Princess Diana’s Black Sheep Sweater
In July, I visited Sotheby’s in London to see Lady Diana Spencer’s iconic “Black Sheep” sweater by Warm & Wonderful. As I watched a steady stream of visitors pause to take pictures, I wondered what is it about those intarsia white sheep and that one black one on a field of cherry red stockinette stitches that holds so much power?
Back in 1980, newly-engaged Lady Diana Spencer wore the sweater to Prince Charles’ polo match. Not long after, she tore the right cuff and her private secretary sent it to Warm & Wonderful founders Joanna Osborne and Sally Muir to ask if it could be repaired.
The recent newspaper photograph of Diana wearing the Black Sheep sweater meant Osborne and Muir were swamped with orders and had no time to repair it. So, they sent Diana a replacement. This past spring, they found Diana’s original torn sweater wrapped up in a cotton bedspread in a box.
In the early eighties, on the strength of Black Sheep sweater sales, Warm & Wonderful were able to move into a shop with sack-loads of mail arriving each day from people writing to find out how they could buy the sweater.
No one knew then that the message of that sweater—a rebel standing apart from the crowd, but also being the odd one out—would come to define Diana’s place in the royal family and that she would ultimately turn her outsider status into one of global icon.
Enter Emma Corrin who plays Diana in Season 4 of The Crown wearing a reproduction Black Sheep sweater. On the original, the black sheep stands near Diana’s middle. In the series version, the black sheep stands near Corrin’s face emphasizing Diana’s outlier position. This is fashion saying more than dialogue can.
And Diana was known for using fashion to say things which were difficult or forbidden to express in words. Interviewed in British Vogue, designer Jasper Conran commented, “Whenever the Princess discussed her clothes with me, part of it was always, ‘What message will I be giving out if I wear this?’ For her, that became the real language of clothes.”
So, what about that black sheep?
Many of us remember the nursery rhyme “Bah Bah Black Sheep.” The British Library holds the earliest surviving version in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744:
Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool,
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my Master,
One for my Dame,
One for my little Boy
That lives in the lane.
The dividing up of wool nods to the fact that down through history the massive profits from the British wool trade went mainly to the crown and the landowners with only a pittance left for the shepherds, spinners, weavers, and their families. It was this obsession with the market value of wool which fed into the often conflicting symbolism of the black sheep.
Some argue that the black sheep was an outcast in a flock because its fleece couldn’t be dyed, so was commercially worthless. Others argue that the black sheep’s fleece was prized because it was a way to get (nearly) black wool. For shepherds in Derbyshire, Kent, Sussex, and Somerset, a black sheep in the flock meant good luck. In northern Scotland, it meant just the opposite. And then there’s the deep rabbit hole of the Bible and Genesis. Whether Jacob’s sheep were black or spotted or both, or were actually cows (!), they made him immensely rich.
What can be agreed is that a black sheep is notable because it is rare—it is in fact the result of a recessive gene—and people often feel the need to decipher rareness. Even with science by our side, we still struggle to interpret and accept rareness in humans, animals, and nature.
The Black Sheep sweater worn by Lady Diana Spencer together with letters from Buckingham Palace are estimated to sell at Sotheby’s Fashion Icons auction in New York in September for more than $50,000. Forty-one years after she was last photographed wearing it, Diana’s sweater still carries that aura of celebrity, tragedy, and rarity, but also a message:
When words fail or seem cheap, when silence is demanded by circumstances or smiles required by occasion, sometimes a little black knitted sheep is all we need to say it all.