At the time it was called “the most closely guarded secret in fashion history” and now, nearly 37 years later, Princess Diana’s wedding gown is still one of the most iconic wedding dresses of all time.
More than 750 million people tuned in to watch the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The royal couple made headlines around the world, and viewers everywhere instantly fell in love with the woman who would forever be known as the “People’s Princess.”
As the May 19 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle quickly approaches, we’re looking back at the fascinating story behind the legendary wedding gown worn by a then 20-year-old Diana.
Shortly after her engagement to Prince Charles was announced, Diana commissioned the then husband and wife team of David and Elizabeth Emanuel with the honour of designing the wedding dress of the century.
The romantic ivory taffeta creation was made from more than 25 yards of silk taffeta, 100 yards of tulle crinoline and 10,000 hand stitched sequins and pearl. Given the grand size of the Cathedral, the designers collaborated with Diana for a show stopping 25-foot train and a veil made of 150 yards of netting. The fairytale-like gown took more than five months to create, with more than 15 private fittings.
Diana had to be sewn into her dress
While it’s not uncommon for brides to lose weight before their wedding, 20-year-old Diana lost so much weight she needed to be sewn into her dress. At her first fitting with David and Elizabeth Emanuel, Diana’s waist measured 29 inches. In the six months leading up to her engagement, Diana’s waist had whittled down to only 23.5 inches.
Designer Elizabeth Emanuel remembers practicing folding the lengthy train “like you would fold a bed sheet” so that it wouldn’t crease, but the dress was far too large for the carriage ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Emmanuel says they had practiced loading the dress into the carriage, but hadn’t accounted for the space taken up by Diana’s father, Earl Spencer.
While en route to the cathedral the dress began to crease. Emanuel remembers, “It was a hot day, there was so much volume in the net and she was nervous, so she kept grabbing hold of it in her hands. Fortunately, we knew the fabric would pull out — that’s why we were there.”
The designers and the wedding party began straightening the dress as Diana made her way inside. “When she came out of that carriage, it was the most wonderful vision I’d ever seen. 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.’
After her hair and make-up were complete, Diana went to apply her favourite perfume, Quelques Fleurs, accidentally spilling some on her dress. Barbara Daly, Diana’s make-up artist remembers telling Diana to hold on to the spot when she walked to make it look like she was just carrying the dress.
Top secret design
The designers went to great lengths to keep the dress a secret.
While the public clamoured to get any information on Diana’s dress, the designers began ripping up sketches after receiving Diana’s approval. David and Elizabeth Emanuel even installed a safe in their studio to keep drawings and fabric swatches. With so much secrecy surrounding the dress, an alternate dress was made in case the design leaked to the press.
Something old, something new…
Diana followed the tradition of wearing something old, new, borrowed and blue on the day of her wedding. The dress featured antique lace, brand new fabric specifically spun for the bride at a British silk farm and A blue bow was sewn into the waistband of her gown. Diana’s tiara was a Spencer family heirloom that dated back to the 18th century.
David and Elizabeth Emanuel revealed they secretly sewed an 18-carat Welsh gold horseshoe charm by jeweler Douglas Buchanan into the label of the dress. “It was just there as a little token, a second good luck charm, from us to Diana,” the Emmanuel’s explained.
The hidden message on Diana’s shoes
Diana’s silk slippers took six months to handcrafted by Clive Shilton. Shilton’s work featured 542 sequins and 132 pearls that formed a heart shape design. A “C” and “D” design were handpainted on the soles of each shoe, with suede attached on each shoe to prevent the bride from slipping. The heel height was very low in order to keep Diana and Charles at roughly the same height.
Diana’s dress was left to Prince William and Harry in her will
As per Diana’s instructions, her wedding dress was to be given to her sons after Harry turned 30. In 2014, Diana’s brother, Charles Spencer, who had been entrusted with the gown fulfilled Diana’s wishes shortly after Harry’s 30th birthday. For 17 years after her passing, the dress was on display in a museum at Althorp, the Spencer family estate in Northampton. It has since been relocated to London.