Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s July 29, 1981, wedding had an estimated 750 million viewers from 74 countries tune in to watch the London ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
While all eyes were no doubt on the young royals, the true star of the show may have actually been Diana’s wedding dress: an ivory silk gown embroidered with 10,000 pearls and a 25-foot long train, custom-designed by the former wife-and-husband British design team of Elizabeth and David Emanuel.
Since 2014, the famous dress has been in the private collection of Prince William and Prince Harry, as Princess Diana had requested at the time they both turned 30. Previously, the dress had been displayed at Althorp House, where Diana is buried, and also had short stints on tour as part of the "Diana: A Celebration" exhibit.
Despite its private whereabouts, the legacy of Diana’s wedding dress continues to be one of the greatest stories in British royal history.
The princess met the Emanuels by chance
During a meeting with a Vogue editor, Princess Diana was introduced to young couple Elizabeth and David, working under their label Emanuel.
They ended up designing a few dresses for Diana before her engagement to Prince Charles — the most notable one being a black strapless gown that the future princess wore to the Royal Opera House during her first public engagement.
“The first time the public saw her in one of my gowns, they were quite shocked,” David told Women’s Own. “As a kindergarten teacher, people were used to seeing her in pretty blouses and pleated skirts. Then she got out of the limousine in a taffeta Emanuel gown and that’s when everybody said, ‘Oh my goodness, she looks like a movie star!’”
Diana personally asked the Emanuels to design her wedding dress
When it came time to make the most crucial fashion decision of her royal career, Princess Diana — in her true down-to-earth style — chose the budding designers, who had only been in business seven years at the time, instead of a renown fashion house.
The Emanuels — who are now separated — have slightly different retellings of the life-changing call they received. But they agree on one thing: it came from Diana herself.
“I was with a client in the showroom and no one was answering the phone in the office,” Elizabeth told British Vogue in 2020. “I ran upstairs in annoyance and must have sounded a tad impatient before realizing it was Diana. I was in shock! My poor half-dressed client downstairs must have heard so much thumping as David and I celebrated the decision that ultimately changed our lives.”
Meanwhile, David recounted the incident on the British reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! “I picked up a call in the studio and she said, ‘It’s me.’ She never said ‘Lady Diana.’ I always used to say, ‘Hello, Me,’” he remembered. “She said, ‘I’m just wondering, would you do the honor of designing my wedding gown?’ I thought, ‘Christ, perhaps it's a hoax call.’”
The designers wanted to create an over-the-top dress that would be hard to replicate
While Diana has come to be remembered as a fashion icon, she wasn’t quite so savvy in the early days and depended on the Emanuels to guide her. “Diana was still developing her sense of style at the time,” Elizabeth told British Vogue. “She left it to us and our brand of new-romanticism.”
After all, Diana, who was 20 years old on her wedding day, was fairly close in age to the designers (Elizabeth was 27 and David was 28) and innately trusted them to develop a look that would exceed the tremendous expectations.
As soon as Buckingham Palace had announced Emanuel as the designer in March 1981, their Brook Street shop became surrounded by paparazzi. In fact, the store had to shield itself with blinds and hire security guards from March until the July ceremony.
That level of secrecy perhaps tightened the bond between Diana and the designers, challenging them to really push the envelope for something that would truly stun. And no one enjoyed the process itself more than the bride-to-be, who would always run upstairs to greet the seamstresses during her visits. “Diana was very caring and never in any way grand,” Elizabeth remembers of the months of fittings. “I think she found the whole experience a lot of fun — she stood still for hours and never complained about the pins. She was just fabulous.”
While the Emanuels had creative license, they also had to think about outside factors. For instance, one strategy they implemented was to make the look as complicated as possible so that it couldn’t be easily duplicated by others. But they also had to think about how it would appear as she walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Elizabeth recalls settling on a particular formula for the silhouette that Diana liked: “Tiny waist, big skirts, puffy sleeves.” From there, they let their imaginations soar. “We had no guidelines or instructions, so we came up with this amazing, completely OTT [over-the-top] gown that we knew would stand out on the steps of St. Paul’s,” she said.
The big reveal of the dress was a highly-coordinated effort
The morning of the wedding, Elizabeth remembers Diana singing along to advertising jingles, even though they could hear all the anticipation of the dress on the TV news.
The dress had been delivered to Clarence House the day before and the designers prepped the dress as Diana was getting hair and makeup. Following a tight schedule from a clipboard, the duo entered the bedroom to help dress the royal bride.
In a coordinated effort to retain the secrecy until the last minute, the details of the dress were sealed into envelopes and timed to be opened at the exact moment that the bride stepped onto the glass coach to travel from Clarence House to St. Paul’s, along with a sketch of the dress with the words “Wedding Gown of the Lady Diana Spencer,” handwritten across the top.
And then the big reveal came: “Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding dress, probably the most closely guarded secret in fashion history, is a romantic fairy-tale gown in ivory silk taffeta and old last, with a fitted, boned bodice and curved necklace,” a story in The Press-Courier read. “It has a full skirt over a multilayered tulle petticoat, intricately designed bodice panels, and the entire gown hand-embroidered with tiny mother-of-pearl sequins and pearls.”
To add to the dramatic look was a 25-foot train, purposely made to be the longest royal train, and which took careful folding (and was rehearsed!) to properly fit into the carriage. The hot weather and the addition of Diana’s father Earl Spencer in the carriage had caused the train to crease more than expected in the rehearsals. But the designers, along with the bridesmaids, were able to smooth it out just right.
“She looked like a butterfly emerging from her chrysalis, unfurling her wings and about to fly. It was so romantic,” Elizabeth said. “Oddly, the imperfections seemed to make her even more beautiful.”
Every bit of the dress was bespoke and extravagant. There were 10,000 pearls and 3-millimeter mother-of-pearl sequins, along with almost 300 feet (90 meters) of tulle in the petticoat and about another 450 feet (140 meters) in the veil. Add to that 542 sequins and 132 pearls on her shoes, and the luxury count was clearly beyond comprehensible. According to one report, the dress alone would be about $450,000 U.S. dollars in today’s value.
Sticking to tradition, Princess Diana had her “something old” as Carrickmacross lace that belonged to Queen Mary, “something new” as the silk spun at Dorset’s Lullingstone silk farm, “something borrowed” in the form of an 18th-century tiara from her own Spencer family and “something blue” as a teeny little blue bow sewn on the inside of the dress’ waistband. Additionally, a small 18-carat gold horseshoe with white diamonds was also sewn into the dress.
Several dresses were designed in case the original gown was leaked
For such a high-profile dress, every single possible scenario was anticipated and planned for.
That said, 100 percent perfection wasn’t exactly achieved as a little bit of Quelques Fleurs perfume stained her dress. Unfazed, the ever-resourceful Diana simply tucked the front of her dress in to hide the stain.
But an extra skirt had been made, just in case there had been a noticeable stain and a matching parasol of lace and pearls was made in case of rain. It was reported at the time of the wedding that there were three gowns made, in case details of the original were leaked in the press. While a second identical dress popped up in a 2005 auction, Elizabeth explained then that it was made for Madame Tussauds. But in 2011, she admitted that there was an entire other design, which Diana never even tried on.
Only a dress so storied would continue to tell so many tales. But when it comes down to it, the iconic gown’s most essential moment may have been — as it is for so many brides — when Diana’s father saw her in it. “She glided down the stairs,” David told Women’s Own. “It was a magical moment when her father looked up at her and said ‘Diana, you look beautiful.’”