The wedding dress. If you know nothing about Princess Diana, you probably still know about the dress. On July 29, 1981, the whole world watched as Lady Diana Spencer walked down the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral to become Diana, Princess of Wales. She was definitely the star of the show that day, but second billing went to what she was wearing.
That dress, with its 25-foot-long train, quickly became one of the most famous wedding dresses in the world. Diana and her dress were on newspapers and TV screens across the globe—a fairytale moment forever cemented in the memories of royal fans. We only get a slight glimpse of it in The Crown, though fans surely looked for a recreation of that famous aerial shot of the train following Diana into St. Paul’s Cathedral as she made her way into her new life.
Even though the dress we see in The Crown is a replica of the real thing, it had a powerful effect on 24-year-old actress Emma Corrin, who plays Diana. In an interview with British Vogue in September, she said she got to know Diana “like you would a friend.” The dress, as iconic as it was, also felt like an extension of the late princess: “We were filming the scene when you first see her in the wedding dress—I think it was Lancaster House in London—and I had a team of about 10 people helping me put it on, because it’s massive,” Corrin recalled. “I walked out and everyone went completely silent. More than anything else I wear in the series, it’s so… It’s her.”
So, who designed the gown?
Ahead of her wedding in 1981, Diana casually reached out to then-husband-and-wife design team David Emanuel and Elizabeth Emanuel with an ask for them to start designing her clothes. “Diana rang up like anybody else and made an appointment to try my dress designs—she initially had three or four gowns made for formal occasions,” David told Woman’s Own.
Once Diana started wearing Emanuel gowns, the public started seeing her as a fashion icon: “The first time the public saw her in one of my gowns they were quite shocked. As a kindergarten teacher, people were used to seeing her in pretty blouses and pleated skirts. Then she got out of the limousine in a taffeta Emanuel gown and that’s when everybody said, ‘Oh my goodness, she looks like a movie star.’
David said that, “out of the blue” the phone call came from Diana asking him to design her wedding gown. “It was a magical time, and she was a magical girl,” he said. “The thing about that dress was, it had to be young, it had to be pretty. She was going in as Lady Diana Spencer, but coming out as the Princess of Wales.” He also told Womans Own that Diana never showed up for her fittings with an entourage, as most brides might. She came alone and the fittings were low-key, no fuss. According to Hello! magazine, when she was deciding on the sketches and silhouette, Diana asked if she could bring her mother. Other than that, “It was just three of us, myself, my ex-wife and Diana. It happened very organically,” David told Hello!.
What were the details on the dress?
In true ’80s fashion, Diana’s dress left no frill behind and was valued at $115,000 in 1981 ($342,803 in 2020), compared to the $5,610 value of an average Emanuel wedding dress.
Town & Country has the full breakdown of its decorations: The ivory silk taffeta dress had 10,000 pearls attached to it, with appliqués cut from antique lace (the something old) at a British silk farm, as well as a square of Carrickmacross lace that once belonged to Queen Mary. There was a small blue bow sewn into the waistband, too (the something blue).
The dress was so big it had to be stuffed into the carriage and got wrinkled. “I remember whispering to David: ‘Oh my God, it’s creased,'” Elizabeth told the Daily Mail in 2017. “I thought: ‘We’ve got to straighten out that dress.’ In the tiny carriage, it had crumpled far more than we’d anticipated. We’d done a rehearsal, but not with her father, Earl Spencer, in the car, too—and he was quite a large man.” It all turned out okay, of course: “When she came out of that carriage, it was the most wonderful vision I’d ever seen,” Elizabeth said. “She looked like a butterfly emerging from her chrysalis, unfurling her wings and about to fly. It was so romantic. Oddly, the imperfections seemed to make her even more beautiful.”
Under the dress, Diana wore ivory slippers handmade with 542 sequins and 132 pearls by cobbler Clive Shilton. She wore a diamond tiara owned by the Spencer family.
“We just went for drama,” Elizabeth told BBC Designed in 2019. “It was everyone’s idea of a fairy princess. The time was perfect for that. It was a time of frills and flounces.”
The dress was such a top-secret project that there was even a backup dress, in case of disaster, but no one knows where it is now. “We didn’t try it on Diana. We never even discussed it,” David told People in 2011. “We wanted to make sure that we had something there; it was for our own peace of mind, really.”
When it came time for the big day, Diana had lost a few inches from her waist and had to be sewn into her dress. “She ended up with a 23-inch waist from a 26 to 27-inch,” Elizabeth told People. Diana did have an eating disorder, which The Crown chronicles and about which there are content warnings for each episode that features the storyline. On more than one occasion, Princess Diana spoke publicly about her bulimia, and as Time put it on the 20th anniversary of her death in 2017, her “candid self-disclosures” in a series of interviews “may be her most powerful and unrecognized legacy.”
The dress had immediate worldwide influence.
Seven-hundred-fifty million people watched the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, so it’s no wonder the dress was an instant celebrity. Per the Fashion Institute of Technology, within hours of the royal wedding, manufacturers recreated the dress for as low as $467. In 2018, it was chosen by Time as “one of the most influential wedding dresses of all time.”
Where is it now?
The dress was displayed at the Spencer’s property, Althorp House, in Northampton, England, for 17 years and went on tour with the Diana: A Celebration exhibit during that time. In September 2014, Prince Harry and William took the dress into their private possession. Diana had asked for her belongings to be given to them once they were both 30 years old, and Harry turned 30 on September 15 of that year.
We might not be able to see the dress in person anymore, but we can all tune into The Crown and watch designer Amy Roberts’s version of this historic sartorial moment any time.
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