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16 November 2020updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

How Princess Diana became a millennial obsession

The late princess has become a canvas on to which a generation of women have painted themselves.

By Eleanor Peake

After Princess Diana died in a car crash on 31 August 1997, thousands of people laid flowers in memorials across London. In total, 60 million flowers were left outside her residences in a display of public grief that many in Britain had never witnessed before.

In the years that followed, journalists recounted this week of mourning with embarrassment. It was a time of hysteria, they said, when a small section of the population lost their minds. In 2007, in a piece entitled “A moment of madness?”, the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland reflected on the decade since Diana’s death. “Her grip on the national consciousness has become tenuous,” he wrote. “Her face is no longer on the cover of magazines; plenty of British teenagers would struggle to identify a photograph of her.”

Today, Diana doesn’t need to be on the cover of magazines. Instead her image floods our Instagram feeds. She is depicted by actress Emma Corrin in the acclaimed new season of The Crown. Her statement dresses are proudly copied by celebrities. Her face is printed on T-shirts, and her memory elevated to that of an icon. Indeed, in 2016, Diana was voted the most iconic woman of all time. But curiously, some of her biggest admirers don’t remember her at all.

Ashleigh’s earliest memory was not of Diana herself but of the mourning that followed her death. A small child at the time, she remembers her mum crying while watching the televised state funeral. “My mum was calling all her cousins in London, even though we lived in Sydney,” she says.

For Jenni, 24, Diana played a major role in her early childhood: “I was too young to remember her death but my mum would show me all of her pictures. I was obsessed. One day I asked to meet Princess Diana and my mum told me she was dead. I still remember that feeling even though I was about four at the time.” Amelia, 25, learned as a child that Diana’s death was shrouded in controversy: “I’ve grown up with views that her death wasn’t an accident and that the royal family had involvement.” After a 2019 Vogue shoot recreating some of Diana’s more casual fashion statements, supermodel Hailey Bieber, 25, said she had “looked to Princess Diana for style inspiration for as long as I can remember”.

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Why, then, does the princess resonate so deeply with millennial women who witnessed so little of her life? Academics have long explored the role of public figures in shaping generational identity. But according to the sociologist Victor Seidler, it was the fallout from Diana’s death that really changed Britain. “Somehow Diana was able to touch a deeper aspect of humanity that people can find it hard to recognise in themselves and don’t easily associate with the political,” wrote Seidler in his 2012 book Remembering Diana. “Her death made visible changes that had been taking place at some level since the 1960s.”

The manner in which the world mourned Diana marked a transformation from the traditional subservience to the royal family. A popular movement arose, which demanded that the Queen pay tribute to Diana outside Buckingham Palace. “This is probably the closest we have come in the UK to a popular uprising and New Labour tapped into that public mood, with Tony Blair calling her the ‘people’s princess’,” explains Seidler. “People from every background came to mourn her. Attitudes towards public space during that week of mourning turned to a feeling of, this is our space, and we will mourn Diana in the way that we want to mourn her. It was a move from a culture of deference to a different notion of political citizenship,” says Seidler. For the children that grew up in the wake of Diana’s death, the impact of this quasi-revolutionary moment was lasting.

When young women remember Diana, the contentious 1995 BBC Panorama interview is an inevitable feature. In this unprecedented intervention, Diana told the world about Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (and her own with James Hewitt), revealing that “there were three people in my marriage”. (The clip has received over three million views on YouTube) The now-notorious interview with Martin Bashir marked a turning point in public opinion, splitting the nation into two camps: those who viewed Diana with empathy, and those who saw a woman trying to manipulate the public and sharing too much of her private life.

In the 25 years since that interview, the way we view women in the public eye has changed. The children that grew up in the wake of Diana’s death see strength in vulnerability, unlike the generations that preceded them. For thousands of young women today, the interview shows a woman villainised for finding her voice after being preyed upon by a patriarchal press and a conservative royal family. In the decades after her death, Diana became a martyr to feminism, her loss the tragic conclusion of years of persecution.

[see also: How a Mary Wollstonecraft statue became a feminist battleground]

More than anything, it is perhaps Diana’s perceived rebelliousness that speaks to millennials. More outspoken in the workplace, and more independent, millennial women are comfortable with the corporate feminism of late capitalism. Through our social media feeds, Diana has become a symbol of this fresh confidence, a #girlboss of our own making.

Nothing symbolises this generational love of “sass” quite like our celebration of Diana’s “revenge dress”. Search for the hashtag on Instagram and images of Diana in a slinky, black evening dress fill the feed. The dress, worn the same night Prince Charles publicly admitted to his affair, is a cult favourite among the Diana fanbase. We love it for what we think it symbolises: a woman, empowered in her femininity, stronger on her own. Somewhere along the way, Diana became a canvas on to which a generation of women have painted themselves.

In the decades since her death, Diana has come to stand for more than just fashion and beauty. She has become a symbol, or even a mirror, to a generation that grew up in her shadow; a generation that celebrates individuality to the point of narcissism; a generation that looks back on that Panorama interview with empathy. Although we never knew her, we have reclaimed her memory and shaped it into something that makes us feel as if we did.

The fallout from Diana’s death perhaps irrevocably changed Britain, but the hold she has on millennial women may prove just as pivotal.  

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