The Story Behind Princess Diana’s Iconic Black Sheep Sweater

When Lady Diana Spencer announced her engagement to the future King Charles III in 1981, it wasn’t obvious that she was about to become a generational fashion icon. Her outfits were followed and even emulated from the time of her first mention in the tabloids as a friend of the then-Prince of Wales the previous summer. Ever since, her preschool teacher’s wardrobe had slowly been getting an upgrade with the advice of a group of British Vogue editors, and by the summer, she was trading the pastels and prim skirts of a Sloane Ranger in for sparkling gowns and trendy patterns.

But the first true sign that something truly unusual was afoot might have been the flood of mail going to the headquarters of Warm and Wonderful—a British fashion brand founded by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne—in 1981. On a June 6 outing to see Charles, Diana wore a sweater from the brand—red with a group of white sheep and a single black one—with a pair of jeans and bright red pumps. The pictures of Diana appeared in the papers over the next few days, and overnight, women around Britain were clamoring for a sweater of their own.

“Much to our amazement, the first we knew of Lady Diana Spencer wearing the sweater was when we saw her on the front page of one of the Sunday newspapers,” Muir and Osborne said in a statement. “Her influence was impactful almost immediately thereafter, leading to a surge in sales and public awareness of our small label, for which we will be forever grateful.”

In those pre-internet days, Muir and Osborne were immediately inundated by mail orders and catalog requests, and fulfilling them all took months because the sweaters themselves were hand-knit by artisans across the nation. Eventually, they got a letter from Buckingham Palace with an urgent request: Princess Diana had damaged the sweater and hoped to have another. Muir and Osborne obliged, and they sent her a new one, which she would wear from time to time for the next few years. Recently, the brand found the original sweater in its storage space, and now the 1981 sweater is going up for auction at Sotheby’s on August 31, as a part of the auction house’s inaugural fashion Icons sale.

Diana wears the second Warm and Wonderful sweater in 1983.From Getty Images

The market for items formerly owned by Diana has skyrocketed since her 1997 death, and in January, Kim Kardashian became one of the highest profile people to buy her ephemera, spending over $200,000 dollars on Diana’s amethyst cross necklace. The black sheep sweater, however, has become one of her most emulated looks in the mass market, and in 2020, Warm and Wonderful teamed up with Rowing Blazers to create a new version of the sweater.

According to Cynthia Houlton, Sotheby’s global head of fashion and accessories, this sale will place the sweater in dialogue with other memorable and culturally significant items of clothing.

“By combining high-end designer pieces with more attainable everyday apparel, Diana’s style led to a wave of imitation and admiration—which remains steadfast to this day—leaving an indelible mark on the fashion world and solidifying the Princess as an icon in fashion history,” Houlton said. “This exceptional garment, meticulously preserved, carries the whispers of Princess Diana’s grace, charm, and her keen eye for fashion.”

In the decades since her death, the symbolism of a lone black sheep has been hard to ignore, though it’s impossible to know if Diana, who would eventually say she felt like a royal outsider, saw it herself when she first wore it. In fact, it’s not entirely clear how she got the sweater in the first place, though in 2020, Muir and Osborne told The New Yorker that they believed it was given to her by the mother of one of her wedding page boys.

By June of 1981, Diana had moved into Buckingham Palace, and was balancing her new royal role with an increasingly busy and glamorous social calendar. On June 4, she and Charles attended the wedding of Nicholas Soames, now a member of the House of Lords, to his first wife, Catherine Weatherall, and the next day, she had a private dance classes in her new home. Though photos from the time mainly show her and Charles brimming with excitement, some put Diana’s stress and apprehension on display.

That weekend, Charles was competing for the Queen’s Cup at Smith’s Field in Windsor with his polo team, Les Diables Bleus, though The Sun later reported that Diana only came for one of the three days, wearing the black sheep sweater. In the two months before the wedding, Charles had scheduled at least 24 polo matches scheduled in various parts of England, and Diana’s presence in the audience became one reliable way for the press to see the young couple share a casual moment together. In his memoirs, Major General D.K. Palit remembered watching one day as she arrived in her car at the Windsor field and was immediately surrounded by photographers. She was distressed, and soon left the event. A few photos from the match show her with a grim look on her face, squeezed in the Ford Escort she drove at the time (which went up for auction last year).

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