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Reinventing the modern fairy-tale

With the recent unveiling of a new exhibition at Kensington Palace to mark the anniversary of Princess Diana's Wedding to Prince Charles, we examine her now iconic bridal dress and consider why its popularity has endured into the 21st Century.

The Eyes of the World

On the morning of the 29th of July 1981, Brits and devoted royalists from around the world flocked to the streets of London, lining Constitution Hill and converging around the Victoria Memorial to celebrate the Royal newlyweds Charles and Diana on their long-awaited wedding day. It is perhaps difficult now to fully appreciate the excitement and global interest that their happy nuptials generated. Even by today’s standards the ceremony trafficked in an astonishing 750 million viewers globally. But perhaps one of the most widely speculated topics before the arrival of the big day was Diana’s dress. In fact, the dress was kept under incredibly close wraps with a number of measures in place to ensure it remained top secret, The Toronto Star commented that it was “the most closely guarded secret in fashion history”.

On that fateful day, Lady Diana Spencer departed from Clarence House in a glass coach, offering people a small glimpse of her much-anticipated dress, but it wouldn’t be until she arrived at St Paul's Cathedral that the world would finally see the dress in its entirety. Despite all the hallmarks of a miraculous fairy-tale come true, every single aspect of the dress had been carefully thought through.

The Emmanuel’s

Diana had specifically sought the help of designers Elizabeth and David Emmanuel from London’s Mayfair district to design the gown. At the time, the Emmanuel’s were relatively unknown having been in business only 7 years. Diana opted for these talented newcomers rather than more established international fashion houses in order to promote England’s own fashion industry, why export talent from across the globe when there were plenty of home-grown designers who would happily jump at the prospect? Admittedly, this was not the first collaboration between Diana and the Emmanuel’s, she had already worked with them on a number of occasions – including her infamous Frou Frou dress from 1981, so she was confident that her bridal dress was in safe hands. The designers’ brief was simple enough, in David Emmanuel’s own words the dress “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”. Diana needed a dress that would mark her all-important transition from woman to regal princess.

Every aspect of the dress from its impressive dimensions down to its intricate embellishments was nothing short of breath-taking. It was made almost entirely of ivory silk taffeta, lace with a boned bodice and a modest neckline. The tapered waist was accentuated by the dress’ huge skirts and gigot sleeves, closely resembling the crinoline dresses of the 1850s or even Dior’s signature ‘New Look’ silhouette popularised nearly a century later. It’s as though the dress was a pastiche of styles and designs from throughout history. Its train measured out at 25 ft, making it the longest Royal train in history and well-suited to the baroque opulence of the Cathedral’s interiors.

No expense was spared on the dress’ decorations either, some 10,000 pearls were carefully sown onto the delicate fabric – which no doubt explains its $115,000 valuation in 1981 (almost a startling $350,000 in today’s money). Almost every detail was imbued with some royal significance. As her something old the dress’ appliques were repurposed from antique lace as well as a small cut of Carrickmacross lace that had once belonged to Queen Mary. Even the bride’s bouquet of Mountbatten roses, affectionally named after Charles’s godfather Louis Mountbatten, celebrated the joining of the Spencer family and the House of Windsor.

The gown also incorporated specially made Lullingstone silk from Dorset as her something new, again a nod to Britain’s own home-grown fashion industry. To complete the ensemble, Clive Shilton personally hand embroidered a pair of ivory slippers with 542 sequins and 132 peals to perfectly complement the dress’ overstated design, no detail could be overlooked. In this way, Diana’s dress perfectly married (no pun intended) the old and the new, honouring tradition and continuity while also hailing the arrival of a new royal superstar.

A Dress for the Ages?

The dress would go on to redefine the bridal silhouette for the next couple of decades as people sought to imitate its pronounced shoulders and voluminous skirt. While this style of wedding dress is admittedly not as popular now as it once was, with many people opting for more form-fitting dresses, it’s impact on fashion and popular culture cannot be overstated. Elizabeth Emmanuel defended the dress’ design in a 2019 interview to BBC Designed, stating “It was everyone’s idea of a fairy princess … it was a time of frills and flounces”. In other words, it’s clear simplicity would not cut it for the wedding of the century.

But unlike many wedding dresses, worn once only to be banished to the back of a closet or to the attic, Diana’s dress has continued to inspire and enchant the British public. It was originally on display at Althorp House before embarking on an 11-year world tour as part of the “Diana: A celebration” exhibition. The dress’ celebrity status was recognised again in 2018 when Time magazine hailed it as “one of the most influential wedding dresses of all time”.

So why has the dress endured? Is it simply because it belonged to Diana? or is it the dress’ impressive attention to detail? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Even at the time the dress’ reception was almost unanimously positive as a testament to the workmanship of British fashion designers and Diana’s legacy has certainly added to the dress' continued relevance over the years. More importantly however, Diana and the Emmanuel’s vision reinvented the traditional fairy-tale for a new age, it was this vision that so many people instinctively gravitated to. It seems only natural now that in 2021 Kensington Palace should once again restore the dress of the ‘People’s Princess’ in full view for everyone to see, as a crowning example of 20th Century fashion.

Upcoming content

Alas the term is over, but not to fear! Over the Summer we will be releasing a 3-part series that aims to recognise and celebrate the contributions of those overlooked designers who left an indelible mark on fashion history.

The Innovation of Main Bocher

The first of this three-part series will explore the legacy of the once celebrated American fashion designer Main Rousseau Bocher (b.1897-1976). A pioneer in his own right, Main Bocher was among the first American designers to make a name for himself in Paris. The story of the Main Bocher brand is one of innovation and sophistication. But despite being one of the most celebrated designers of his day his contributions to fashion are less well-known than many of his contemporaries and the Fashion House has almost faded into obscurity having closed its doors in 1971. This retrospective will pay homage to Bocher’s elegant strapless dresses, signature cinched waists and glamorous evening wear which revolutionised 20th Century Fashion.

Stay tuned for the first installment coming soon!

Mia Warren


Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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