Monday, February 21, 2011
Iconic Monday: The Engagement of Charles and Diana, told in Three Pictures
At this point it seems a fairly safe assumption the one of the big news stories of the summer will be the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But I tend to look back instead of ahead, which is a curse, but there you go. Thirty years ago this week--Thursday, to be exact--Buckingham Palace announced the engagement of William's parents, Charles, the prince of Wales, and Diana Spencer.
The event, at least for me, can be summed up in three pictures. Two of them are iconic, and they tell a tale of two dresses, of a fairy-tale before and after, though in this case the after was really the middle of a longer story that didn't end happily at all.
Above is the picture that helped catapult Diana to the top of the world-wide celebrity list. I am quite sure that millions of men who really couldn't have cared less about royals or royal wedding suddenly began taking an interest as soon as they saw it. It was taken in the fall of 1980 by one of those enterprising Brit press photographers after rumors began to swirl about Diana and Charles. Diana was working at the time at a nursery school, and, as I recall (from the TV biopic about Diana that I saw many years ago), the pack of photographers staking out the place were delighted to see her walking toward them with the sun at her back. Were these legs going to be royal legs? Ultimately, they were less important in the long run, I think, than the expression, which seems to have been a native instinct of Diana's: head tilted down, eyes looking up. Shy Di, they called her. But the mouth promised something more.
Then she left her flat and roommates and moved into Buckingham Palace and began being tutored on how to be a princess. If I'm not mistaken, the Queen Mother took on the role of teacher. The photo below was taken on February 24, 1981, the day of the official announcement of the engagement.
Let's look at it for one second. It is not iconic, but a historical document. It's one of those family photos that are taken to mark significant moments, and those kinds of photos often end up looking like this. Note the expressions, the body language. the Queen's shoes. Here the promise seems to be of a much colder future.
The other photo I remember from the period was taken during the couple's first public appearance after the announcement. The event was a Royal Opera benefit, and the big news was the dress that Charles's fiance wore. "Lady Di Takes the Plunge," said the Daily Mirror the following day. It was a black taffeta evening gown, strapless and low cut.
It's very wrong to draw too many conclusions from a single still photo, but let's do it anyway. Diana looks happy here--check that, she is glittering. The very picture of a 1980s princess. If there were any doubt, this picture showed once and for all that she was one of those special people who charm the camera. Charles was not blessed with abundant charisma. But he was the future king, and always had been, and I expect he was used to being the main attraction in situations like this. Now there was something new in his life. What do you think he was thinking here?