Listen to the Princess's clothes Clothed in the art of genius

Diana has always used her wardrobe as a weapon. Suzanne Moore admires the latest salvo
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Cinderella not only went to the ball, married the prince, found out about the ongoing affair with the ugly sister, divorced him, but then had the cheek to sell off the glass slippers. Fairy tales weren't supposed to end like this. The news that Diana is planning to donate her wedding gown to the V&A has been greeted with consternation and speculation about what it can all mean. Most of us clear out our wardrobes from time to time but Diana, the most photographed woman in the world, has always used her wardrobe as a weapon. Never having spoken up much until recently, her clothes have spoken for her and whatever it is that she has been intending to say the world's press have heard her outfits tell of her various mental states. From the very beginning when she stepped out in a see-through skirt to her recent land-mine ensemble, her visual presence has been her chief means of communication.

Her interest in clothes has also been read as a sign of her superficiality. She has been described as nothing more than a royal clotheshorse. Her love of fashion - a low rather than high art - has been regarded as an indication of her self-obsession and as evidence of her essentially trivial nature. Part of her "astonishing plan" is also to auction off some of her evening dresses for her favourite charities, in order, it has been suggested, that we might take her more seriously. Yet all this fuss makes us realise that no one takes her clothes more seriously than we do.

Those who view Diana as forever devious see her plans to give her wedding dress to the V&A as a sinister plot to overshadow the Queen's golden wedding celebrations in the summer, but what, pray, would they like her to do with this elaborate creation? It has already served its purpose. There is no better place for this dress than in a museum. Like all wedding dresses, its function was purely symbolic and now it remains simply a dysfunctional but beautiful garment.

Anyway, it was the old Diana who wore that dress, the one who was happy enough in meringue confections of tulle, the one who believed that dreams could come true. For several years now we have been accustomed to seeing her in more fitting and, dare I say, phallic outfits that show off her toned body. She looks happier, sexier, more grown-up and confident. Here, then, a different discourse about fashion comes into play: one that means business rather than frippery; one that means showing the world the creations of some outstanding British talents. Diana, queen of the fashion industry, is no longer regarded as a silly girl with too many frocks for her own good.

The suggestion that she is leaving fashion behind is, as Bruce Oldfield remarked, ridiculous. Only men could have misread her Angolan "look" so badly, believing that because she was more casually dressed she had not paid so much attention to her appearance as usual. Every woman knows that Diana had to think more about that outfit than if she had had to chuck on any old Galliano.

One of Diana's greatest talents is her ability to key into the public mood. Even though this story was leaked, she appears as a thoroughly modern Royal, one who is prepared to appear to be less decadent, almost a down- sized princess. She is signalling the end of frothiness only a few days after we are expected to be happy to shell out millions of pounds for a royal yacht. Her behaviour, which is by no means the ultimate in self- sacrifice, stands in stark contrast to the other Royals who appear to believe it is their divine right to spend as they wish.

Diana, no longer anyone's victim, may well be tired of being dubbed a slave to fashion or she may actually just want to make space for some new gear. Her crime, if there has to be one, is that she looks so good. While all the other Royals spend a fortune on clothes, they have no taste whatsoever. This, we are asked to presume, is because they have their mind on higher things. Our ambivalence towards fashion stems from the fact that we fail to recognise that it is always, as Elizabeth Wilson has said, "a performance art". This is something that Diana implicitly understands and she is a genius at it. These days, however, more than anything she wants to perform as a working woman, a woman in control, the subject of her own fantasies rather than the object of someone else's. If any one garment symbolises her status as an object, as a possession of the crown, rather than as a person in her own right, it is that archaic wedding gown. To be honest, I'm surprised she hasn't already burnt the damn thing.