The Designer Diaries – Diana, Princess of Wales, and the Emanuels

Last week we walked through Diana’s relationship with Bellville Sassoon, a frilly stroll indeed. However, whenever people remember Diana’s early, fairy princess clothing, it’s primarily another design duo who come to mind.

The Designers

David and Elizabeth Emanuel, only a few short years out of the Royal College of Art, had settled in a studio near the offices of Vogue. Anna Harvey, an editor at the magazine, was a mentor to the duo, and put their clothes on the radar at the publication. The Emanuels arrived on the scene at the perfect time – the era of frivolously frou frou clothes had begun, and the Emanuels specialized in clothing liberally bedecked with frills. Enter Diana, who was nineteen, a princess-to-be, and enraptured with romantic clothing.

The Pink Blouse

The young Diana – and at 19, she was very young – loved romance and knew little about high fashion. When she was thrust into the public eye she relied heavily on the editors at British Vogue for advice. During one of her first photo sittings, the magazine called the atelier of the two new British designers for a sampling of blouses for the shoot. The Emanuels sent over a pale pink, ruffle necked chiffon blouse. Diana chose it from a rack of several blouses, a picture taken at the session ended up as her official engagement photo, and the rest is fashion history.

Lady Diana by Lord Snowdon. Photo from Tatler

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The Black Dress

Diana began to visit the Emanuels in their studio. Her first official engagement with Prince Charles was scheduled for shortly after her engagement, in March 1981. The black dress was a sample that the Emanuels had run up, and had been previously worn by another client. Neither of those facts fazed Diana. When she spotted the gown, she tried it on and all three of them agreed she should wear for the event. To say that it was a stunning debut understates the case considerably. She caused a furor.

Sketch for the “Black Dress” Photos from “A Dress for Diana”

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The Wedding Dress

Diana called the Emanuels personally to ask that they design her wedding dress. Unlike the secrecy surrounding royal wedding dress designs today, the commission was announced to the press. The young designers were both over the moon and besieged by reporters. During the first design session with Diana and her mother, Frances Shand-Kydd, the designers excitedly sketched dozens of options to present. At first overwhelmed, Diana finally settled on a design that was very close to the final dress.

Prototype of Eventual Wedding Dress
Wedding Dress Sketch, A Dress for Diana

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The result really needs no description, since the dress has been discussed and analyzed endlessly. Yes, the inexperience of the designers resulted in a dress that didn’t stand up to the confines of the coach – the choice of silk taffeta was unfortunate, as it wrinkled badly – but it set a style in wedding dresses that was followed for years. It was romantic, it was memorable, and it set an image for the new princess that lasted for years.

The Emanuels also designed the shoes, a wedding parasol, bag, and the bridesmaids dresses. The entire package was an exercise in over the top eighties excess, but nothing about it is forgettable.

Later Designs

Diana must have been pleased with the wedding dress, for she continued to work with Emanuels through 1986. One of the most memorable gowns from the early part of that period was a scoop neck, pale blue net with scattered seed pearls and a pink ribbon at the waist.

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The last dresses the Emanuels designed for Diana were from the 1986 trip to Bahrain. At this point, Diana, and the designers, had turned from the ingenue princess to to a more mature look. This was the beginning of the “Dynasty Di” years, and her dresses featured fewer ruffles and the silhouettes were considerably streamlined.

Emanuel Sketch for 1986 Bahrain Visit

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If you are a bit tired of ruffles and net, fear not. Next week Diana meets up with a designer, one of the finest tailors in the business, who started her on the path to a more elegant and refined look.