Six hundred hours. That’s how long it took to design the exact replica of Princess Diana’s wedding gown for the latest episode in the Netflix series The Crown.
Princess Di’s iconic wedding dress inspired so many brides to follow suit with its large puffed sleeves and endless folds of silk taffeta and it was critical to get it right.
David Emanuel, who designed Diana’s dress with his then-wife Elizabeth, says it was undoubtedly one of the moments that defined his career.
David was called in by Netflix as a consultant on the historical drama television series, which centres on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. He made an exact replica of the dress Princess Diana wore on 29 July 1981 and says seeing it recreated was “like seeing a ghost”.
“It brings back so many memories.”
Princess Diana, played by 24-year-old Emma Corrin, will make her much anticipated debut in the series.
David says Emma made the perfect royal bride. “They’ve got the hair right and she holds herself like Diana did; shy but radiant. Seeing her is like stepping back in time,” says David.
It’s been almost four decades since David and Elizabeth were introduced to Diana. He says the secrecy around the dress was so tight that after showing Diana the sketches they had to rip them up and put them in a safe in their Mayfair studio. They also gave the princess the pseudonym Debra.
According to David, designing the replica was no different. “I got a call to go to Elstree Studios and it was the highest security I’ve ever seen. It was swathed in secrecy.”
He shared many tips with the costume designer Amy Roberts and her team, even bringing them the original press release that was 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 adds.
The remade wedding gown is said to have cost £9 000 (R189 000).
“We went to enormous lengths. The detail is meticulous,” he added.
Emma says you could hear a pin drop when she stepped out wearing the dress the first time, “I walked out and everyone went completely silent.”
She says the gown truly represented Diana. “More than anything else I wear in the series, it’s so … It’s her.”
THE DESIGNING PROCESS
CREATING THE DRESS
David says the army of dressmakers, seamstresses and assistants on set all helped in the creation of the wedding dress. “There must have been around 15 or 20 people cutting patterns and working at machines,” he says.
According to Netflix, three people who worked under Amy were assigned to work on the dress alone. In 1981 there were also only three people working on the dress: David, Elizabeth and seamstress Nina Missetzis.
“It did take over our lives. It was all we thought, talked and dreamt about from the moment we got the job,” David says.
The costumiers on The Crown consulted everything from photographs, videos and newspaper articles to cultural references.
Because every member of the royal family has their own mood board, Amy says “everything is up for grabs” when it comes to inspiration.
“Because Diana was one of the most-photographed women in the world, they have tons of references,” David adds.
THE RIGHT COLOUR
David says not many people are aware that Diana’s dress sparkled with 10,000 pearls and tiny mother-of-pearl sequins, all hand-embroidered onto the silk taffeta bodice and skirt.
He says glimpses of the replica dress show that every detail has been recreated, down to the bows on the collars and sleeves, as well as the petticoat made from 95m of tulle.
“I told the costume department our tricks for getting the dress to sit just right. 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,” David explains.
“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.”
David says The Crown’s costumiers sourced about 100m of lace from Roger Watson, the same family-run firm in Nottingham that supplied the original material in 1981.
“I told them to put plenty of pearls and sequins on the lace on the bodice. Diana was very particular about that. I’ll never forget how she sparkled,” David recalls.
Princess Di wanted the longest train in royal wedding history, David says, so they created a 7,6m piece of fabric (600cm longer than the previous record). The Netflix version is said to be 1,5m longer.
According to the assistant costume designer on The Crown, Sidonie Roberts, accessories were sought in unlikely places. “We sourced 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,” Sidonie says.
It took the costume department four months to get the replica dress just right, during which Emma had five fittings. The time frame was almost identical to Diana’s fitting.
It took six months from the original sketches to the wedding day, and five different bodices for Diana to fit her dress perfectly.
AN ARMY TO DRESS HER
Because of its weight and size, it required a whopping 10 people to help Emma into the dress. Princess 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,” David says.
Looking back at the beautiful memories David says it’ll be magical to see Diana’s iconic dress recreated, “but nothing will quite recapture the magic of that day.”
The fourth season of The Crown is released on Netflix on Sunday.