The latest season of The Crown has prompted a renewed obsession with all things Princess Diana, including her hair. At the time, the cut sent thousands of women rushing to the hairdresser requesting the … what would you call it exactly? A feathery mushroom? A more feminine mop top? Emma Corrin, who plays Diana in season four recently compared her character’s hair to a Wham!-era George Michael.
But while Di’s do may seem like just another example of inexplicable ’80s fashion, the truth is that, even back then, it was an outlier — out of step with the era’s bigger/blonder/longer ethos (see Dynasty, Duran Duran videos) and definitely not what we tend to think of as princess hair, i.e., long and flowing and easily braided for those “Help! I’m stuck in the top of a tower!” emergencies. So how did this improbable style become a standard of beauty and sophistication?
“You have to remember who she was before — Diana was what we would have called a Super Sloane,” says Peter York, the British journalist who literally wrote the book on the Sloane Rangers, a tribe of English arch-preppies specific to the Chelsea neighborhood where Diana Spencer was living when she met her future hubby. Sloanes worshipped all things classic and conservative, they “ate jelly with a fork,” “cried while singing Christmas carols” (actual dicta from the Sloane Ranger handbook), and paid little attention to anything so garish as popular culture.
A female Sloane, says York, didn’t aim to look sexy, or at least not in the va-va-voom sense. “The idea was healthy simplicity. A certain amount of dressed-downness, a certain sort of upper ruralness.” Any hint at effort was antithetical to the Sloanes’ central charade, which, in contemporary terms, was all about zero fucks given. A half-century before Instagram, Sloanes #wokeuplikethis. Hashtag navy, hashtag burgundy, hashtag tweed, hashtag nonewfriends.
In episode two of the new season, “The Balmoral Test,” we learn that the Windsors (Sloanes on steroids) have an actual hazing ritual in which outsiders are invited to the queen’s residence in the Scottish highlands to see if they sink or swim — both figuratively and in the actual muck. Margaret Thatcher’s visit is a total disaster, marked by her audacity to arrive sans work boots and walking stick. When Diana arrives a few days later, it’s a different story. “I only brought outdoor shoes,” she trills before heading out on an early morning stag hunt with Prince Philip. When the pair returns from hours in the freezing wet, Di’s lid looks like the fifth Beatle, but her future in the royal family is sealed.
The irony is rich: Thatcher, an actual working-class person, is too busy doing actual work to take pleasure in her hosts’ pioneer pantomime antics, whereas Diana, an earl’s daughter, is fluent in the customs and coded language of the country snob. (Can somebody please explain the rules to Ibble Dibble?)
“This was pre-tabloid culture. Ordinary people didn’t know about Sloanes,” says York, explaining how an Über-bougie cult of overprivileged L.L.Bean worshippers could exist in near-complete segregation from the masses. That all changed overnight as the press started to gather outside Diana’s flat, and suddenly Sloane style was seen “galloping down high street.” It’s ironic, York adds, because if Diana had just moved to the country with a low-key aristocrat like most Sloanes, she would have adopted a Sloane-mum hairstyle — longer and pushed back with a velvet hairband. Instead, she married a prince, and her look — as common as a brass-buttoned blazer in her peer group — became a totally singular statement.
“One of the things that was so associated with Diana was this idea of being hidden in plain sight — her hair was a big part of that,” says Linda Wells, the founding editor of Allure who was working at Vogue when Lady Spencer became the Princess of Wales. The shape and the blondness made her instantly identifiable, but with the long layers at the front, her hair would cover her face when she bowed her head and then part like curtains when she looked up. Diana’s natural ability to steal any spotlight was clearly a sore spot (see Charles’s repeat hissy fits) but also a superpower that she wasn’t willing to part with.
“It seems like maybe her hair was her way of holding on to herself,” says Wells. “We can exaggerate these things, but at the same time, I think women really do express themselves with their hairstyles, especially when they can’t express themselves in other ways.”
See Thatcher’s steely resolve (brought to you by loads of hair spray) or Meghan Markle’s messy bun — an early sign of the messiness to come. As Diana went from eager-to-please newlywed to miserable captive, her hair became less like curtains and more like a steely fortress. And then, in 1991, a new look for a new life. “It was like she was stripping away the excess, like it wasn’t such a weight on her,” says Wells. And yes, as noted, armchair hair psychology has its limitations, but in this case, we have confirmation from the princess herself, whose secret recordings (first made public in the 2017 Netflix doc, Diana: In Her Own Words) include a question about when she went from feeling like a victim to a victor. Her answer: “I suppose last summer, when Sam cut my hair differently, it let out something quite different.”
Sam is Sam McKnight, the stylist to the stars responsible for Diana’s series of ’90s makeunder chops. When he first met the princess, she had gone full on “Dynasty Di” — perm, teasing, and big, chunky highlights. “The idea was almost to start again, to do something that was stronger, more casual, more her,” says McKnight, who had no idea, at that point, that a divorce was in the works. He continued to style the princess’s hair until her death in 1997, including the epic 1997 Vanity Fair cover, on which we see a sleeker, modernized version of a familiar mushroom.
Did she ever consider going long? No, says McKnight, perhaps because the whole long-locks thing would have been “too princess-y,” but also because the People’s Princess understood her power: “She knew that people wanted to see ‘Princess Diana,’ so that’s what she gave them,” McKnight says. Turns out she never needed the fairy tale — just a good flattening iron.