August 31st, 1997 is a day that lives in infamy, specifically for its link to the death of beloved Princess of Wales and 90’s heroine, Diana Frances Spencer.
Often I’ll see people today refer to the late Princess Diana as an icon of style. Images of her in chunky socks and sneakers or oversized 90’s crewnecks surface on the internet. While I (obviously) agree with this fashionista depiction, the iconicity of Princess Di shouldn’t be diluted to only this superficial level of her wardrobe. With good reason, Diana was often called the people’s princess or the English Rose. She was incredibly charitable, a unique kind of leader, and she used the channel of the Royal Family to make a significant change.
Growing up, she struggled in school but excelled in community engagement and sports. Despite being from a highly regarded British family, a rough divorce between her parents left her life rather fragmented. In her youth, she had a series of modest paying jobs, like as a dance instructor and a nanny, and it wasn’t until her relationship with Prince Charles began that her life in the spotlight began. They met in 1977 when she was only 16 and married when she was merely 20 years old (twelve years younger than Charles).
It was a sweet relationship at first and Princess Diana was widely accepted by the Royal Family, but as we know, complications did eventually arise. After giving birth to both Prince William and Prince Harry, both Prince Charles and Princess Diana engaged in marital affairs. Charles was with Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall, and Diana with Major James Hewitt. They separated in 1992 but, needless to say, things tend to get messy when you mix divorces into the Royal Family…
In spite of this, she is fondly remembered for her dedication to charity work. As the Princess of Wales, hospital visits and donations were under some sort of an obligation but Princess Diana took it upon herself to be a patron devotee not only to the illnesses regularly tended to by the Royal Family, but also to those that were rarely talked about and even stigmatized as being “plaguing”. For instance, AIDS was under a tremendous amount of scrutiny in the 80’s and 90’s as very little was actually known about the spreadability of the disease and how it was contracted. There was yet to be a confirmation on whether or not the disease could be transmitted through skin contact, yet HIV/AIDS was one of Princess Diana’s main areas of work and she would controversially visit AIDS wards in hospitals without wearing gloves. I think there is something beautiful in this choice of behaviour - her simple ability to accept everyone, reject the isolation of the sick, and to consciously ignore stigmas. She was fully aware of her position and power to make some kind of a shift in the mentality of the population.
However, while being incredibly altruistic and giving, there was another side to Princess Diana. Throughout the course of her life, she was tormented by the demons of her own mental health. Suffering in an extremely unhealthy relationship and being a victim to the public eye, she was said to have been suicidal, bulimic, depressed, and have participated in self-harm. Being a part of a family that is so curated to perfection, the staggering mental health of Princess Diana reminds us just how human she and all members really were. There was a fragility that Princess Diana had that couldn’t be disguised by the manicured view of the Royal Family. The intensity of the publicity around her crumbled her, as did the pressures from the Royal Family and the heart wrenching impact of Charles’ affair. Perhaps she was labelled as an outcast to the monarchy, but the way I see it, her very vulnerable reaction to all of this brought her down to our planet. It made her one of us.
Ultimately, it was not her mental health that lead to her demise but instead the devastating car crash that occurred in the Pont de l’Alma in Paris on August 31st, 1997. During a brief visit to the city after a holiday in Sardinia with her boyfriend at the time, Dodi Fayed, the couple attempted to get to their hotel, maneuvering to escape the paparazzi. The driver, having lost control of the wheel, crashed the car and, allegedly, neither Dodi or Diana were wearing seatbelts. It was later discovered that the driver had a fair amount of alcohol in his system and was not in a condition to be driving. While the driver and Dodi died instantly, Diana survived the impact but died shortly after in the hospital.
There’s a lot of speculation and suspicion around the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death. Was it the fault of the driver? Can the tunnel’s very infrastructure that they were passing through be to blame? Had they made it to the hospital in time, could she have been saved? Could the whole thing have been planned? Perhaps executed by the Duke of Edinburgh himself out of fear of Diana’s favoured public figure? It’s one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Maybe we’ll never get our answer. Maybe, after all, it’s just a very terrible, unfortunate, and unpredictable death of a cherished Princess taken too soon.
I treasure the legacy of Princess Diana because she wasn’t exemplar of a carefully manicured member of the Royal Family. She was incredibly humble and vulnerably human. She had very real flaws but equally so, a very big heart. The effect she had on charities of all kind during her life is astounding. And as such a public figure and role model, the influence she had was inspiring and done for the better. Today our society looks up to the influencers with thousands of likes and followers on Instagram. We want to wear the same clothes as them and buy the same products too, oblivious to the idea that they’re being endorsed. We encourage this kind of invasion into our private lives - we accept it as the norm. In the case of Princess Diana, this was at times destructive on her mental health, but it also established her as this figure of honourable humanity. Is it possible that we can use the normalization of the “sharing culture” for a better good? What if influencers were more charitable? Just imagine the impact that could have. Think of that potential.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Princess Diana should be greater than the clothes she wore. She was a style icon, but she was so much more. She lived her life honourably, charitably, and humbly. She’s an icon in all aspects of the word.