    The nostalgic appeal of Princess Diana's style/signature styling can also be seen through the resurgence of "cottagecore."

    According to SEMrush, there's been a 3832% increase in searches for variations on "cottagecore" from 2019 to 2020, averaging 200K per month this year. ("Prairie dresses" searches rose by 32% since last year, while "puff sleeve shirts" jumped 43%.) The top-searched labels within this criteria are Faithfull the Brand, Christy Dawn, The Vampire's Wife and Batsheva, which exemplify the already-strong printed, flowing dress and cozy knits trend right now. 

    With the U.K. and much of Europe under lockdown 2.0 and the U.S. facing record Covid-19 numbers and a precarious winter ahead, another "The Crown" binge couldn't arrive at a better time. With the portrayal of an international fashion icon in the making, season four also brings us much-needed style inspiration to spark our own creativity, while staying comfortable and true to ourselves.

    "Really, [Princess Diana] was a trailblazer for that," says Osborne. "That has continued since then and particularly now, when we're all at home and looking relaxed most of the time. We're not dressing up. It's even more relevant."



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