Inspired by the new exhibition at Toronto’s Casa Loma, Patricia Treble explores how the British icon blazed a stylish trail for Kate and Meghan.
Princess Diana is arguably more popular than ever. spencer, the biopic starring Kristen Stewart, was one of the most hyped movies of the year. Emma Corrin shot to fame after portraying the young royal in the final season of The crown. And an on-set photo of Elizabeth Debicki (the actress replacing Corrin for the show’s final season) wearing a replica of the iconic “revenge dress” went viral almost instantly. So what is the reason for this eternal fascination with Princess Diana’s life and fashion? “She had everything people dream of in a princess,” says royal photographer Samir Hussein. “She was beautiful, she had style, she developed her own voice and influence, but she still had weaknesses. And I think that goes against the trend of how a royal should behave.
Now, a quarter century after her death, a Toronto castle is filled with iconic photographs showing how Diana reshaped the ideal of a princess. The exhibition, “Princess Diana: Accredited Access,” which is at Casa Loma until June 12, is an immersive visual tour of Diana throughout her royal life, captured by Samir’s father, Anwar Hussein. “[He] created a candid style that subconsciously allows the viewer to feel like we’re there,” says the show’s creative director, Cliff Skelliter. “This style of photography transcends time.”
A true family affair in front of and behind the camera, his sons, Samir and Zak, are royal photographers and their images of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, sit alongside those of their late mother-in-law, taken by Anwar. It’s the juxtaposition of more than 100 images of the three royal women, organized into thematic arcs that echo Diana’s journey through royal life and show how Meghan and Kate are following in her footsteps. One such image is Samir Hussein’s dramatic photo of Meghan and Prince Harry smiling at each other under an umbrella during one of their final royal engagements in 2020. The ‘one in a million’ image earned him the Royal Photographer of the Year award last year.
“One of the biggest ways she influenced [the younger Royals] is to be yourself and have your own style,” says Samir. “It showed them that they can portray who they are through their fashion.” One example is the image of Diana wearing a low-cut black dress during her first public engagement with Prince Charles in 1981. At the time, the royal family only wore black when in mourning. “She bucked the trend,” says Samir, allowing Meghan and Kate to wear fashionable black dresses without generating negative headlines.
Both Duchesses have followed Diana’s thinking by creating their own distinct styles: Kate regularly wears slacks and even jeans to royal engagements – something once verboten – while Meghan often chooses bolder separates, including tops and asymmetrical skirts. And, like Diana, their casual wardrobes are dominated by jeans, flats and baseball caps.
But perhaps one of the best lessons young royals have learned is that fashion can be used both thoughtfully and strategically. “Princess Diana: Accredited Access” briefly mentions Diana’s “cleavage bags,” which were clutches she deftly held to hide cleavage when entering and exiting vehicles. Then, of course, the most famous example of tactical fashion was when Princess Diana wore a jaw-dropping black dress, later titled “the Revenge Dress”, the night Prince Charles admitted to having a television connection. Many have drawn similar parallels to Meghan’s bold color and silhouette choices (remember all the loud reds, blues and greens?) once she and Harry decided to step down from royal life.
And let’s not forget there’s a reason Diana is called “the people’s princess.” As the exhibit reveals, many of Diana’s looks were also fueled by cuteness. She often went hatless and chose outfits with soft fabrics when she was with children, and wore no gloves so she could connect with people through touch. We’ve seen a similar approach countless times when Kate and Meghan have attended various children’s events, and even with their own children.
There are times when the odes to Diana are more deliberate, such as when Kate wore a blue polka dot dress when discharged from hospital following George’s birth in 2013, which echoed the polka dot dress worn by Diana when She did the same with William in 1982. “I think people appreciate these nods to Princess Diana and it shows they’re very aware of her influence,” Samir says. “They can both see the effect Diana has had on their husbands, Harry and William, and how much she means to them as a mother.”
Embodying the phrase ‘gone but not forgotten’, the memory of Princess Diana and her fashion choices will live on forever in photos, many of which were taken by the Hussein family. “She was an integral part of our lives because our father photographed her so much,” says Samir. Anwar Hussein even took his boys to royal engagements; Samir remembers the informal times when they were around Diana and her boys while Charles played polo. “She followed her heart,” Skelliter said. “She was a very close person in a very unrelatable position, and that allowed us to go on the journey with her.”