Part of an ongoing series of 29Secrets stories, taking a deep dive into the history of legendary beauty products and iconic fashion and pop culture moments…
By Christopher Turner
Illustration by Michael Hak
It is one of the most famous dresses in the world and was one of the most closely guarded secrets in fashion history. When the then Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales, on Wednesday, July 29, 1981, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, she wore an elaborate ivory silk taffeta and antique lace gown, with a 25-foot train and a 153-yard tulle veil. It was the fairy tale wedding of the century, and with 750 million people around the world watching the televised ceremony, the dress didn’t disappoint.
Modern-day brides may covet the impeccable wedding dress Kate Middleton wore in 2011 (Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen), or the sophisticated wedding gown Meghan Markle wore in 2018 (British fashion designer Clare Waight Keller, artistic director of the fashion house Givenchy). But the most iconic royal wedding dress in history is without a doubt Diana’s over-the-top wedding dress, which stunned the world and influenced wedding day trends for years.
We often reminisce about the sprawling gown that sparked a million copies, but how much do you know about the world’s most iconic wedding dress?
David and Elizabeth Emanuel
The dress was designed by husband-and-wife team David and Elizabeth Emanuel, who met while studying fashion at the famed Harrow School of Art in London, England. The pair married in 1976 and together they became the first married couple to be accepted by the esteemed Royal College of Art for a two-year master’s degree in fashion.
In the late 1970s, the Emanuels and their newly launched label were making small waves with their designs. Most significantly, the couple had dressed two members of the Royal Family – Katharine, Duchess of Kent, and Princess Michael of Kent – as well as the ever-chic 1970s glamour gal Bianca Jagger, who was photographed wearing an Emanuel design at New York’s legendary nightclub Studio 54.
But it was a pale pink chiffon blouse that changed the course of history for the design duo.
“We got a phone call from Vogue magazine asking us if we had anything that we could lend, a blouse with a high neck, that could be worn by a very famous personality,” Elizabeth Emanuel recalled in a 2008 interview with The Telegraph.
“They didn’t say who it was; we didn’t know at the time it was for Diana. When we did find out, we were very excited.”
Diana wore the distinctive pale pink chiffon blouse in a photograph taken by Lord Snowdon that appeared in the magazine shortly before her engagement to the Prince of Wales was announced.
“It is really the garment that started it all off, the relationship between Diana and ourselves,” Elizabeth Emanuel said.
Enamoured with the blouse from the photo shoot, Lady Diana asked who designed it and then reportedly showed up at the Emanuels’ studio unannounced to meet the couple. Their instant rapport kicked off a very fashionable relationship and soon after the studio visit, Diana stepped out in March 1981 for her first official public engagement as Prince Charles’s fiancée. It was a charity event at Goldsmiths’ Hall, where she wore a black taffeta gown designed by the couple.
Fashion insiders have pointed to that charity ball as the turning point in Diana’s style legacy.
The Emanuels wrote in the 2011 book A Dress for Diana that “the transformation was incredible.” When Diana arrived to try on the dress, she came in looking “like the nursery school teacher she was,” but when she left, she “looked like a movie star…. [W]e hadn’t considered the fact that when Diana bent over – as she would have to do when getting out of the car – she would show quite a lot of cleavage. We just thought she looked fabulous.” And so, apparently, did an adoring public. Of course, the décolletage sparked quite a scandal, by early ’80s Royal standards, and earned Diana the tabloid nickname “Daring Di.”
That taffeta dress sparked a lifelong obsession with Diana’s style, and from that moment the designers were in the spotlight. By the time the wedding took place a few months later, Diana was arguably “the most famous woman in the world.”
Soon after Diana met the Emanuels in their London studio, and graced the front page of nearly every British tabloid wearing their black taffeta gown, she commissioned the couple to design her wedding dress. When Buckingham Palace announced that the relatively unknown couple from London’s Mayfair district had been asked to design the dress that Lady Diana Spencer would wear to marry Prince Charles, the announcement was met with widespread surprise. After all, the young couple had only been in business for seven years and were relatively unknown. Still, the Palace stood by Diana’s efforts to support England’s fashion industry.
From the time of the announcement in March 1981 that the Emanuels would be making Diana’s dress, until the big day in July, the windows of their Brooke Street shop were covered with blinds. Security guards were even hired to protect the shop from burglars looking to steal a design that was worth millions, as well as from reporters eager to have the first story on the dress.
“The British press were rooting through our rubbish,” David Emanuel once recalled. The couple took security so seriously that right after the bride-to-be and her mother had gotten a good look at a sketch of the gown, he ripped up the sketch so the press couldn’t get their hands (or a camera) on it.
“[Diana] was naive, and so were we, so in that way we were very well matched. She wasn’t aware of the rules, and nor were we, we just did our thing,” recalled Elizabeth Emanuel. “We were into drama and theatrics and there was a sense of freedom about it, to do whatever we wanted to do.”
Though Diana had to abide by a certain Royal conservatism on her wedding day, she was given a lot of freedom by the Royal Family in terms of the design of the dress she would be wearing. “There was no red tape, there were no limitations” from the Palace,” David Emanuel said. “We had completely, utterly free rein, and it was down to her, and her alone, that she had the confidence to select Emanuel and to believe in it.”
The Emanuels worked around the clock designing the future princess’s fairy tale gown. In the early stages, they consulted with Maureen Baker, who had made the wedding dress that Princess Anne wore to marry Captain Mark Phillips at Buckingham Palace in 1973, but their final design was far different from Baker’s simple design.
“As soon as we knew we had the commission, I started to do a lot of research, going through all the books on royal weddings. The dress had to be something that was going to go down in history, but also something that Diana loved,” Elizabeth Emanuel said in Rosalind Coward’s book Diana: The Portrait: Anniversary Edition. “And we knew it was going to be at St. Paul’s, so it had to be something that would fill the aisle and be quite dramatic. I’d done loads of designs for her, and we all sat on the floor and went through the sketches. Her mother came in as well. So the designing actually didn’t take that long, especially because we knew the kind of look that she liked. It was the making of the dress that took forever – and the fact that she did lose a lot of weight.”
Diana’s shrinking frame was a serious issue for the designers, and a challenge far beyond keeping the dress’s design a secret. Of course, it’s not unusual for women to lose weight before their wedding, but the rate at which Diana did shocked the designers. In the documentary, Charles and Di: The Truth Behind Their Wedding, Elizabeth Emanuel revealed that when they started the design process, Diana’s waist was 29 inches – for her last fitting before she and Charles wed, it was 23 inches. In the end, the Emanuels created five different dress bodies to accommodate Diana’s dwindling silhouette.
“She was losing so much [weight] we even had to start again a couple of times,” Elizabeth Emanuel explained. “We put it down to nerves. But it did make it incredibly difficult for us to get on with making the dress. We had to keep taking the bodice in and changing the pattern. The last thing we wanted was to make it up in silk, then have to play around with that. Silk soon looks worn if you work it too much.”
Years after the Royal wedding, the world learned that the princess struggled with bulimia nervosa. Diana spoke about her battle with the disease in her secretly recorded tapes given to biographer Andrew Morton, and also during her tell-all Panorama interview in 1995. She confessed that her eating disorder began just after she and Prince Charles got engaged, when he made a remark about her figure.
She recalled him touching her waist and saying, “Oh, a bit chubby here, aren’t we?” The princess added that the comment “triggered off something in me.”
She spoke about dropping so much weight between her engagement and wedding, saying, “I had shrunk into nothing from February to July. I had shrunk to nothing.”
Declared the “most closely guarded secret in fashion history,” Diana’s wedding dress was a complete mystery until its dramatic unveiling on the morning of Wednesday, July 29, 2981.
David Emanuel recalled that “the day before the wedding, at 9 o’clock in the morning, when people least expected it,” they loaded the gown, veil and everything else they needed into the back of a plain, out-of-town truck and delivered it all to Clarence House, which at the time was the Queen Mother’s residence.
Details of the gown (and the outfits of the Queen and other Royal women) were released to the press in sealed envelopes on the morning of the wedding, to be opened at the moment the 20-year-old bride stepped into the glass coach at Clarence House on her way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Charles and Diana had selected St. Paul’s over Westminster Abbey, the traditional site of Royal weddings, because St. Paul’s offered more seating and permitted a longer procession through London. A total of 3,500 guests made up the congregation at St. Paul’s.
Diana was to be escorted from Clarence House to the cathedral by her father, John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, but her dress was so voluminous that it barely fit into the glass coach. So she sat alone amongst the fabric and waved at the two million spectators lining the procession route, which was also lined with 4,000 police and 2,200 military officers to manage the crowds.
She arrived almost on time for the 11:20 BST ceremony, and when she stepped out of the coach the world got its first full look at the dress…complete with visible wrinkles in the taffeta from the cramped ride.
“People were absolutely dazzled by this dress and Diana looked like an absolute fairy tale princess in it,” says Alison McGill, editor-in-chief of Weddingbells and editorial director at Mariage Québec.
Diana’s wedding dress was a romantic fairy tale-inspired gown made of ivory silk taffeta and frilled lace, with a fitted, boned bodice, a curved neckline, and endless intricate details. There was a full skirt over a multi-layered tulle petticoat, with intricately designed bodice panels, and the entire gown was hand embroidered with more than 10,000 tiny mother-of-pearl sequins and pearls. The 25-foot silk train, which remains the longest in Royal history, added a touch of theatricality to the day.
Even though no one could see it, the Emanuels attached a 18-carat gold trinket studded with white diamonds to the label of the dress and sewed a blue bow into her waistline for a bit of good luck. Had it rained, the Emanuels had also designed a lace-trimmed, pearl-embroidered ivory parasol.
In keeping with tradition, the majority of the materials used in Diana’s wedding dress were made in Britain. The dress itself was made of six different fabrics, including 25 yards of silk taffeta specially spun at a British silk farm, 100 yards of tulle crinoline, and 150 yards of netting for the veil.
The purveyor of a British silkworm farm in Livingstone, Shropshire, had reached out to the Emanuels with an offer to provide the silk for the dress. “We got them to weave white silk taffeta as well as ivory, so they didn’t know which colour we were going to use,” David Emanuel recalled.
The lace trim for the dress was found in a bag of cast-off scraps bought at auction – a regular practice for some designers looking for a vintage or classically elegant touch. Once it had been cleaned and pressed, an expert realized it was antique lace from the bodice of a gown from the time of Queen Mary, Charles’s great-grandmother.
The designers also created the bridal slippers, which were barely visible beneath the hem of the wedding dress. Adorned with sequins and pearls in a heart-shaped design, the low-heeled slippers were finished off with C and D initials hand-painted on the arches. “Diana’s wedding shoes are another very interesting detail of her wedding look that many don’t know about as we really didn’t see them under all that skirting, but they are almost as intricate as her dress,” McGill told me. “The bespoke silk slippers took six months to make, and they were decorated with upwards of 550 sequins and 130 pearls. The heels were low so she would not appear taller than Charles!”
The gown checked off three of the traditional wedding requirements (something old, new, borrowed and blue) thanks to the fabric and a small blue bow sewn into the waistband. The Spencer family tiara that Diana wore that day, an 18th century-era heirloom, met the fourth.
A “back-up” dress mysteriously disappeared
A 2005 auction made headlines around the globe when it claimed to offer a spare version of Diana’s original gown. While Elizabeth Emanuel has insisted throughout the years that she never made a copy, the designers did reveal that they created a completely different dress just in case their planned design leaked to the press. The alternate wedding dress included a much more pronounced V and skipped the lace entirely, but the unfinished outfit later vanished from their studio.
The poofy wedding dress trend
Diana’s dress sparked numerous copycat dresses and helped inspire the 1980s-era trend of big and bold wedding attire. Puffy sleeves and full skirts dominated wedding fashion trends throughout the years that followed.
“The Diana dress had a stronghold on bridal fashion for more than a decade following the wedding,” says McGill. “Dresses were big! Sleeves were oversize, materials were heavy. Details were excessive. She set the tone for the decade and beyond, and it really wasn’t until Carolyn Bessette’s 1996 wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr. and her minimalist Narciso Rodriguez slip dress that we saw a change happen in wedding gowns.”
Interestingly, the Royal’s wedding gown is having a moment again.
“Interesting to note that both the ’80s and ’90s are huge throwback influences for the best dresses happening in bridal for 2020!” McGill adds.
A post-divorce Diana would call July 29, 1981, “the worst day of my life,” and tell others that she felt like “a lamb to the slaughter” when she awoke on her wedding morning. But shortly after the nuptials, there were ecstatic quotes from both Charles and Diana, suggesting that the marriage – at least in the beginning – was more fairy, less cautionary tale. Charles told a cousin, “There were several times when I was perilously close to crying from the sheer joy of it all.” Diana, meanwhile, said, “It was heaven, amazing, wonderful, though I was so nervous when I was walking up the aisle that I swore my knees would knock and make a noise.”
Today the wedding gown, which at the time had an estimated value of £151,000 (equivalent to $568,497 in 2018) is an objet d’art that has been on display around the world as part of the exhibition “Diana: A Celebration.” Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, had been looking after the dress at the family’s Althorp estate in Northampton, where it would go on display twice a year, but in 2014 he transferred ownership to his nephews. In her will, Diana instructed that her belongings be entrusted to Prince William and Prince Harry once Harry had turned 30. Her engagement ring was given to Prince William, while the wedding dress was given to Prince Harry.
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