During her short life, Princess Diana was beloved for many reasons. One of them was her impeccable fashion sense. She looked elegant in everything, from frilly blouses to designer gowns, and because she was young and modern, she embraced casual clothes, as well. Her style was so pitch perfect that it feels fresh even now, and you can find tributes to her laid-back looks in present-day fashion publications like Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and GQ, among others.
One of her most memorable ensembles included a red knit sweater covered in symmetric rows of small, white sheep. Like so many of Lady Di’s clothes, it was both a metaphor and a message. Here’s the scandalous story behind the princess’s deeply symbolic (and very cute) black sheep sweater.
When did Diana wear the black sheep sweater?
The sweater in question is a cozy red knit covered in a sea of white sheep, with one black sheep just off-center in the front. Designed in 1979 by Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne for their knitwear line, Warm & Wonderful, it was charming and kitschy at the same time. In the video below, the designers recount how the black sheep sweater — or in British parlance, “jumper” — was one of the first patterns they ever designed, and how wild it was to see Princess Diana wearing it for the first time. (They actually found out Diana wore it after the fact, when they saw a picture in the Sunday newspaper. In a 2020 interview, they told the New Yorker that they still don’t know how Diana came to own the sweater). In the years following its initial appearance, Diana would wear the sweater a number of times, including in 1981, just a month before their wedding, at one of Prince Charles’ polo matches. Suffice it to say, Diana’s donning of the playful creation caused quite a stir. Its designers were inundated with fan mail every time she put it on.
What did this sweater represent?
The black sheep sweater wasn’t just cute, it was also a tongue-in-cheek symbol of the young princess’s nonconformity. Diana was frequently seen as a black sheep in the royal family, and the sweater bolstered that narrative. The fact that she wore it repeatedly shows how meaningful it was to her — as a royal, she obviously could afford to wear a new sweater every single day if she wanted to. The fact that it was created by British designers was also meaningful to Diana, as it spoke to her national pride. (Her wedding dress was famously created by young British designers as well). As the so-called “people’s princess,” sporting a casual jumper with a clever message was right up Di’s alley. So potent is the sweater’s legacy that it’s even included in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. On their website, designers Muir and Osborne say, “We never imagined that our sheep jumpers would bring so many people so much joy, though we always had fun ourselves… After so many years, it’s lovely to see that this simple design is making people smile.”
Can you buy the black sheep sweater?
Thanks to the continuing interest in Princess Diana’s style (due in part to the popularity of shows like The Crown and social media accounts sharing some of her most famous looks) the black sheep sweater has been reintroduced by its original designers in collaboration with Rowing Blazers, a brand dedicated to preppy fashion (Buy from Rowing Blazers, $221). The sweater costs a pretty penny, but each is knit by hand from pure wool and takes nearly six hours to make. As Rowing Blazers put it, “It’s been copied many times, but this is the original, iconic sheep sweater made in partnership with Joanna and Sally to the same specifications as those famously worn by the Princess of Wales.”
The black sheep sweater can also be purchased directly from Warm & Wonderful’s site, and is sold in pink, blue, green, and of course, classic red. There’s also a sleeveless version and a children’s version. If you’re the crafty type, you can even make the sweater yourself! A vintage pattern is available online.
Over 40 years after it debuted, Princess Diana’s black sheep sweater feels more relevant than ever, and it’s a look worth emulating this holiday season. That said, you don’t have to wear the exact black sheep sweater to channel Diana’s stylish spirit — any knit novelty will do. Whether you relate to the black sheep sentiment or not, one thing’s for sure: Diana’s sweater collection was truly legendary.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.
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