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Diana - the icon

The stunning Diana postcards free with today's Belfast Telegraph show how the princess had become one of the most iconic women of all time. Here, Jane Hardy analyses the extraordinary sex appeal, allure and influence of the People's Princess

When Diana, the Princess of Wales, died on August 31, 1997, several things happened. A family and two young sons were bereaved, the media went into overdrive and the royal family remained in Scotland (not the most emotionally expressive of countries) to engage in the private, emotionally constipated mourning rituals of a bygone, Victorian age.

They left behind in London a sea of flowers, cellophane and badly-written poems which after a couple of days threatened to engulf the cold, hard facade of Buckingham Palace, held back by a pair of formal black and gold gates.

Something was clearly taking place. The private event had a growing public significance. And what was happening was that Diana, the queen of hearts, the People's Princess according to in-tune Prime Minister Tony Blair, was turning into an icon.

Or ikon, to give the Russian original spelling. I was out of the country at the time of the funeral, but went to Pall Mall, London's most ceremonial avenue, to see the main event which was a spontaneous people's funeral conducted over several days, with its own rites and ritual.

It was like a public declaration of grief for their Diana, their (breathe it not in Church of England circles) holy Diana. For that was what it all signified, a kind of sanctification of the young, vibrant woman whose royal career had extended far beyond the mere opening of leisure centres and schools to embracing children and gay men with HIV, so changing world attitudes towards Aids, and campaigning against the casual use of landmines in theatres of war in Bosnia and elsewhere.

Nothing like this outpouring of grief - oddly mingled with hope -had been seen in England since the death in the 20th century of big public figures such as Winston Churchill.


And nothing so significant in terms of the dormant but still active cult-y undercurrents of Catholicism since the death of Thomas Becket in the 12th century. When Becket, chancellor turned archbishop and sworn enemy of Henry II, was murdered by the State, his body was quickly removed from the cathedral in Canterbury lest it become a focus for pilgrims. It did anyway, of course, but the Church tried hard to prevent the process, just as the Windsors tried very hard to avoid Diana's death becoming too important.

The Queen's public announcement on television was made under duress, and it showed. And there was more than a hint of pilgrimage and worship about the people I saw that summer Tuesday in the Mall, pushing toddlers in pushchairs and wheeling their elderly in wheelchairs past the by now massive floral tribute towards the numerous books of condolence.

They had come to worship and if you had seen people bringing their sick and suffering to be healed as well, it wouldn't have seemed suprising or out of place. The scribbled notes read as if the writers had actually known Diana, and that was, of course, her special gift, to merge public and private in a perfect image that people felt they knew.

She was becoming a cosy saint but a saint nonethless. Or maybe more appropriately an approachable Virgin Mary, never without a child at her side from the early days working in the nursery to the later images relating to her worldwide work with poor and sick children. The dictionary definition of icon runs "a representation of Christ or the Virgin Mary or a saint, especially one painted in oil and venerated in the eastern church."

What's interesting about Diana is that we carried, and still carry, these potent images in our head from a thousand photo calls and paparazzi shots.

And the British aristocracy, not to mention the Church of England, didn't like this veneration one little bit. For since the Reformation, there is always the risky sense that cults or revivals of a collective, somehow Catholic feeling - which is female and emotion-orientated rather than male, intellectual and Protestant - could be roused. And this Madonna, this Diana of the sorrows or Di of the Aids victims, looked as if she could have been about to do it.

The dramatic manner of her death helped, with the sense of her being martyred by an over-demanding Press.

She was also a fashion icon, of course, which didn't hurt - saints painted on wooden boards, which is what icon originally means in the Byzantine tradition, are usually beautiful with stylised faces and good bone structure, not to mention attractive, stylised postures.


You could see the imagery hardening just after her death, with newspapers understandably choosing the most appropriates images, often by Mario Testino, which accentuate the sky blue (heavenly blue?) eyes, the perfect teeth and hair, the large nose made to look more in scale than it was in life.

In death, Diana was turning into an embodiment of goodness and grace, of empathy and feeling, becoming a saintly queen of hearts, whose remains would, like something in a Camelot-type legend, lie on an island in the middle of a lake at Althorp, covered with flowers and become a focus for all the pent-up emotion the English nation was now expressing.

She allowed us to feel, and to admit to feeling, which was something no body of psychotherapists could achieve, and we loved - and worshipped - her for it. It is significant that the new prayers written to allow her, 10 years on and a little grudgingly, into the sacrament of the Church, register that emotionalism, that empathy.

So what has happened to the fashion icon, the pseudo-religious icon and Diana brand (the secular version of an icon) since that dangerous time when the UK looked as if a cult was in the making? Strangely, things have to an extent quietened down, visitor numbers to the Spencer family home have declined, public ire at Prince Charles for not treating this saintly being well (saintly in spite of acknowledged liaisons with James Hewitt and Dodi al Fayed et al) has abated. Yet hints of worship remain, in the continuing popularity of books about Diana, in the reluctance to accept Camilla, definitely not the queen of our hearts, as the substitute.

In the obsession with the public monument erected to her, flawed though it was, and in concern over the administration of her charitable fund.

Worldwide, there have been scandals over Diana dolls and the uses to which her image has been put, but isn't that just part of the iconography?

Think of Lourdes and the way images of Christ the Son and the Virgin Mary, also Saint Therese, are used on mundane, often kitsch items.

The point is that it doesn't reduce the icon's force or what you might call star quality. And in those terms, including the fashion influence, Diana remains totally, beautifully iconic.

Belfast Telegraph


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