From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Even before Princess Diana officially split from her spouse last December, she had been throwing little sartorial signals about one woman's emerging liberation. The higher heels, the spunkier hair—if only, fashion mavens on both sides of the Atlantic whispered, she'd shorten those dutiful, modest skirts. Now the evidence is undeniable: Diana's post-Charles hemlines have gone higher and higher, with several well-worn favorites having made the four-inch trip upward to emphasize those glorious stems.

But why the change now, when fashion decrees that the really chic hems hug the ankle? Perhaps she's sending a message to her estranged hubby—"Take that, you turkey!"—a message that suggests a kind of in-your-face sexuality designed to drive the old boy mad. "It's a sign she's asserting herself and proving she's a single girl," says British fashion watcher Ann Chubb, author of Royal Fashion and Beauty Secrets.

Still, yearning to prove herself as a career do-gooder, a role in which more conservative hemlines are the norm, Di is in somewhat of a bind. "It is possible to look glamorous and be a serious person (think Audrey Hepburn)," says Lisa Armstrong, associate editor of British Vogue. "But in this country, you tend to be one or the other."

What seems clear is that Diana, now 32, gives much less thought than she used to about what royal rulemakers think. Once a walking mannequin for British fashion, she scooped up more than $50,000 worth of Chanel goodies on a trip to Paris last spring. And when the Queen declined in June to let the Princess accompany her to Royal Ascot, the social event of the season, Di upstaged her mother-in-law earlier that week by appearing at the Order of the Garter service in a shocking-pink suit with a thigh-high hem. Whatever it takes, the media-savvy Princess won't be nudged aside easily. Trumpeted the British newspaper Daily Express of Di's new strategy: "She just hitched her skirt up an inch or two and flashed a lovely smile. You might as well try to sideline a Warrior tank."