By Sarah Roth, Ph.D. Student, Rutgers University
Featured image by Sam Nystrom Costales
Say what you will about the Duchess of Sussex and her short-lived career as a member of “the Firm,” but Meghan Markle certainly was a quick study when it came to the power of clothing in crafting a public image. In episode three of the Netflix documentary series Harry & Meghan, Markle said of her fashion choices as a working member of the British royal family, “When I was in the UK, I rarely wore color. I wore a lot of muted tones. I also wore it so I could just blend in. I’m not trying to stand out here. I don’t want to embarrass the family.”1 As Meghan Markle, her sister-in-law Catherine (Kate) Middleton and late Queen Elizabeth II have shown, the color of a dress, the origin of a fabric, or the nationality of a designer can serve many functions. An outfit can silently convey respect for a host country on a royal tour, empathy with factory workers during a public engagement, or a deep sense of respect at a memorial event – all without the wearer ever needing to make a public remark. While fashion is oftentimes written off as superficial or banal, these women prove that there is great untapped symbolic and political power in an outfit.
The longevity of the House of Windsor is due in no small part to its mastery of “soft power,” a term coined by Joseph Nye in 1990, in which he equates access to information as a form of strength.2 What facts are disseminated, in what manner, and at what time allows one to exert control and influence without ever needing to resort to acts of aggression. Put more simply, soft power is the power of attraction, presenting oneself as more attractive, smarter, stronger, or simply better than the alternative. For the British royal family, soft power has allowed the monarchy to withstand rebellions, civil unrest, world wars and public relations disasters. This has been further refined and honed in recent years through a series of highly choreographed public appearances and events through which the members of the royal family connect with the common people, show their support for humanitarian causes, and appear relatable through some mildly embarrassing activities (such as then-Prince Charles trying to pour a pint of ale in a pub, or William and Kate posing for photos sitting in a bobsled, surrounded by the Jamaican national team). In the context of international affairs, this type of soft power politics is sometimes referred to as “cultural diplomacy,” defined by Milton C. Cummings as “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their people in order to foster mutual understanding.”3 While the Duchesses of Sussex and Cornwall have certainly perfected the art of the outfit, the true master of the soft power of fashion was their late mother-in-law, Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
The Netflix series The Crown highlights Diana’s strengths as a fashion icon and soft power force to be reckoned with. For three seasons, viewers receive a steady diet of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy and Olivia Colman) and her sister Princess Margaret (played by Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter) wearing menswear-inspired skirt suits and conservative pearl necklaces. Princess Diana’s arrival in season four (played by Emma Corrin and later Elizabeth Debicki) and her parade of whimsical knitted sweaters, peter pan collar dresses, and jewel-toned evening gowns are a shock to the system. In a slightly heavy-handed visual metaphor, viewers are first introduced to Princess Diana hiding from Prince Charles behind a potted plant, dressed as a “mad tree” costume for her school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a vine, moss and leaf adorned leotard and mask.4 When we next see her later in the same episode, Diana is dressed in bright yellow overalls, a paisley shirt and a cardigan adorned with potted plants – a more subdued outfit to be certain, but one which nevertheless sets Diana apart from everyone else on screen and in her life.5
As the most photographed woman in the world during her life, Diana embodied the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and her fashion certainly spoke volumes even when the princess was silent (and no, that is not a pun about her proclivity for shoulder pads in the 1980s). Princess Diana had an innate understanding of her own soft power appeal, wielding her popularity in a way that was much more strategic and intentional than she is given credit for.
Perhaps one of the best examples of Princess Diana’s diplomatic savvy style was the first – her show-stopping, iconic engagement ring. The two-carat sapphire and diamond ring (which, since 2011, has been worn by the Duchess of Cornwall) is unmistakable – and an odd choice for a shy 20-year-old marrying into an incredibly conservative institution. Famously, the engagement ring was not a custom commission, but was instead chosen from the catalog of jeweler Garrard & Co. Valued at £47,000/$60,000 when it was purchased in the early 1980s, the ring was hardly a bargain, but anyone could flip through the same catalog that Diana had; if they had enough money, they could even buy the same ring as her.6 At the same time, the ring is a statement: the bright blue color, in contrast to the subtler opaque diamond of traditional engagement rings, immediately draws the eye in photographs. In the episode “Fairytale” of The Crown, Emma Corrin’s costumes are punctuated with accents of blue, such as the electric-tone sweater vest she wears when she selects her engagement ring and the sapphire skirt suit she wears for the photocall at the end of the episode, highlighting Diana’s inherent understanding of the power of her own personal brand (while the sweater vest is a creation of the show, the real Princess Diana did, in fact, wear a bright blue suit for the photocall, which she purchased from Harrod’s the day before).7 Just as Queen Elizabeth famously wore solid colors to make herself more visible in crowds (“I have to be seen to be believed” was, apparently, a frequent quip of the late queen’s) the sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring is immediately identifiable, and, despite being worn by another woman for more than a decade, is even today associated with the late Diana.8
Accessibility was a big part of Princess Diana’s personal brand of cultural diplomacy. As Princess of Wales, Diana routinely donned clothing from some of the most famous British fashion designers of the day: Catherine Walker, Arabella Pollen, Bellville Sassoon and Bruce Oldfield. While the British royal family has given its warrants to establishments for generations, by wearing off-the-rack labels (or modified versions of them), Princess Diana not only advocated for her country’s craftsmanship, she also created a tactile relationship between herself and the common people by donning clothing that they themselves could hypothetically purchase (thousand-pound price tags aside).9 What she wore also had a huge economic impact for both the designers she patroned as well as others who would copy the designs and distribute their own versions, which the tabloids dubbed the “Diana Effect” (there is also the “Kate Effect” and the “Meghan Effect”).10 Famously, David Emanuel, one-half of the design team behind Diana’s wedding dress, parlayed his association with Diana into a thirty-year career as a television personality, most recently as the host of Say Yes to the Dress UK.
On royal tours, Diana’s dresses, hats, and bags played an important role in public diplomacy. Choosing fashion items for official state tours was tricky business: Princess Diana wearing a sari or cheongsam would reek of colonialism, but donning Dior, Versace, or Burberry would signal a Western bias that could undermine any potential boost to diplomatic relations. Instead, Diana’s fashion choices needed to strike a delicate balance, paying homage to the host country while also acknowledging Diana’s identity as a representative of the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the famous Catherine Walker “Elvis Dress” Diana wore during her 1989 visit to Hong Kong, which featured thousands of hand-sewn pearls, paying homage to Southeast Asia’s fishing culture. For a 1992 state dinner hosted by the President of India, Diana’s dress (another Catherine Walker original) featured intricate floral motifs, reminiscent of the stonework found in the Taj Mahal and other religious sites in the country.11
Royal tours are also non-stop photo ops, capitalizing on every opportunity to signal friendly relations between two communities – the ideal backdrop for a highly coordinated fashion show. The Crown episode “Terra Nullius” depicts this masterfully during Prince Charles’s (played by Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s tour of Australia. The show accurately portrayed how the real-life Diana changed outfits several times a day, oftentimes en-route between events. Each outfit change was a new opportunity for the press to take photos of the young princess, and with that, a new chance to document another aspect of the host country’s culture in the international media. Throughout the episode, Emma Corrin’s character dons an array of brilliantly colored dresses in bright, eye-catching colors, from the emerald green dress at her and Charles’ awkward press conference to the blue evening gown she wears for an evening reception, with demure floral print dresses saved for private, vulnerable moments with her husband and son on the ranch in the Outback. In one scene, an aerial shot taken from the top of a hotel building on the streets of Sydney reveals the thousands of well-wishers gathered to meet the Prince and Princess. Even from several stories up, Diana is immediately identifiable by her bright pink hat and dress – Charles, quite symbolically, is lost amid the throngs of spectators.12
This is where Diana’s mastery of the soft power of fashion was at its best. Cultural diplomacy is much more than the color of a dress or the choice of tiara – it’s about directing the public’s attention (and in some instances, redirecting) exactly where one wants it to be. When attending a polo match in 1988, Diana donned a sweatshirt from the British Lung Foundation, which she had become patron of two years prior, and interest and investment in the organization exploded.13 In 1997, the recently divorced Princess Diana partnered with Christie’s to auction off more than seventy dresses from her private collection, raising more than $3.25 million for the Royal Marsden Hospital Cancer Fund and the AIDS Crisis Trust.14 And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the “Revenge Dress,” worn by Princess Diana to a fundraiser for the Serpentine Gallery on June 29, 1994, just hours after Prince Charles admitted to adultery in a televised interview, as depicted by Elizabeth Debicki in season five of The Crown.15 The asymmetrical, off-shoulder black cocktail dress was eye-grabbing (to say the least), and allowed Diana to reclaim the narrative surrounding her husband’s infidelity. The next day, the tabloids did cover Charles’ shocking revelation, but the front page was dominated by photos of Diana – and as the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
2022 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, yet her influence on popular culture remains firm. The popularity of The Crown and Emma Corrin’s and Elizabeth Debicki’s depictions of the princess have produced a resurgence in interest in 1980s and 1990s fashion, with graphic sweatshirts, bike shorts, pussy blouses and mom jeans appearing in magazines and on runways. However, as Diana herself would perhaps clarify, what matters more than what she wore was how she wore it – namely, how she turned clothing from an aesthetic choice to a tool of statecraft. As the Princess of Wales showed, clothing has an important role to play in the public image of the British Royal Family. For Diana, clothing served as armor, demonstrating unity and solidarity in the midst of turmoil (the Revenge Dress being a prime example of this). Fashion could also serve as an unspoken sign of respect and reverence, allowing Diana to achieve what a language or cultural barrier might otherwise make impossible. Particularly towards the end of her life, clothing allowed Diana to reclaim the narrative of her life’s story, using the public’s fascination with her style to direct (and redirect) the press’ attention in support of a charity or cause. Because she was so photogenic, famously soft-spoken and enormously popular, understanding Princess Diana’s sartorial choices are a key part of understanding her social and political legacy.
Sarah Roth is a first year PhD student at Rutgers University. She received her BA in American History and MA in European History, Politics & Society from Columbia University. Her academic work focuses on the United States’ use of soft power, cultural diplomacy, and psychological warfare in the early Cold War. Outside the classroom, Sarah is a fan of The Magicians, Doctor Who, Star Wars, the Marvel cinematic universe, anything written by Sarah J. Mass or V.E. Schwab, and her basset hound Guinness. She is very proud to say that she woke up at 5 am for both royal weddings and make scones to boot. Sarah can be found on Instagram at @sarahroth29
- Liz Darbus, “Episode 3,” Harry & Meghan, December 8, 2022.
- Joseph S Nye, Jr., “Soft Power” in Foreign Policy, no. 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171.
- Milton C. Cummings, “Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: A Survey” (Washington, D.C.: Americans for the Arts, 2009).
- Benjamin Caron, “Gold Stick,” The Crown November 15, 2020.
- Caron, “Gold Stick.”
- Nadine Jolie Courtney, “Princess Diana’s Engagement Ring: Everything You Wanted to Know,” June 13, 2022, Reader’s Digest, https://www.rd.com/article/why-princess-dianas-engagement-ring-infuriated-palace-officials/. Today, the ring is estimated to be worth upwards of $500,000.
- Benjamin Caron, “Fairytale,” The Crown, November 15, 2020.
- Sally Bedell Smith, Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch (New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2012), 494; Victoria Murphy, “Queen Elizabeth is the Ultimate Matriarch,” October 20, 2021, Town and Country, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a34331945/queen-elizabeth-the-matriarch-royal-family/; Elizabeth Holmes, HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style (New York, NY: Celadon Books, 2020), 103.
- “Royal Warrants,” The Royal Household, accessed December 30, 2022, https://www.royal.uk/royal-warrants-0. According to the official website of the British Royal Family, warrants are issued as a “a mark of recognition to people or companies who have regularly supplied goods or services” to the royal family. This entitles the recipient, or “Grantor,” to display the Royal Arms and advertise their commercial relationship with the Crown. Currently, there are more than 800 Royal Warrant Holders, including Burberry Limited, Bacardi-Martini Ltd., Boots, the Goring Hotel, Jaguar Land Rover Limited, Nestle, and Twinning’s & Co.
- Katie Nicholl, “Kate and Meghan’s Social Media Influence Can Be Measured in Dollars,” Vanity Fair, November 16, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2023, https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2019/11/meghan-markle-kate-middleton-influence.
- James Crawford Smith, “Princess Diana’s Most Memorable Royal Tour Fashions,” Newsweek, March 26, 2022. Accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.newsweek.com/princess-diana-memorable-royal-tour-fashion-1691038.
- Julian Jarrold, “Terra Nullius,” The Crown, November 15, 2020.
- Sophie Warner, “The History of Lung Health with A+LUK,” February 23, 2022, Asthma+Lung Foundation UK, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.blog.asthmaandlung.org.uk/blog/our-history.
- Elisabeth Bumiller, “Diana Cleans Out Her Closet, And Charities Just Clean Up,” June 26, 1997, New York Times.
- Andrew Morton, Diana: Her True Story, In Her Own Words (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 364; May el-Toukhy, “The Way Ahead,” The Crown, November 9, 2022.