It’s a dress with a story, and Elizabeth Emanuel wants to tell it. In a vibrant pink with a plunging ruffled neckline and body-hugging shape, the dress was designed by Emanuel for Lady Diana Spencer to wear at a party at Buckingham Palace days before her wedding to Prince Charles in 1981 .
It was a coming-out visual event for the princess-to-be, until then widely known for her conservative sweater and bead look. It was definitely not a wallflower dress, said Emanuel, who also designed Diana’s wedding dress. It was a dress to see and celebrate.
She was also quickly forgotten. In an era when smartphones didn’t put a camera in everyone’s pocket and social media publicized private events, the dress was seen primarily by party guests, including Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Grace and Nancy Reagan, but no one else. Emanuel doesn’t know where he is, or even if he still exists.
So she recreated it, from bolts of lustrous satin taffeta cut and sewn to match the dramatic sketches she made over 40 years ago. Acting on an idea that took shape during Britain’s long coronavirus lockdowns, she did it for herself, for her archive.
But also because she wanted to show another side of Diana, who Emanuel says has been twisted by The Crown, the popular Netflix series that told the story of the princess and her unhappy marriage to a new generation.
A fan of the show’s first three seasons, Emanuel said she struggled to watch the last two because of how Diana was portrayed. Creating a bespoke dress is a long process, requiring multiple fittings that leave plenty of time for the customer and the seamstress to discuss. And throughout their hours together, Diana came across as a happy, vibrant young woman, not the shrunken girl The Crown describes as being shaken by events beyond her control, Emanuel said.
She wasn’t like that, said Emanuel. She was always very optimistic. And, you know, I like to feel that we were close enough that if she was having huge issues, we might have been aware of it at the time, because those hookups are pretty intimate.
One of the things the series does well is trace Diana’s style journey, from the cardigans and bows she wore when she first appeared in the public eye, to fluffy ball gowns with ruffles and ruffles and finally to her becoming a global fashion icon at Versace, Dior and Chanel.
Diana grew up in the countryside, looking to her older sisters for fashion cues. It was a world of hunting, shooting and fishing, where Barbour coats and Wellington boots were everyday wear. It was a culture where no matter how much you cared about your appearance, you had to look like you weren’t trying too hard. Diana brought this sense of style with her when she moved to London after leaving school and quickly became the archetypal Sloane Ranger, the media name for wealthy young people who lived near Sloane Square in London and cultivated the look of bohemian aristocrats.
She was, as former BBC royal reporter Michael Cole said, that Sloane Ranger with her kind of pie-crust collars and Fair Isle jumpers and rather voluminous skirts. She was a product of the English countryside. But after her engagement to the future King Charles III, she began to grow in the glamor of being a princess.
It was actually a bit of an effort for her to adapt to the role, Cole said. She appreciated and understood the power of clothes, the power of image. It helped a lot that she had good taste, and I think she had good advisers.
In other words, she evolved and learned to use clothes to project a message. And maybe the journey started with the hot pink evening dress.
After losing weight, Diana asked Emanuel, her former husband David and their team to create a dress that would show off her new model figure and transform her image for celebrities and world leaders invited to the palace.
She wanted something really spectacular and eye-catching to wear for it because the whole world was going to be there at this party, Emanuel said in his London studio. I think there was a message sent with that dress, really. This shed was previously known as Shy Di, but in this dress, she was definitely no longer a Shy Di. But for Emanuel, the project is not limited to setting the record straight. It’s about a friend who remembers another and the boost the princess gave to her career.
There’s something touching about the way she looks at this copy and fits it on a mannequin about as tall as Diana, clearly remembering her famous client. She recreated a dress that belonged to the Diana she knew, who broke the mould, who was brave, who was ready to take the stage. And while she was working, Diana was in her head the whole time.
As I look at her, I imagine her face, Emanuel said. The last time we saw her in this dress was at this party and she looked so radiant and fantastic. And then all these years later, you know, to recreate it again, it’s kind of weird. But that won’t stop her from continuing to explore her memories. She embraced the process of making the dress, of holding a keepsake in her hand.
Emanuel now intends to recreate the alternate wedding dress she made for Diana – a spare piece created in case the tabloids manage to get a photo of the main dress before the big day. But the dress never leaked, and the spare part disappeared from public view.
I want to see if I can do it right and dive into all those memories, she said. I’ll know it. They will be there. They won’t just be figments of the imagination or floating around digitally. They will be real things that I will remember.
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