Revisiting Princess Diana and Her Wedding Legacy (Part I: The World of Celebrity)

09/05/2013 06:34 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2013

As this month's Vanity Fair cover girl and feature story ("Diana's True Love") and a movie coming out this fall about the last two years of her life (showcasing that "impossible" love affair), the world's most popular celebrity -- and princess bride -- is once again in the news. Revisiting Princess Diana may bring to mind many things, but most memorable to me is her lasting influence on the world of weddings.

"The first worldwide media spectacular...with all the pomp and circumstance at England's matchless command," declared journalist Susie Pearson when looking back at Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's glorious wedding in the summer of 1981. "It was, perhaps, the defining event of the eighties" and brought ceremonial weddings back in style almost overnight, resurrecting the bridal industry from the social upheavals of the previous two decades. After this royal watershed event, getting married became fashionable again and the world was ready! It put into motion a new era of fancy wedding hoopla: elaborate designer gowns; a return of the status wedding; staged over-the-top productions; and "celebrity" weddings as media spectacles--all coordinated by professional event planners who became bigger celebrities than many of their clients.

Almost everything about the 1980s became a symbol of excess, "a decade in which style so often trumped substance," added Pearson. The appeal of the Wales' grand ceremony ignited Martha Stewart's brand of attention-down-to-the-last-detail "decorative wedding" and imploded the wedding as a "consumer rite," a trend that, explained scholar Vicki Howard in her book Brides, Inc., had begun in America at the middle of the twentieth century.

Their nuptial celebration (Charles in his distinguished gilded uniform and Diana in her shimmering pouf of a princess gown) added a bright spot to gloomy Thatcherism-entrenched Great Britain and energized its notorious media machine -- already in high gear ever since Diana came onto the scene as a photogenic, affable teenager. However, when the royal family "allow[ed] live global coverage of an 'intimate' family affair," explained British writer Beatrix Campbell, it not only made Diana a superstar and weddings a public happening, but it also turned a willing public into an adoring, yet leering audience. "What the tabloids implicitly asserted was the people's right not only to watch but to know, to know everything," Campbell continued. So this paparazzi mentality (i.e., the decline of decorum), aided by the glare of the emerging free-form modern era, began chipping away at what had been the royal family's carefully protected and manipulated reverence and mystery. (But did it not begin chipping away at our own dignity, including a sense of reverence for the rituals and ceremonies of life?)

It didn't take long to establish a "world of celebrity" phenomenon that permeates our lives today. The gossipy, global media industry of newspapers, magazines and television shows spawned in those days still feeds an insatiable public that continues to look for its next "tabloid princess" (royal or otherwise.) Once the press breached the boundaries of private and public lives of royalty in those days, it laid bare our lives as well. So as we became voyeurs into the lives of royalty, we invited voyeurs into our own.

The way Diana's star status changed the press' rather reverential relationship with royalty into just more tabloid fodder bled over into how they perceived wedding ceremonies, brides and women in general. In How Sexual Politics Shook the Monarchy, Campbell wrote: "The pursuit by the press exposed the distinction between royalty and stardom: ceremony covered the body, celebrity exposed it." (Was Diana the first mass-media "sexual bride"?) As all weddings became more theatrical--and those of "celebrities" turned into press-covered news events--the more scrutinized the bride became and the less "virginal" and "reverential" her gown. Somewhere between women discovering their bodies (as well as embracing their freedom of sexual expression) and the tabloid press pursuits of anything that smacked of celebrity, wedding gowns became another costume to expose the female body as an object of desire.

[Coming up, Part II: "A Costume Drama" and Part Three: "What the Veil Reveals"]