The Elements of Style: Diana Without Diana

February 16, 2022   •   By Soraya Roberts

PRINCESS DIANA DIDN’T announce herself. She didn’t have to. David Emanuel, who designed her ’80s cream puff of a wedding dress with his ex-wife Elizabeth, says whenever she called on the phone, she never used her name. “Hi, it’s me,” she would say. And he knew what that meant — everyone did or would eventually. Anna Harvey, the late deputy editor of British Vogue who quietly taught Diana about fashion in the early ’80s, once recalled her young protégé visiting the magazine’s art department where everyone had been “quite cynical about her” — and leaving them agape. “She had sparkle,” Harvey wrote in 1997. “It was simply magnetic and, in the end, it transcended her clothes.” But if that’s true, how do you capture Diana on screen when the clothes are all you have? The designers I spoke to — including Spencer costumer Jacqueline Durran, Diana costumer Julian Day, and The Crown consultant Emanuel — all mentioned the abundance of imagery of the late princess. But when you actually search for what Diana had to say about the way she looked, there is almost nothing. The one exception was a joint television interview in 1985 with her then-husband Prince Charles in which she responded to the critique that she had a shopping obsession. “My clothes are not my priority,” she said. “Fashion isn’t my big thing at all.”

It didn’t have to be — with Diana, it took a minute, but style became implicit. The three aforementioned projects span her two decades in the public realm as her look developed along with her identity. In the fourth season of The Crown, the girlish polka-dotted and ruffled lovelorn debutante cocooned in Windsor castle in the ’80s emerges in the ’90s at Sandringham a muscular velveteen butterfly, only to fly away in jeans and blazer in Spencer, before landing on solid ground in a crisp white shirt and chinos in Diana, having traded in couture for charity work. While royal convention around fashion had loosened when Diana came along, just in time for the never-ending news cycle, Diana established her own code, one that was both press- and public-friendly and everything the royals were not — photogenic, alluring, tactile, and full of the messages she could not speak. As Vanessa Friedman wrote in The New York Times, “[S]he wore her emotions not just on, but as, her sleeves.” But those sleeves very much required her in them, which is why Diana is so hard to emulate on screen. From Kristen Stewart in Spencer, who was just nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress, to The Crown’s Emma Corrin — followed next in season five (set to air in November) by Elizabeth Debicki — to Naomi Watts in 2013’s Diana, how successfully the princess is portrayed depends on a very particular alchemy. As Said Cyrus, head of design at Catherine Walker & Co, the couture label in which Diana is buried, has said, “[A] beautiful dress is not per se a thing of beauty — it’s a combination of or a tension between the woman and the dress.”

Prior to Spencer, Oscar-winning Little Women costume designer Durran described her position as a “three-way situation” in which she created the character along with the actor and the director. But for Pablo Larraín’s film — in which Princess Diana’s legacy was so powerful, she was virtually present — Durran says it was more of a “four-way conversation.” Larraín was clear that he didn’t want a particular date for Di’s unraveling over one Christmas at the palace’s country estate in Sandringham, but it was somewhere in the early ’90s. So Durran researched thousands of images from 1988 to 1992 and divided them thematically — by color, by design — until she had an “elemental level” of looks (this chimes with Stewart’s process, which she described in Entertainment Weekly as absorbing Diana over six months until she “had hit some kind of elemental energy”). Because time was limited due to the pandemic, there was an “enormously long” fitting with Stewart in which they nailed the main outfits in Spencer, a third of which were clothed by Chanel, for which Stewart is also a brand ambassador. I wondered if there was friction between the actress’s haute couture iconoclasm and her character’s more high street conformity, but Durran said it was the opposite. “She can make anything work,” Durran said of Stewart. “She just makes it come alive.”

Stewart appears to share this quality with Diana, which imbues Spencer — that sparkle that transcended clothes. Having said that, I doubt Lady Di would have ever vamped, legs for days, on a Venetian red carpet in a black tweed micro mini Chanel romper like Stewart did for the Spencer premiere. Diana was less daring. Emanuel met her after she wore his pale pink silk chiffon blouse — later known as the “Lady Di blouse” — for her first Vogue shoot in 1981. The look was surprisingly low key for the Emanuels’ couture, which was, at the time, in its co-founder’s words, “very Scarlett O’Hara,” which is to say enormous skirts, scads of silk, masses of flowers, and intricate bodices (Emanuel thinks he and his wife were responsible for that romantic ’80s look, that hyper-feminine Cinderella style that often leaves us shuddering now). As for why Diana, who also sought them out for her post-engagement strapless black ruffled décolleté gown that left the media salivating, gravitated toward that doll-like look? “I think she realized that was part of the job,” Emanuel says. Still, he imitated the surprised grunt he let out when he and his wife were asked to design Di’s wedding gown. No one had predicted that, least of all the duo who were known by “society ladies” but no one else. According to the designer, “Diana had stuck her neck out insofar as she chose Emanuel.”

Much press has been devoted to The Crown spending painful amounts of time getting one of the most famous dresses in the world just right (despite its brief appearance on screen). Similar to Durran, the Netflix series’s costume designer Amy Roberts tried to distill Diana rather than duplicate her. For instance, a scene in Spencer in which the princess wafts into the room for a photograph — a breath of fresh air in polka dot mint — amid the earthy tones of the extended royal family, is reminiscent of The Crown. “I wanted her clothes to be light and fresh against the more formal color palette of the palace ‘prison’ and the more subdued palettes of the other royals,” Roberts told The New York Post, “a butterfly caught in a spider’s web if you like.” While Roberts was unavailable for this story, Emanuel offered a peek at her process. Called to consult specifically on the wedding dress in season four, he describes arriving to a storyboard full of fabric swatches and a room full of nerves. As Roberts said in the same Post interview, “[I]t was quite difficult to gauge the color choice as, in every image of that dress, the color changes.” Emanuel appears flummoxed by the distress over what had started out with three people on the floor — him, his wife and Diana — trying on various designs, largely oblivious to the historic decisions they were making. “I said, ‘What are you anxious about? That’s the color.’ I pointed straight at this ivory,” Emmanuel says. To which The Crown team apparently responded, “Oh, you’re so quick.” Emanuel laughs recalling the show’s vast workroom while he and his wife had only two seamstresses working on the actual bridal gown in 1981.

The Crown’s next iteration of Diana, the ’90s version with the shorter hair and sleeker figure free from the confines of the castle, is played by the impossibly willowy Australian actress Debicki, who, at 6 foot 3, will be the most well equipped to portray the late royal’s statuesque command of a room (despite being only 5 foot 10). This era is hinted at in the last scene of Spencer, in which Diana, inexplicably wearing an Ontario Provincial Police cap, drives away from Sandringham with her two boys, all of them singing at the top of their lungs to Mike & The Mechanics’ “All I Need Is a Miracle.” Durran used a picture of Diana at the airport wearing a similar outfit — OPP cap, T-shirt, jeans, blazer slung over one arm — and emulated it on a whim: “We just thought, ‘Why not let’s do it.’” The difficulty with depicting Diana during this period — following her split from the Prince of Wales and more importantly from the grip of the royals — is that communicating through her clothing became less of a necessity, which in turn made her appearance less remarkable. This is perhaps in part why Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2013 film Diana, which focuses on the last two years of the princess’s life amid a highly fictionalized take on her actual relationship with surgeon Hasnat Khan, failed so miserably. It’s an indication of how doomed the project was that costume designer Julian Day could recall an article in The Daily Mail criticizing his work more than the work itself.

“It was a terrible terrible budget,” Day says, “and it always astounds me that you’re going to make a film about one of the best dressed women of the last century and you give somebody such a terrible budget.” Day managed to get the Tod’s handbags and Ralph Lauren shirts Diana wore, but otherwise the film is mostly littered with subdued cable knit (though the designer also smartly chose to intertwine the lovers’ wardrobes to reflect their deepening bond — his plaids became hers, her raincoat his). Not even designer Jacques Azagury, who recreated Diana’s famous sparkly sky-blue dress — “her eyes are literally the color of the dress, so everything popped when she put it on,” he explains — which she wore on her final public engagement, could make this film work. The bigger issue here seemed to be Watts. Azagury thinks she was miscast, that she was too petite. Day seconds the size point — at 5 foot 4, Watts is one inch shorter than Stewart — which meant the actress was less open to wearing the high-waisted jeans Diana could pull off. “I think [Watts] was sort of worried that it wouldn’t be very flattering,” says Day. “She was very nervous about using vintage clothing.” That Watts is nearly the same height as Stewart and that Stewart pulls off those same jeans in Spencer makes you wonder if size really does matter, though Stewart is also less curvy than Watts, which gives her a taller appearance. In the end, the real problem seemed to be fear: while Watts wanted to say no to Diana, the preternaturally fearless Stewart said yes even before seeing the Spencer script.

Spencer’s centerpiece, the dress in which Diana appears collapsed in the poster for the film (she has actually just finished vomiting, which is why this is the “toilet dress” in my notes) harks back to the ’80s, which is fitting because the decisions she made in that era are in part the source of Diana’s plight. This is the kind of pretty princess frock you expect to see animated in a Disney movie — pale organza, delicate gold and silver sequined floral embroidery, satin bow, drop waist, full tulle flounce. It’s what beautiful is to anyone, but particularly the little girl inside the woman. While the more famous wedding garb briefly appears in Spencer, this gown is its foil, the one in which Diana literally disgorges herself from her surroundings. Chanel sent a ton of choices, but it was n°82 of the spring/summer 1988 haute couture design collection that enchanted the team (though the real Diana never appears to have worn this exact piece, it does have echoes of the Emanuel number from the 1986 Diaghilev collection which the designer claims Diana gasped at when she saw it in a charity show). “It was magical,” says Durran, before adding, “It was going to work really well to shoot at night.”

This detail is important because one of the most not only picturesque scenes in Spencer but also the one that encapsulates its raison d’être occurs at night in that dress. Princess Diana is still wearing it when she decides on a whim in the middle of the night to visit Park House, the home her father once rented on the Sandringham Estate, where she happened to be born. The house is now condemned, the stairs literally crumbling beneath her feet as she ascends. She is a sight within that dark dingy decrepitude, glowing in her finery beneath the equally dark oversized coat the footman has given her so she won’t catch her death. Durran describes the jacket as “kind of fighting with the dress,” a metaphor that scaffolds Diana’s story. “Her time is prescribed, and she has a costume for each moment of the day, and she has to keep changing — she has to stay on this routine that has been set,” explains Durran. “The clothes represent the structure that is enclosing her.” It follows then that in one of the purest moments in Spencer, the clothing is beside the point. Diana is playing alone by candlelight with her children, and you can barely see what she is wearing — a pale pink cardigan perhaps? These are Diana’s normal clothes, they are not part of the system, she may as well be naked for all that it matters, because all you see is her. Goofing around with her kids, Diana doesn’t have to wear her emotion on her sleeve, she is her emotion. This lightness, rather than the constant gloom, is what Emanuel wishes he could see more of in the onscreen Dianas. “She was naughty. She had a twinkle in the eye — she was fun,” he says. “When I see her portrayed, I wish they could get more fun into her because she was fun.”