Life

In 1981, with Britain in the grip of Thatcherism and IRA unrest, the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles was like a dream come true. Forty years on, an exhibition of royal fashion offers a fresh antidote to uncertain times. By Eliza Compton.

Princess Diana, the dress, and other fairytales

Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales leave St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981.
Credit: Anwar Hussein / Getty Images

A dress on a mannequin is just a dress, even if it glitters with 10,000 mother-of-pearl sequins and flows into a 7.6-metre train. It takes a lady becoming a princess to turn such a dress into a fairytale gown. And the world, then and now, to embrace the story.

This is why Royal Style in the Making is perhaps one of London’s best-timed exhibitions, running at Kensington Palace until January 2, 2022. It’s an intimate, detailed show, set in the newly conserved Orangery, and its centrepiece is the iridescent ivory silk taffeta dress in which Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles 40 years ago. In these uncertain times, the allure of “once upon a time” is hard to resist.

After a delicate toile for the Queen Mother’s 1937 coronation gown, Diana’s wedding dress is the first thing visitors see. Or rather the train is. Totally encased in glass, the dress itself seems miles away. It takes a few moments to walk the length of the record-setting train, sequins on the scalloped lace edging sparkling in the light. With fashion exhibitions, it’s often hard to get a sense of the garment in motion, but accompanying photographs recall that moment when Diana stepped from the gilt Glass Coach just before 11am on July 29, 1981. The advantage of this glass is that you can get much closer to the detail than the usual exhibition cordons allow. From less than arm’s length, you can study each stitch, pearl and fold. Diana was famously slim, her waist a wisp of 23 inches. The train, attached in pleats to the waistband, must have weighed a ton. That’s without factoring in the veil or the Spencer tiara.

“It was all about drama and making Diana a fairytale princess,” designer Elizabeth Emanuel told British Vogue last September as the world awaited the fourth season of The Crown. Emanuel, along with then husband David, created the gown when they, relatively newly minted graduates of London’s Royal College of Art, were granted the wish of every designer in the land.

Diana would have marked her 40th wedding anniversary and 60th birthday this month. The culture remains as obsessed with her as ever. As well as The Crown and endless documentaries re-examining her life, her death in 1997, and her legacies, there’s a new biopic, Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart, due out later in the year.

Fairytales, wrote Ellen Handler Spitz in The New Republic in 2015, “reflect the cultures from which they sprang”. They can also help us ignore less magical realities, then and now. The bickering, adultery, duelling biographies, divorce, car crash and conspiracy theories all take place beyond the final page. Present-day Brexit is refusing to resolve and the pandemic seems likely to drag into the next northern winter. In 1981, Britain was dealing with urban riots against the Thatcher government’s policing strategy, crushing unemployment, Irish Republican Army hunger strikes and 10 per cent inflation; London’s rise as a global financial power had not quite begun. With 1950s throwback Shakin’ Stevens’ “Green Door” at the top of the charts, people were perhaps primed for “the wedding of the century”. On the day, 600,000 people lined the streets from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral, while 750 million in 74 countries watched from home.

The dress is as OTT as my 12-year-old self remembers, all ruffles and bows influenced by early ’80s new romantic club kids who were dressing like French clowns or 18th-century courtiers. Its huge skirt, buoyed on crinolines, helped Diana stand out in vast St Paul’s. More recently, David Emanuel has said they needed the dress not to be dwarfed by the surroundings, but at the time, in an interview before the wedding, when the duo had already started their top-secret assignment, he said, “Well, we can’t think too much about that.” It was all about a 20-year-old aristocratic nursery school teacher. “The most important thing is that it has to suit her. You’re not designing for the stage or a movie, it’s a real person, and in the end, however one’s fantasies, you’re designing for a real person.”

That young woman was swathed in taffeta from Stephen Walters in Suffolk – the 300-year-old textile makers – made with silk thread from Lullingstone, Britain’s first silk farm where the thread for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress was also spun. The lace was from Roger Watson Laces in Nottingham. All this is to say that the dress is a very British affair, which befits a royal occasion but is something of a topical notion right now.

The rapture is not universal, it should be noted. In reviewing ITV’s Diana documentary, which aired in June, The Observer said the dress “still resembles history’s most overrated bag of crumpled laundry”.

Having been upended by Covid-19, bridal trends seem to have caught the same escapist, romantic mood, with feathers, ruffles, corset bodices and puff sleeves all mooted for 2022. “Let me tell you, they [full skirts] are all coming in now, they want the fairytale crinoline skirt. It’s coming back and it’s because of Diana,” David Emanuel, now lead consultant of the British version of reality TV show Say Yes to the Dress, told The Guardian in June.

In the Kensington Palace exhibition, the dress is pristinely smooth, which I have to admit was weirdly, illogically disappointing. There’s no hint of the crush it suffered when all that taffeta, lace and stiff net petticoats were stuffed into the coach with Diana and her father. Missing also is the perfume mark that reportedly happened when Diana spilled Quelques Fleurs down her front just before leaving the palace. She hid it expertly on the day and she would have positively wafted down the aisle on a cloud of galbanum, tarragon and lemon.

The exhibition, which celebrates the relationship between designers and their royal clients with not just dresses but also sketches, swatches and photographs from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, has been in the planning since 2017, to coincide with the re-opening of the Orangery. This long redbrick building was created in 1704, as the usher tells me when he checks my ticket, and was intended for parties as well as to nurture citrus fruit. The final dress in the show seems very at home among the Corinthian columns and statues of female deities: an 18th-century-style confection created by theatrical designer Oliver Messel for Princess Margaret for a 1964 costume ball.

Much has been speculated about what Diana would be doing today had she survived that Paris car crash – charity work; being a grandmother of five; goodwill ambassador; signed to Netflix like her younger son and his wife; living in Malibu as her biographer Andrew Morton suggested recently to Hello!. Of course, we’ll never know. Perhaps she would be supporting the NHS, deflating vaccine hesitancy as she de-stigmatised AIDS sufferers in the 1980s.

Without her, the world must be satisfied with proximity to her beautiful dresses, and replaying her story. Like a child snuggling down for a much-read bedtime story, we know what happens. We listen anyway.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Long train to taffeta".

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Eliza Compton is an Australian journalist who has been living in Paris and London since 2012.