London – By Diana’s time, Cohen said, the issue of virginity had come to represent a yearning for lost innocence as Britain was gripped by a perceived social breakdown driven home by its unwanted status of having Europe’s highest divorce rate.
“What began as a concern about legitimacy acquired all sort of connotations tied to social purity,” Cohen said.
“Diana’s virginity became symbolic of the possibility of a return to an innocent past for everyone, and now we’re so past that, it’s laughable.”
In effect, that liberates the new royal couple to live their own lives without carrying such a heavy weight of society’s expectations.
They are not expected to adhere to an ideal that fell out of fashion several generations ago, long before Middleton sauntered down a charity fashion show runway wearing a transparent dress over black lingerie, producing photos that seem destined to live forever on the internet.
In Diana’s day, the risque photos of a likely future queen might have torpedoed any wedding plans. Now they raise a few eyebrows, but nothing more.
A spokesman for Prince William, who refused to be identified because of royal policy, said palace officials would not comment on whether attitudes have changed, preferring to leave that role to others.
Middleton’s age also offers a partial explanation for the different attitudes toward the two royal brides. She is 29. Diana was just 19 when her engagement to Charles was announced after a brief courtship.
There was a general expectation that the young nursery school teacher would not have had any lovers before Charles.
“There is no rule that the royal bride has to be a virgin, and there never has been,” said Noel Cox, a law professor and royal scholar at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
“Obviously it would present difficulties if the heir chose someone who was notoriously promiscuous – that would be unpopular – but they could do that if they wanted to.”
Diana’s virginity wasn’t a defined issue, experts say, but the absence of prior boyfriends with embarrassing tales to tell was a big plus from the royals’ point of view.
At the time of her engagement, Charles was already in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Camilla Shand, who decades later would become his second wife.
Charles may well have wanted to marry Camilla, but she was not seen as an appropriate choice because she was known to have had several boyfriends by that time.
Some historians and commentators believe this was a major factor in Charles’ fateful decision to marry Diana rather than Camilla, setting in motion a tragic chain of events that culminated with Diana’s 1997 death in a car crash.
Royal commentators believe William is in a better position than his father to make his marriage work.
“He’s his own man,” said royal expert Dickie Arbiter.
“He’s made his own space and he decides what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. The fact that William and (Kate) have had a relationship for eight years speaks for itself.”