September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

Long legs emerging from a limousine, body buffed by near-daily visits to the gym, by the end of her life 5’10” Princess Diana was a fashion force to be reckoned with. Though she set no significant trends and displayed little creativity in her clothing choices, designers around the world fought to drape her fabulous form. A thoroughly modern royal, she also brought a new sensuality to the palace—and to the image of Englishwomen everywhere. “There’s nobody,” says royal milliner Philip Somerville, echoing style observers around the globe, “who could compare with her.”

“She broke the barriers of the accepted form of royal dressing,” says David Sassoon, who designed clothes for Diana in the early 1980s. Not only did she dare to wear pants to semiformal events, but she eventually gave up hats and gloves and sometimes substituted tanned legs for panty hose. Her clothes reflected her state of mind—from the frilly frocks of a newlywed (sometimes sewn up by her mother’s dressmaker) to the low-cut Versaces and Valentinos that she embraced after her divorce, when she was allowed to stop flying the flag for British designers. Along the way, she made few missteps. Says Sassoon: “She understood the art of wearing the right clothes for the occasion.”

Diana sometimes bemoaned her image—”Clothes are not my priority,” she once protested—but clearly she loved fashion: Her annual clothing bills ran as high as $136,500. At the same time, her carefully tended figure helped draw attention to her causes. How fitting that in June, symbolically casting off life as Her Royal Highness, Diana (at the suggestion of son William) sold 79 gowns at an auction that raised nearly $6 million for charity.

SHE CAME IN LIKE A LAMB AND WENT OUT LIKE A LIONESS

1981 Joining the millinery madness of the royal family, the bashful princess hid behind a coquettish veil.

1982 Critics thought this Bruce Oldfield gown, with single shoulder and slanted hem, was too radical for royalty. The pearl choker worn with clasp to the front was an early Diana trademark.

1983 Manufacturer Warm and Wonderful sold $1 million worth of this black-sheep sweater after Di was photographed wearing one.

1984 Di’s early style seemed inconsistent in part because she shared the spotlight with as many as 30 British designers a year. As for her coiffure, “any changes we did gradually,” recalls longtime hairstylist Richard Dalton. “Her hair was sometimes too overwhelming.”

1985 With this red suit, Diana let her fancy take flight: Affixed to each ankle of her seamed stockings was a net butterfly.

1986 Indulging her love of whimsy by matching her socks to her polka-dot skirt, Diana ignited a brief fad. The skirt cost $100 and the matching socks $10.

1987 Di drew brickbats when she turned herself out like one of the boys to review the cadets at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Sniped one writer: “She looked like a lost member of Sgt. Pepper’s band.”

1988 A new sleekness was evident when Di traveled to Thailand. “She loved wearing short skirts,” says designer Jacques Azagury. “She had the best legs of anyone.”

1989 Di’s love of color came to the fore in this sari-style Catherine Walker. By the late ’80s, Di, who owned only one long dress when she wed, had 12 dozen gowns.

1990 The princess “loved glamour and was very much at home in that Dynasty period,” designer Oldfield wrote in Britain’s Sunday Times after Diana’s death.

1991 At a Brazilian state dinner, Diana exuded regal perfection, topping off her Catherine Walker gown with the Lover’s Knot tiara given to her by Queen Elizabeth.

1992 One thing that set Diana apart from ordinary women was the perfect color coordination of her accessories. Until her divorce, she carried mostly clutches. Afterward she favored larger bags that could accommodate her mobile phone and beeper.

1993 Di chose a bare-shouldered Catherine Walker to greet stars at the London premiere of Accidental Hero.

1994 What to wear the night your husband goes on TV to admit adultery? Di’s “revenge dress,” an off-the-rack design by Christina Stambolian, later fetched $74,000 at the Christie’s charity auction—about 40 times the original price.

1995 “Venetians blinded by dazzling Di,” trumpeted The Express after the princess exited a gondola in a Jacques Azagury mini. Azagury gained favor with Diana postdivorce, as she chose more daring designs. “She loved the color red,” he recalls.

1996 Diana’s increasingly sleek and refined taste was on display at a Washington fundraiser for breast cancer. “Not only does she look like a million dollars,” said The Sun, “but she helps raise millions for charity, too.”

1997 Diana wore a dazzling blue Azagury mini to the English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall. Recalls the designer: “It was almost identical to the color of her eyes.”

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