Flick and Feather: On Diana’s Hair

November 11, 2021   •   By Sarah Mesle

THIS IS AN ESSAY ABOUT Princess Diana’s hair, which I have never liked. I have always felt a frisson around it. Princess’s Diana’s hair grows lush and thick and blond, all qualities I am prepared to find beautiful; it’s bobbed, and I often find a bob fetching. But Princess Diana’s flick-and-feather bob variations always leave me the opposite of fetched. Faced with them I am unfetched, even resistant.

Precisely because of this anti-Diana hair feeling, I was thrilled to discover that Kristen Stewart (whom I love) would be playing Diana in a new movie. The frisson I feel about Diana’s hair, I was sure, would only amplify the drama of this lady hair spectacle. I was not wrong.

It’s complicated to so vehemently dislike the hair of a woman who died so tragically. But before her death, Princess Diana was one of the most powerfully emblematic white women of my childhood; as princess, in fact, she occupied one of the most emblematic of all white woman roles (that this role is raced is something everyone living in the Meghan Markle era has to acknowledge). So I think it’s valid to consider her hair, and what it taught me, about the specifically 1980s princess powers of white womanhood and the price that is paid for them.

There are a lot of things to be said about the success of Spencer and of Stewart; how Stewart gives Pablo Larraín’s “fable based on a true tragedy” a rich backstory. In casting Stewart (and all the cultural associations that come with her) as Princess Diana, director Larraín brilliantly juxtaposes the entire House of Windsor with the vampires of Twilight, another movie in which Stewart’s character has a complicated appetite issue related to the monstrosity of her in-laws. In other words, Spencer runs a variation on Twilight’s over-the-top observations about sex and domination and desire. Spencer is about all of things too, but in ways both more and less subtle. It shows Princess Diana reckoning with the degree to which she fell in love with such dangerous power, or, alternately, was seduced or ensnared by it. The difference matters, she knows, but from within the bars of her luxurious prison, she seems uncertain as to how.

Another thing about Spencer is that it revels in close-up shots of Stewart’s beautiful unhappy face framed by Diana’s familiar, frissony, feathered bob. All these shots gave me ample time to consider what for me was the main drama: what could Spencer’s portrait of Diana’s power and prison and appetite teach me about why I have never liked about Princess Diana’s hair?

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There’s a scene in Spencer — what follows are only the mildest of spoilers — when Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana sits with her young boys in Sandringham House and tries to explain what is happening. Confusing things that fall under the heading “what is happening” range from “why can’t we open our presents on Christmas Day like normal people” to “why is my mother so sad.” Diana explains both these things at once. It’s like the verb tenses the boys learn in school, she says: this house has its own systems of verbs, of possible actions, and in this system “there is no future” tense; what’s more, here, “the past and present are the same.” In this house, Diana explains, working her jaw furiously into her accent and her insight, everything is “all set as if everything’s already happened.” For me, watching in a matinee movie theater and trying to take notes while sipping a smuggled-in can of rose, this was a deeply exciting moment. Diana has discovered “GENRE!!!” I scrawled in all caps on my popcorn-smeared napkin.

Note that Diana here is absolutely right. In genre, similar things happen in a similar way and in a similar order, so that everyone can have similar feelings. The feelings are similar to everyone else’s feelings and also to the feelings you’ve had before. Princess Diana is a figure who moved through the world interpellated constantly into genre. Her hair, thus, did too. But it does so strangely.

In Spencer, Diana is pressured into performing a series of rote actions so that everyone around her can have the royal Christmas feeling, which the servants in Spencer almost uniformly describe as “a lovely bit of fun.” Diana can literally hardly bring herself to swallow this bullshit. There is no scene in the movie of Diana reading Jameson or Freud, so we can assume either that such reading happens offstage or that her media training led her to independently develop a narrative theory of genre’s conservative unconscious. 

A strange thing about Spencer, from a hair studies perspective, is that Princess Diana’s hair is hardly mentioned at all. Her clothes, and the genre expectations around them, get an enormous amount of attention. But her hair comes up only once, when Charles suggests to her that she needs to hurry up and “have her hair set.” I have really thought a lot about this line and its significance. Queen Elizabeth definitely has her hair “set.” Does Diana, too? Is that part of her feather-bob management? The line matters because it shows that Charles associates Diana’s hair with his mother’s, even though Diana’s hair looks nothing like his mother’s. Charles is an idiot, is part of the point. But maybe he is not entirely wrong about what’s happening with Princess Diana’s hair.

In Spencer, Diana runs and cries and vomits and drives fast and clambers through a dark field at night and her flick-and-feather bob is hardly touched, it hardly moves. In this way, it definitely has been set. This makes it a strange fit for the genres in which Princess Diana typically appears, which are, alternatingly “beautiful woman becomes princess,” and  “beautiful woman breaks free from genre of princess.” Spencer is the latter, which is partly why I loved it; the feelings of this genre are some of my favorites. Anyway, in most stories of either genre, hair matters significantly. So the #hairstudies part of me is really interested to see the stuckness of Diana’s unmoving hair. What is her hair doing there — by not doing anything at all — set between these two genres?

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Princess Diana became a princess on Wednesday, July 29, 1981, when I was five years old, so way after I had begun my lifelong investigation into princess hair studies. I had avidly consumed all the major texts: Sleeping Beauty, which had been rereleased by Disney in 1979, and Cinderella, which was rereleased in 1981, the same year as Diana got married. Foxy Robin Hood (with its carriage and King Richard wedding) would be rereleased in 1982. Any little 1980s girl in the world of Disney’s orbit could learn the genre lesson that that the role of princess was the ideal one to play in the story of the happy ending; in fact, it’s almost the only role for a girl in the story at all.

I do not think I watched Princess Diana’s wedding live while it happened, if that was even possible in rural Iowa in 1981. But I remember her face and dress framed by the box of my tv screen — watching it on the news, on commercials on the news, on PBS. There was Diana with a carriage, Diana walking down the aisle, posing with her pages, waving from her balcony. Receiving the ring that was its own special kind of crown. I was thrilled, and also, about her hair, even then, concerned.

Princess Diana got married in the absolute most princessy dress I could have imagined. Anyone who has read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books knows exactly how I continue to feel about Diana’s puffed sleeves. The church, the blushing smile, the applauding witnesses — they were storybook, they were fairytale. What these adjectives mean is that, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, they created the genre feeling of being timeless, literally free of time. In Spencer, Diana laments living in a world where “the past and present are the same,” which for her at that moment means that there is no hope for the future. But that is not what, as a little girl, I understood about the fairytale genre. Instead, what I believed, and what all the fairytale trappings of Diana’s wedding seemed to affirm, was that to be a princess is to be eternal — to be in the smiling, starring, role forever. This is a lie, but it is a very powerful one.

In all of the fairytales I had seen, long hair matters to being the princess. Even Fox Maid Marian’s wimple, I think you’d call it, is a long hair cipher. And my hair mattered to how I thought about princesses. It wasn’t blond, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s or the popular girls in my elementary school, but my hair then was long, and “golden brown” I liked to think to myself. I love remembering my mother brushing and braiding it, wrapping it around my head, as she said, “like a princess.”

But in Princess Diana’s wedding, in the middle of the silk taffeta and lace, between Diana’s blushing face and her billowing dress and interrupting the confluence between them, was…her hair, that feathered bob. Her hair made no crown at all. The dress and the smile were storybook, but the haircut was history: real history, the sequence of interactions caused by people trying to relate to each other, not eternally, but in 1981 specifically.

Princess Diana’s short hair punctured the illusion of the eternal princess, even as she seemed to be holding on to that illusion, embodying it. This in-betweenness bothered me. It did so partly because I, a little white girl, liked the princess illusion for reasons that were selfish, the opposite of good. But I had read many stories too about girls who cut their hair, to do good, or to get free. Perhaps that was what Diana wanted. But what did freedom mean to her, if it meant still wearing the same clothes, with the same people, and the same dress?

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Here’s an interesting detail about Princess Diana’s hair: when Diana was — as he later wrote about it — “testing out” the journalist Andrew Morton to see if she could trust him to write her authorized biography, she asked him for help in changing her hairdresser. The specific hairdresser was named Richard Dalton, and he was Diana’s hairdresser for most of 12 years, starting when she was 17.  “How best,” Diana wanted to know, “to dispense with his services tactfully and without going to the newspapers to sell his story.” Morton gave her good advice, and she followed it, and today if you google “Richard Dalton Princess Diana” you can find glowing press accounts in places like Town & Country about their wonderful relationship.

Morton says he didn’t fully know at the time what was happening or why his hairdresser help signaled so significantly to Diana that Morton was the one who could reliably tell her story. But the reason is clear to me. Hair is narrative, Diana clearly knew, which means your hairdresser is your storyteller; your biographer in a different form. Sam McKnight, the new guy, would give Diana her noted pixie cut in 1991 presumably (#hairstudies) right after the events of Spencer. This, as the internet will happily tell you, was a part of Diana’s “breaking free of princess genre” move.

But as I’ve said, her bobbed hair had never been classic princess; it wasn’t long and flowing the way every fairy tale told me princess hair should be. Which takes me back to the question: what did a princess mean in 1981?

The 1980s were a decade dominated politically by the conservative fiscal austerity of Reagan and Thatcher, by their mutual commitment to corporate deregulation, to the retraction of the welfare state and all its modes of care. The ideal of the eternal princess, the feelings the fairytale genre creates, was useful to this political program, because it made revanchist politics feel heartwarming and benevolent and unquestionable, rather than cruel and extractive and self-interested, which is what they actually were. You might expect that, in service of this political operation, Diana would grow the most princess-y hair possible, really flex up her thick flowing blond.

But I think there’s a reason why Diana couldn’t have that long Disney-like hair. While a lot of people had long hair in the ’70s and early ’80s — and a lot of those people surely voted for Reagan and Thatcher — I do think it matters, or at least it mattered then to me, that a particular kind of long flowing hair was powerfully attached to the counterculture, to feminism. Long hair meant something, that is, to the people who were advocating for the very modes of care that Reagan had retracted.  

To say this isn’t at all to say that all people with long hair were feminist and certainly not that long-haired feminists were the best or most important or most effective feminists. Rather, I’m saying that to the extent that long hair was a symbol of feminism — to the extent that white feminists used their hair to connect themselves to an enduring and transhistorical idea of womanhood — Diana had a choice about what she could say with her hair story. She could have long hair, like the (white) princesses and the (white) feminists. Or she could cut her hair, and connect the princess ideal to something else; into something that seemed to make femininity into something else.

11/9/1985 President Reagan dancing with Princess Diana at a dinner for Prince Charles and Princess Diana of the United Kingdom in Cross Hall

And this, of course, is what she chose, if “choosing” is how we can describe what she did. It would be going too far to say that Diana’s short hair signaled a freedom from feminism, but it did signal its distance from certain kinds of feminine traditions, even as she in other ways amplified the femininity of her role. She was traditional, but in a new way.

Reagan was my president, in America, and officially he had nothing to do with Princess Diana or her wedding dress or her hair. But synecdochically this short-haired princess was right there, in the same media sphere as Reagan and in the same line of signifiers; in fact, her smiling princess self was what the media of my childhood gave me as the thing every little girl should try to be.

So it matters that, as a little white girl, as I was reading the signs of how to be a woman, I saw Princess Diana’s hair on a lot of other places than Princess Diana. It was absorbed into the corporate rom coms of the ’80s, like Secret of my Success and  Working Girl, both of which worked various Cinderella story angles to romanticize board rooms and business (and not, as 9 to 5 did, by supplying them with day cares and flex scheduling). Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic bowl cut reminded me of Princess Diana’s hair, as did the hair of most of the women in The Big Chill. This was a movie about the abandonment of the ideals of the ’60s, and their hair showed it.

When I look at all these short haired white women of my girlhood, I see them using their hair to do a kind of genre work, a blending of the princess genre and the getting free genre, in a defense of a kind of “freedom” that feels to me specific and historically motivated — and not one that was motivated for the good of any kind of people, particularly women, despite the fantasy of “the people’s princess.” This femininity would still be romantic and self-sacrificial and enduring, but it would also be nationalist, individualistic, and privatized.

Now, keep in mind that at the time Diana and her hair were dancing with Reagan, I was just a little girl: I don’t know what it was like for Diana or any of the women who seemed to me to have embraced her hair.  I don’t know what it was like to live through the ’60s and ’70s as a woman and then suddenly Reagan is elected and Diana is crowned, and your hair choices change. I know that when it comes to the genres of white womanhood, there are no pure choices. I don’t think it would necessarily be “better” if Princess Diana or anyone else — Melanie Griffith, say, in Working Girl — had kept their long. But it still felt to me as a kid in Lamoni, Iowa, watching Melanie Griffith explain to her best friend why her long hair had to go, that something besides the hair had been lost.

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Someone recently asked me about Princess Diana’s hair and I said, with utter seriousness, “It has troubled me my whole life.” Partly this is because, shortly after Princess Diana got married, my parents took me to have my own hair cut. This was a good decision on their part for a lot of reasons: they cut my hair because my mother was going back to school, and my dad, would be home alone with both kids:  he could take care of me and my little brother by himself, but not my hair too. This was a good, feminist, compromise.

But there’s another possible world where they didn’t have to make this compromise: a world where there was better, free childcare; where there were flexible work hours and cheaper housing and cheaper schools. There’s also a world in which Diana herself got better choices — and I wish that for her, absolutely. I wish all of us lived in a world where white women did not work so constantly for our own gain, didn’t throw ourselves against the momentum of progress for people more generally; didn’t then spend so much of our energy freeing ourselves from the very structures we helped build. I wish I spent less energy banging against these structures myself.

I think, maybe, that what I don’t like about Princess Diana’s hair is the contrast between the thickness and the thinness, the way the feathering of her hair draws attention to the ends where the hair has been cut; how it highlights the scene of its own removal. It looks perpetually just brushed, and yet often also so shellacked it can’t actually be touched. I hate how the feathering of Princess Diana’s hair makes me think about what could have taken flight and has instead been taken, or given, away.

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