What does it take to recreate the dress of the century?

What does it take to recreate the dress of the century? The answer is 600 hours of work, 100 metres of lace from the original firm, and the help of Netflix’s £100m budget… as Princess Diana’s designer David Emanuel reveals

  • David Emanuel was co-designer of the iconic dress worn by Princess Diana 
  • He said same level of secrecy surrounded the remake of dress for The Crown 
  • Mr Emanuel said: ‘It was all we thought, talked and dreamed about’

With its frothy folds of silk taffeta, large puffed sleeves and voluminous skirt, the dress looked as though it had come straight out of a fairy tale.

And its wearer, just 20 years old when she stepped out of a glass coach and ascended the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, a 25ft train trailing in her wake, looked every inch the storybook princess.

For David Emanuel, the co-designer of the iconic dress worn by Princess Diana on her wedding day in July 1981, it was the moment that defined his career.

So to see that look recreated in the upcoming series of The Crown, is, he says, ‘like seeing a ghost. It brings back so many memories’.

David, who designed and made the gown with his ex-wife Elizabeth, adds: ‘They’ve got the hair right and she holds herself like Diana did; shy but radiant. Seeing her is like stepping back in time.’

With its frothy folds of silk taffeta, large puffed sleeves and voluminous skirt, the dress looked as though it had come straight out of a fairy tale

The fourth series of The Crown, in which Diana — played by newcomer Emma Corrin — makes her much-anticipated debut, will be released on Netflix on Sunday.

It’s almost 40 years since the Emanuels were introduced to the young princess-to-be. Secrecy around the dress was so tight that, after showing their sketches to Diana, the couple ripped them up and installed a safe in their Mayfair studio for fabric swatches.

They also gave Diana the pseudonym ‘Debra’ — chosen after a mistake in taking down her name when she first contacted them — to throw other clients off the scent.

David, who was called in by Netflix as a consultant, says the recreation was just as secretive. ‘I got a call to go to Elstree Studios and it was the highest security I’ve ever seen,’ he explains. ‘It was swathed in secrecy.’

 With its rumoured £100 million budget, re-making the £9,000 gown will have been no problem for Netflix

He brought costume designer Amy Roberts and her team the original Press release, issued at 10.35am on the wedding day, coinciding with the public’s first glimpse of the princess.

‘I gave them plenty of tips: putting net in the sleeves, getting lots of twinkle in the veil; choosing exactly the right colour for the fabric,’ he explains

With its rumoured £100 million budget, re-making the £9,000 gown will have been no problem for Netflix. ‘We went to enormous lengths, and so did they,’ says David. ‘The detail is meticulous.’

Emma Corrin says the room fell silent when she stepped out in the dress for the first time. ‘More than anything else I wear, it’s so her.’

So just how did they recreate the wedding dress of the century? SARAH RAINEY went behind the scenes to find out…

For David Emanuel, the co-designer of the iconic dress worn by Princess Diana on her wedding day in July 1981, it was the moment that defined his career. Pictured: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at the altar

PAINSTAKING WORK TO CREATE THE GOWN

There is a ‘vast army of seamstresses, dressmakers and assistants’ on The Crown, says David. ‘There must have been around 15 or 20 cutting patterns and working at machines.’

Netflix says three people — working under the direction of Amy Roberts — were assigned to work on the wedding dress alone. It took 600 hours, equivalent to ten weeks of 12-hour days.

Back in 1981, there were also three people working on the dress: David, Elizabeth and their head seamstress Nina Missetzis.

‘It did take over our lives. It was all we thought, talked and dreamed about from the moment we got the job,’ says David.

There is a ‘vast army of seamstresses, dressmakers and assistants’ on The Crown, says David. Pictured: Lady Diana Spencer

CATWALK-INSPIRED MOOD BOARDS

In order to get looks just right, costumiers on The Crown consult not only photographs, videos and newspaper articles but also cultural references.

Amy Roberts says ‘everything is up for grabs’ when it comes to inspiration: ‘It might be an amazing combination of colours you see in a medieval painting or a contemporary Miu Miu campaign.’

Each member of the Royal Family has their own ‘mood board’, pinned with photographs, fabric swatches and sketches.

‘Because Diana was one of the most-photographed women in the world, they have tons of references,’ says David.

‘They look at everything: hair, hats, tiaras, gloves, necklaces, earrings and shoes. They had pictures of the wedding dress from all angles, as well as that see-through skirt she wore as a kindergarten teacher.’

Underneath each board, there are racks of clothes for each cast member. ‘Diana’s wardrobe is vast, with more than 40 or 50 outfits,’ David adds.

In order to get looks just right, costumiers on The Crown consult not only photographs, videos and newspaper articles but also cultural references. Pictured: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in The Crown

GETTING THE RIGHT SHADE OF WHITE

10,000 pearls and the tokens hidden for luck 

Diana’s dress sparkled with 10,000 pearls and tiny mother-of-pearl sequins, all hand-embroidered onto the silk taffeta bodice and skirt.

Glimpses of the replica dress show that every detail has been recreated, down to the bows on the collars and sleeves, and the voluminous petticoat made from 95 metres of tulle.

‘I told the costume department our tricks for getting the dress to sit just right,’ explains David. ‘Sleeves like that don’t just puff out; we had to put net inside so they didn’t crumple inwards. And they’ll have had to stuff the skirt with layers of tulle.’

What he doesn’t know is whether the costume team went as far as putting two tiny lucky charms into Emma’s dress.

‘We sewed a blue bow into Diana’s waistband as her ”something blue”. And we had a goldsmith make her a little gold horseshoe to wish her luck.’ 

The costume designers were panicking when David visited the studios, he says, as vintage photographs made it difficult to tell exactly what shade of white Diana’s dress was.

‘I went through the swatches and I told them it wasn’t cream, clotted cream or white. It was a lovely shade of ivory, which was flattering to her pale complexion.’

In real life, the Emanuels sourced the fabric from Dorset-based Lullingstone silk farm, whose owner wrote to offer its services.

‘Previous royal brides had all been dressed in British fabric, and we wanted to stick to tradition. So we wrote back and told them they should start feeding up their silk worms as we were going to need tons of fabric.’

Next, they took the silk yarn to a weaver in Suffolk, where, in order to keep the real colour a secret, they asked them to weave white as well as ivory.

‘We ended up with an awful lot of white silk taffeta which we didn’t need,’ David says.

‘Looking back, it’s funny the lengths we went to.’

100M OF LACE FROM THE SAME FACTORY

The Crown’s costumiers sourced 100m of lace from Roger Watson, the same family-run firm in Nottingham which supplied the original material in 1981.

The company produced lace for the waist, hem and trim of Diana’s dress, as well as her bridesmaids’ gowns. The detailing was inspired by the Spencer coat of arms, featuring geometric shapes and scallop shells.

Sadly, the man who worked on Diana’s dress has passed away, but his son worked on the material for the recreation. ‘I told them to put plenty of pearls and sequins on the lace on the bodice; Diana was very particular about that,’ says David. ‘I will never forget how she sparkled.’

A train 5ft longer than original 

Diana wanted the longest train in royal wedding history, so David and Elizabeth created a 25ft piece of fabric (2ft longer than the previous record).

It was so long they had to use an abandoned wing of Buckingham Palace so they could cut it to the right size. They then secretly visited St Paul’s, armed with tape measures, to check it would fit. The Netflix version is said to be even longer, at a whopping 30ft.

What most royal-watchers didn’t know was that the train was detachable, so Diana could unhook it after the service. ‘A bride can’t walk around with a 25ft train behind her all day,’ David says.

‘We detached it so that she could relax a bit at the wedding breakfast.’

 

CHARITY SHOP ACCESSORIES

As well as meticulously making costumes, designers on The Crown look for accessories in several unlikely places. ‘We source fabrics, clothing, buttons, jewellery and accessories from a wealth of places, ranging from dealers, fabric fairs and shops to costume hire houses and markets, both antique and car-boot,’ explains assistant costume designer Sidonie Roberts.

One junk shop in Paris has provided a wealth of outfits, and there’s a French fabric shop that stocks vintage materials by Fendi, Hermes and Versace — essential for designer- lover Diana.

Diana’s wedding shoes — designed by the Emanuels and adorned by celebrity cobbler Clive Shilton with 540 sequins and 130 pearls — are believed to have been second-hand on The Crown. So, too, is their version of the sparkling Spencer tiara, a family heirloom made from diamonds set in silver and gold.

FOUR MONTHS AND FIVE FITTINGS

It took the costume department four months to get the replica dress right, during which time Emma had five fittings.

In real life, the time frame was almost identical: six months from the original sketches to the wedding day, and five different bodices for Diana’s shrinking frame. When the bride-to-be arrived for her first fitting in January 1981, her waist measured 29in.

But by the big day it was a tiny 23.5in (a change the designers put down to nerves, but which was, in fact, due to her eat- ing disorder).

In the end, she had around 15 fittings, many of them late at night so no one saw her coming or going. On the big day, they sewed Diana into the dress so it didn’t come loose.

TEN PEOPLE TO DRESS ACTRESS

Because of its sheer size and weight, it took ten people to help Emma into the dress on set. Diana had only two, and one of them was dealing with her attendants.

‘Elizabeth was in the other bedroom at Clarence House, trying to keep the bridesmaids calm and I had Diana in one room as we got her into the dress,’ says David.

Those creases – and a perfume mishap 

With its metres of billowing fabric, Diana’s dress was noticeably creased when she emerged from the glass carriage at St Paul’s cathedral.

While the Emanuels were on hand to straighten it out, they admitted the fabric had crumpled far more than they’d anticipated — in part due to the cramped conditions in the carriage, but also because a nervous Diana had been grabbing at her dress with her hands. 

There was another mishap on the day. While spritzing perfume on her wrists, Diana had accidentally spilt a few drops of the scent — Quelques Fleurs by Houbigant — down the front of her gown. Horrified, she had scrunched the fabric in her hands and tried to tuck it into her waistband.

As it still hadn’t dried when she arrived at the cathedral, she had to hold her bouquet in front to disguise the damp patch. 

‘She was all ready, with the tiara and veil in place, and I whispered to her: ”Did you check the hook on the petticoat?” She looked at me and said: ”I don’t remember.”

‘I had visions of her walking down the aisle and the petticoat coming adrift, so there was only one way to find out: I got down on my hands and knees and went under her huge skirt.

‘Thankfully, it was done up, but just as I was coming back out, Diana said: ‘David, have you met the Queen Mother?’

‘I was red-faced like a beetroot, scrambling to my feet to say hello. She gave me a very quizzical look.’

London’s Lancaster House (a government-owned mansion) takes the place of Clarence House on screen, while Winchester Cathedral stands in for St Paul’s.

SMELLING SALTS FOR FAINTING FIT

Diana’s veil — made from 140m of tulle — was, David says, the most complex part of her wedding day look.

‘It had thousands of iridescent sequins on it, which caught the light and made her look radiant,’ he adds. ‘I told the costume designers good luck with that; it was a real labour of love.’

There were also a few finishing touches which never saw the light of day; a small silk bag filled with smelling salts and sugar tablets in case Diana felt faint, and a silk umbrella trimmed with lace, in case of rain.

‘No one saw them, but we knew they were there,’ David says. ‘The whole world was watching, but there was so much only we knew about.

‘It will be magical seeing the dress recreated, but nothing will quite recapture the magic of that day.’

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