If she were alive today, Diana would be celebrating her 60th birthday. To mark her milestone anniversary, we’ve compiled this special feature on the Princess – exploring both her time as a royal and her life beyond palace walls, plus her continued relevance as a truly unique icon of our times.
She lived for only 36 years, but they were full ones. From the joyful day of her birth, 1 July 1961, to the tragic date of her death, 31 August 1997, Diana fitted in more love, despair, laughter, sadness, dreams and drama than most people could in twice that time. She was a timid young woman who became a poised Princess. A kindergarten assistant turned fashion icon. A woman who won then lost the heart of the heir to the throne but became the Queen of Hearts to millions. And an aristocratic English rose who became a global champion of the disadvantaged.
Diana’s life was short, but unforgettable. The gifts she left us - above all, her shining example of empathy and compassion – will last forever. Today, her sons Princes William and Harry are carrying her work forward and, with their families, are her living legacy.
A MODERN PRINCESS
Diana carved out a new royal role – and changed the face of the monarchy.
Hers was no Cinderella story. Diana may have had the common touch, but her background was far from humble. She came from an illustrious family, the Spencers, that has included statesmen, courtiers, admirals, society beauties and philanthropists, and she grew up on their ancestral estate, Althorp in Northamptonshire.
Born on a beautiful summer‘s day, 1 July 1961, she had three siblings, with whom she shared a close bond, strengthened by their parents’ separation when she was five. Her older sisters, Sarah and Jane, and her younger brother Charles, now Earl Spencer, all remember the kindness, wit and charisma she showed from her earliest days.
Lady Diana Spencer first met the heir to Britain‘s throne, the 29-year-old Prince of Wales, at a house party at Althorp, in 1977. At the time, she was just 16, and he was dating her sister Sarah. He noticed how “great fun and... full of life” she was.
They didn’t meet again for another three years. But when they did, at a barbecue, romance was in the air. Soon, the media got a picture of the sweet-natured “Shy Di” and the world was enchanted too.
On 24 February 1981 came the news royal fans had been waiting for. Charles had presented 19-year-old Diana with an exquisite sapphire and diamond ring, and she had said ‘yes’!
A few months later, on 29 July, Diana looked every bit the fairytale Princess as she stepped out of the glass coach to marry her Prince at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Her bridal gown was as spectacular as the setting, a full sleeved and skirted creation complete with 25ft train created by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. For the 750 million people around the world who watched the televised ceremony, the bride and groom presented a perfect vision of royal romance.
At her husband‘s side at home and abroad, the new Princess of Wales proved a hit with the public. She loved visiting the US, where she appreciated the informality and warmth of Americans.
She and Charles made a good team during their royal duties, and while cracks appeared early in their marriage, scenes of the couple whirling around the dancefloor or sharing a playful glance prove that they did have happy times together.
The pair were united in love for their sons, Prince William, born in 1982, and Prince Harry, born in 1984. Diana was an adoring, hands-on mum, who was determined to give her boys the most normal childhood possible. While preparing them for their lives as royals, she also let them enjoy play dates with friends and trips to theme parks. “She was the best mum in the world... I can still feel the hugs she used to give us,” says Prince Harry.
JEWEL IN THE CROWN
Regal but real, Diana brought a unique freshness and glamour to the centuries-old Windsor dynasty. Her fabulous fashion sense was on display at events like Trooping the Colour or Royal Ascot. Though the Princess came to be seen as a royal rebel, there‘s no doubt that the Queen appreciated what her daughter-in-law brought to the family ’Firm’, while Her Majesty’s late husband, Prince Philip, was also a fan.
By 1992, Charles and Diana recognized that their marriage had irretrievably broken down, and their separation was announced. With their 1996 divorce Diana gave up her royal role, but she spent more time than ever sharing her compassion through good causes around the world, becoming a global humanitarian icon known as a ‘Queen of Hearts’. She reached out to those on the margins of society, including those suffering with the then new and little understood disease AIDS. Thanks to her talent for friendship, she united powerful people from statesmen to screen stars behind her philanthropic aims.
Privately, the Princess searched for the love which she felt had so far eluded her. Hasnat Khan, a heart surgeon of Pakistani heritage, was her ideal man, and she hoped for a future with him, but he found her fame too hard to deal with.
TAKEN TOO SOON
Devastating news of the Princess‘s death broke early in the morning of 31 August 1997. She had just turned 36 when she was killed in a car accident in Paris, alongside her new boyfriend Dodi Fayed. The Princess’ sons, who were then only 12 and 15, were a heartbreaking sight as they joined the men of her family in her funeral procession.
Tributes to Diana flowed in from the countless people, from all walks of life, who had loved her. In the months and years that followed, grief at her tragic loss gave way to gratitude for all that this extraordinary woman had given to the world.
A LEGACY OF LOVE
Diana lives on everywhere - from her family to fashion. And of course, in the way she put compassion centre stage.
In their different ways, Diana’s sons are both inspired by her. The Princess taught them the importance of kindness, empathy and emotional openness. This legacy lives on as William prepares to reign as a 21st-century King with his elegant Queen Catherine by his side, while Harry and Meghan forge their own path in America, where she felt so much at home, and where they aim to take on her mantle as a modern-day Prince and Princess of Hearts.
WILLIAM AND KATE: A PERFECT PARTNERSHIP
If you find someone you love in life, you must hang onto it, and look after it,” Diana once told William.
“And if you are lucky enough to find someone who loves you, then you must protect it.” He took her words to heart.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary in April, have the kind of relationship the Princess dreamed of. They met at university in Scotland, where friendship blossomed into romance. With a strong set of shared values, they‘re mutually supportive and cherish each other’s company. Together they make an unbeatable team, whether they’re taking on the challenges of their royal role or of their role as parents.
Since proposing with his beloved mother‘s ring, William has showered Kate with love tokens, including a £40,000 Cartier necklace, a Cartier Ballon Bleu watch to match her engagement ring, and an eternity band set with brilliant-cut diamonds to mark the arrival of their first child. Now mum and dad to three gorgeous children, they look more in love than ever.
HARRY AND MEGHAN: CALIFORNIA DREAMING
The Princess‘ adored younger son and his wife are living a life she always dreamed of, bringing up their little ones free from protocol in the sunshine of Santa Barbara, California. Harry believes he and Meghan would have had Diana’s blessing for their controversial decision to step back from royal life. “I think she saw it coming,” he has said. ”I certainly felt her presence throughout.”
The Duke is confident that, had the two women in his life known each other, they “would be thick as thieves” and ”best friends”.
Certainly Diana would have approved of the couple‘s championing of diversity and inclusion, and, as a great communicator herself, intrigued by their media projects aimed at “bringing forward different perspectives and voices”.
Just as William and Kate did, Harry and Meghan have paid touching tribute to the Princess in the naming of their daughter. Like Princess Charlotte, Lilibet, born on 4 June, has the second name Diana.
Diana would be saddened by the coolness that now exists between her sons, who were once the closest of friends. Harry‘s comments on the royal family have widened the rift. But we should remember what he told Oprah Winfrey: “I love William to bits, he’s my brother, we’ve been through hell together, we have a shared experience.” He explains their position as “being on different paths”.
Though the siblings‘ paths have diverged, far more unites than divides them. Quite simply, they are the only people in the world who know what it was to have Diana as their mother and then to lose her. And they are both passionately determined to honor her memory. So royal fans around the world hope that her 60th birthday commemorations this summer will be the catalyst for reconciliation.
On 1 July, both brothers are due to attend the unveiling of a statue of the Princess in the gardens of her home, Kensington Palace - close to the spot where Harry and Meghan announced their engagement.
The Princess‘ sons were her pride and joy, so we can imagine how much she’d have delighted in her grandchildren.
“She‘d love them to bits, but she’d be an absolute nightmare,” William has joked.
“She’d come, probably at bath time, cause an amazing scene, bubbles everywhere, bathwater all over the place, and then leave.”
Diana believed in love, hugs, fun and all the elements of a normal childhood. Now her sons and their wives are following her lead. And they‘re making sure that Diana is part of the picture.
William has revealed that his three young children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis, make Mother‘s Day cards for “Granny Diana” every year, and that she often features in their bedtime stories. ”It’s important they know who she was,” he says.
Over in California, she‘s a beloved figure for Harry’s firstborn, Archie. “I’ve got a photo up in his nursery… and it was one of the first words that he said. Apart from ’mama’, ’papa’, it was then ’grandma’, ’grandma Diana’,” says the Prince.
As the Princess‘ grandchildren grow up, it’s touching to see how they take after her in their different ways. For example Charlotte is a keen dancer and full of charm and poise, while her big brother George loves animals and has a sensitive, empathetic streak.
And there is one gift from their grandmother that all will share. They‘re being brought up with Diana’s values, especially her belief that kindness and compassion mean more than any title. It will be wonderful to see how this new generation carry her torch forward.
“I think the biggest disease this world suffers from is the disease of people feeling unloved, and I know that I can give love... I’m very happy to do that.”
The Princess suffered from unhappiness in her own life, but through that, she found her mission to help others. And she didn‘t choose glamorous causes, but rather, showed an affinity with people shunned or ignored by society.
In 1987, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, she was pictured smiling as she shook hands, gloveless, with a patient. That one photo did more to help remove the shame and stigma surrounding the disease than perhaps anything else could have done.
By the time she died ten years later the Princess was a global humanitarian icon, with a network of powerful friends ready to back her philanthropic missions. The last of these was her anti-landmine campaign. Michael Stone, who accompanied her on a visit to Angola with the Red Cross, recalls the spectacular way she grabbed the world‘s attention.
“By walking through a cleared minefield she highlighted the dangers ordinary people were facing every day, demonstrating the split second difference between life and death. She was completely selfless about it,“ he tells us.
With such an example, it‘s no surprise that Princes William and Harry are both committed humanitarians, continuing her work for these and other causes such as homelessness and mental health.
“The Princess‘ allure defied borders and cultures. Long before diversity and inclusion were at the forefront of our collective consciousness, she was, without proclaiming it, both an ally and a vessel,” says royal commentator Shinan Govani. “From bonding with indigenous people in New Zealand to cuddling a teenage amputee in Angola, as privileged as her own life was, the Princess saw neither herself nor anyone else as ’different’.”
This was as true in her personal as in her public life. Following her divorce, Diana‘s most serious romance was with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. And it was of course Dodi Fayed, a film producer of Egyptian-Turkish origin, who was at her side in the tragic Paris car crash in which she died.
From the moment she stepped onto the royal stage, Diana‘s fashion sense was the source of huge interest and inspiration. As she stole her way into our hearts, fashion became the tool that communicated her hopes, dreams and fears. In that she was way ahead of her time. Now, celebrating what would have been her 60th year, we can see even more clearly how she came to claim her place in a pantheon of timeless fashion queens. Like Jackie O, Princess Grace and Audrey Hepburn, she remains so relevant.
EVOLUTION OF AN ENGLISH ROSE
Diana’s every outfit came coded with a message. From the newlywed in romantic pastels and frills we witnessed her transformation into the post-divorce Diana, whose sexy body-con dresses and heels proclaimed: “I will survive.” And towards the end of her life, armed with confidence and dedicated to her work, she could finally dress down, rather than up. Her final, most important message was: “I am enough.”
Outfits track her progression from teenage ‘Shy Di’ to a mature woman confident on the world stage:
Diana‘s style has never been more admired than it is today, according to fashion magazine HFM’s editor Jill Wanless. “Avant garde US designer Virgil Abloh based an entire collection on her 1980s and 90s outfits for his label Off-White,” she points out.” And it’s not just designers - modern tastemakers have been heavily influenced. With preppy baseball caps, college sweatshirts and mom jeans, models such as Hailey Bieber and Gigi Hadid have revived the Princess’ school-run look. Rihanna, who paid homage in a souvenir-store Diana T-shirt with thigh-hight Manolo boots, says: ’Every look was right... she was a gangsta with her clothes.’”
Naturally, Hollywood also recognises the Princess‘ star quality, with A-listers like Julia Roberts, Renee Zellweger and Angelina Jolie all parading Di-inspired looks on the red carpet.
From A-listers to influencers, celebrities pay homage to the Princess‘ style:
REWRITING ROYAL DRESS CODES
Not only Diana‘s daughters-in-law Kate and Meghan, but royal ladies everywhere pay tribute to her with their outfit choices. From a sharp color-block suit to a sleek asymmetric evening gown, there are constant echoes in the wardrobes of our Queens and Princesses.
The Princess rewrote the rules of royal dressing. These days, it is still smart, but the stiffness is gone. It‘s fine to have fun, even on formal occasions. And mixing designer labels with high street brands makes today’s regal fashionistas so much more relatable.
Kate leads the long parade of royal ladies who‘ve learned from how Diana dressed:
Amazing jewelry made Diana even more dazzling. For her engagement ring, she chose an enormous sapphire that matched her eyes. The Spencer family‘s heirloom headpiece held her wedding veil in place, while later, Queen Mary’s Lover’s Knot tiara, with its lustrous drop pearls, became a favorite. As with everything, Diana did things her own way. She would often repurpose jewelry, for example wearing a diamond and sapphire necklace as a headband.
Diana had access to a priceless collection of precious jewelry:
Diana lives on in all the arts, especially in painting, film and TV, where her story is constantly reinterpreted. The long roll call of actresses who‘ve played the Princess includes Catherine Oxenberg, Naomi Watts, and most recently The Crown’s Emma Corrin, who won a Golden Globe for her performance. This, Diana’s 60th birthday year, will see her celebrated both in a new Broadway musical and in Spencer, a movie starring Kristen Stewart. The Twilight star says: “I don’t want to just play Diana – I want to know her implicitly.”
Each new generation feels that same desire to know Diana. Girls creator Lena Dunham sums it up when she describes Diana as “an object of fascination and not just because she was a Princess – she projected a kind of ambition and hunger to be heard, seen and understood in her totality... Her mystique, beauty and longing made her a beautifully complex figure to adore.”
It‘s no surprise that such a fascinating woman is celebrated in all the arts, especially on screen: