The real story behind Princess Diana's early 90s short haircut

Many of us are familiar with the—and we hesitate before using this word, but we're going to go ahead with it anyway—iconic 1991 shot of Princess Diana, chin resting on her folded-over hands, wearing a black turtleneck, hair chopped short.

And thanks to hairstylist Sam McKnight, who has a new book and exhibition out, we now have some of the backstory about what led to that dramatic stylistic switch.

McKnight recounts, to the Daily Mail, that his first time working with the princess was in 1990, when she was brought in to be photographed by Patrick Demarchelier (McKnight had guessed beforehand they'd be photographing Margaret Thatcher when he heard they were "shooting someone important for Vogue"). For that shoot, he used some hairstyling trickery—"using hair grips to tuck her shoulder-length hair under the tiara"—to make it look like she had short hair.

Princess Diana, Hair by Sam McKnight, for vogue
Princess Diana, Hair by Sam McKnight, for vogue

Related: Remembering Princess Diana's Glamorous Style

Diana was evidently quite pleased with the look as, after the shoot, McKnight says that she asked him, "What would you do with my hair if I gave you free rein?" He responded, "I would cut it all off," and, as McKnight puts it, "She was convinced immediately." The rest, as they say, was . . . a famous haircut.

Princess Diana's famous haircut on the cover of Vogue
Princess Diana's famous haircut on the cover of Vogue

McKnight explains that it was "one of the cuts that women suddenly wanted," as it popped up "everywhere—on the High Street, on newsreaders." He hypothesizes that the popularity was related to its contrast to the "big 80s hair," representing a "sportier, more androgynous look," but one that was "still hugely feminine."

McKnight went on to work closely with Diana ("I saw Diana every week when I was in London"). During one meeting with Linda Evangelista and Vogue editor Liz Tilberis, McKnight told them about a shoot he had done earlier in the week with Diana and Demarchelier, and imparted that one picture in particular "would make a great Vogue cover." And, yep, you guessed it: it's the black turtleneck shot, which ran as the cover of British Vogue in December 1991. And McKnight shares one final, special detail about the image: "She had just stopped biting her nails and was so proud of how they looked."

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Photo credit: Julian Parker/UK Press/Getty Images

See Princess Diana's style transformation through the years: