Elizabeth Emanuel, a 29-year-old up-and-coming fashion designer, was in her Mayfair studio one morning talking to a client when the telephone rang. Nobody was rushing to pick it up and it trilled for what seemed like an age. Apologising to her client, Elizabeth went off and took the call herself.
A well-spoken young woman was on the line asking if she could book an appointment for that afternoon. Elizabeth took her details, absently writing down the name ‘Debra’ by mistake. It was an error that became apparent when, at the agreed time of 2.30pm, the woman was buzzed through the front door, climbed the stairs and stepped into the tiny first-floor showroom, smiling bashfully from under her fringe.
It was Lady Diana Spencer, the 19-year-old tipped to be the next Queen of England.
MAGICAL MOMENT: Diana gives the world the first glimpse of her dress as she arrives at St Paul’s Cathedral for her wedding in July 1981
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ recalls Elizabeth today. ‘Diana, wearing the full skirt, cardigan, pearls – that Sloane Ranger look – standing in front of me. It was as if a photograph had come to life.’
Although she made no mention of weddings that day – February 8, 1981 – Diana was certainly interested in Emanuel dresses. There was a buzz about Elizabeth and her husband David, a young couple only a few years out of art school but already dressing celebrities, including Bianca Jagger, who wore one of their gowns at Studio 54, the legendary New York nightclub.
‘Diana just wanted to see for herself what we were doing,’ recalls Elizabeth. ‘She was sussing us out. She loved being in that environment, the studio, and was fascinated by the whole process.’
Unknown to Elizabeth, Diana had already worn one of her blouses, which had been given to Vogue for a secretive photoshoot only a few weeks earlier. And it was in this pale-pink chiffon blouse that Diana was photographed by Lord Snowdon for an official portrait to mark her engagement, announced at the end of that month. Soon afterwards, she turned to the Emanuels when she needed a dress for her first public function with Prince Charles, at Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City.
Princess Diana in her sitting room in Kensington Palace as Elizabeth Emanuel shows her fabrics
‘Is it a black-tie function?’ asked Elizabeth. ‘I think so,’ replied Diana, looking slightly puzzled. By chance a black dress was hanging on a rail nearby. ‘We thought it would make her look grown-up and sophisticated,’ says Elizabeth.
She was right. The dress, with a plunging neckline, was a sensation. ‘In the pictures you see of her clambering out of a limousine, she looks fabulous, like a movie star,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But there were some raised eyebrows. We didn’t know that Royals wear black only in mourning, for instance.
‘The fashion editor of The Times was very sniffy about it, but we had a lovely letter from Lord Snowdon saying it was fantastic and not to listen to her.’
What nobody apart from the Emanuels knew was that the black dress credited with altering the public’s perception of Diana was actually a sample, previously worn by actress Liza Goddard, wife of 1970s glam rocker Alvin Stardust.
On March 4, Diana rang the studio again and Elizabeth answered. ‘This is Diana, I was wondering… would you do me the honour of making my wedding dress?’
Elizabeth says: ‘I was staggered. We assumed the commission would go to an established designer such as Hardy Amies or Zandra Rhodes.’
For many people, Elizabeth is known best for a frothy 1980s style – taffeta, lace and romance – but 40 years on she is full of new ideas and is as enthusiastic as she was back then. Still one of Britain’s leading couturiers, she now makes dresses for Madonna and Rita Ora, among many other celebrities.
The most famous dress in the world had actually begun taking shape, in Elizabeth’s mind, for some time before her first meeting with Diana. Elizabeth cites a visit in 1976 to a flea market at Clignancourt in Paris – little more than three miles north of the spot where Diana’s life would end two decades later – as being behind its inspiration.
Then studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA), Elizabeth chanced upon a ‘treasure trove’ of vintage lace, sequins and hand-made ribbons. She says: ‘It wouldn’t have been out of place at Versailles during the Louis XIV period. I scooped up the lot for not much money. It was the inspiration for my end- of-year collection at the RCA.’
It is easy to draw a line between those dresses of lace and ruffles with what would become Diana’s ivory gown. Elizabeth also siphoned ideas from movies – among them the 1975 costume epic Barry Lyndon – and pop music.
She says: ‘I loved the theatricality of David Bowie and the Adam And The Ants videos. Kate Bush was something magical and another influence. All these things were seeping into my consciousness, a compilation of everything extravagant I had ever seen in the movies – anything and everything that was going to make the perfect princess fairytale wedding gown.’
The moment the news broke that the Emanuels had been plucked from relative obscurity to make the dress of the century, their narrow, four-storey studio was besieged by the world’s media and a growing army of Diana fans, all desperate to find out anything they could.
On one of the many visits Diana made to the studio over the next four months, she brought her mother, Frances Shand Kydd. ‘They were both lovely, a typical mother and daughter preparing for a wedding, and they put everyone at ease,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I produced about 40 pencil sketches of designs, laid them out and we sat on the floor going through them.’
A design was chosen and Elizabeth and her machinist Nina set to work. No one else was allowed in the room apart from Elizabeth’s mother Betty, who helped with the embroidery. ‘It had to be people we knew and trusted. The others worked on the bridesmaids’ dresses,’ she says.
‘It was decided we needed a safe to keep the dress in at night. It had to be hoisted in through an upstairs window. Then we hired two security men, Jim and Bert, who took turns guarding the dress through the night.
‘We had no help from the Palace – we had to pay for the security ourselves – but thankfully my father was helping us out financially. People were going through our bins every night so we decided to lay some false trails, throwing out different coloured thread and scraps of fabric.’
It seemed to work. One headline at the time read: ‘Will Diana wed in pink?’ Elizabeth says: ‘In reality, I put everything we used into a trunk. I just felt the dress was so important. And for practical reasons it was important to keep everything in case we needed to make repairs.
‘During fittings Diana would stand still for an hour or two, in her underwear or a robe, chatting with Nina, who sometimes pricked her with a needle by accident. Diana never complained. We made a point of never asking her anything too personal – we didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. But she talked about what she had been doing, going to a premiere and sitting next to Roger Moore, I remember.
‘Now I feel sad that we never asked if we could take some pictures of her with us all. Nowadays I’m sure there would be loads. We just didn’t want to put her on the spot. This was her little oasis of calm. She was totally relaxed here.’
As the big day drew nearer, Diana began losing weight – rapidly – due to what we now know was bulimia. At the time Elizabeth put it down to dieting and pre-wedding nerves.
‘It meant we had to make lots of toiles,’ says Elizabeth, referring to the mock-ups of the dress in other types of fabric. It allows the designer to make as many alterations as necessary before transferring the corrections on to the final dress. ‘We did tell her not to lose so much weight but at the same time she looked fantastic, like a model.’
Elizabeth recalls that the wedding venue itself – St Paul’s Cathedral – also informed the final design. ‘We saw all the steps and the long, wide aisle and thought it would look perfect with a long train.
‘I wanted it to be spectacular, with the longest train in Royal history. And Diana had a spark about her that we wanted to reflect in the dress. Other Royal dresses were beautiful but didn’t have that spark.
‘I wanted to be prepared for any eventuality so we made a back-up dress in case anything catastrophic happened to the main dress at the last minute. It became known as The Dress That Never Was. It had the big skirt but slim rather than puffy sleeves, and the fabric was silk taffeta. It wouldn’t have been as good, though. I have no idea where it is now.’
Twice the Emanuels were summoned to Buckingham Palace to discuss logistics and both times Diana insisted on picking them up from their studio in her Mini Metro. ‘She was so down-to-earth,’ says Elizabeth. ‘It was funny seeing the reaction of people as we drove through the London traffic. And when we got to the Palace, Diana made us tea. After the first meeting we got lost in the bowels of the Palace and it took us half an hour to find our way out.’
By now the dress was nearly complete. The Emanuels had decided pure-silk taffeta in ivory rather than white. ‘Diana had beautiful skin and suited it. We thought white a bit harsh,’ recalls Elizabeth.
‘She tried on the finished dress at the Palace because it was the only place big enough to unfurl the 25ft train. She thought it was wonderful and was full of excitement.’
Early on the morning of the wedding, Elizabeth and David were driven by a family friend along The Mall, already thick with crowds, to Clarence House and found Diana wearing a cotton robe and having her make-up done. The bridesmaids were laughing and joking, drinking orange juice and eating biscuits.The dress had arrived at Clarence House the day before. The brother of the Emanuels’ PA had hired a van and the dress – and those of the bridesmaids – were packed into the back of it. ‘We wanted a van that was anonymous – rather than one with Emanuel on the side – because we were genuinely worried about it being hijacked,’ says Elizabeth.
‘With only hours to go, Diana was calm and relaxed. Everyone was beyond nervous, as if the magnitude of the thing was just too great. Outside we could hear the crowds. On the TV, Judith Chalmers was wondering what the dress would look like and we all shouted, Diana included, “We know!”
‘Soon after this David was attaching the train to the dress. It has a strap and you put this through two holes in the side of the bodice, bring it under the dress and buckle it up so you can take if off afterwards. So David ended up under the dress putting it on her. You could just see his legs poking out. Then the Queen Mother came in. I was running from one room to another and she stopped me. I sort of bumped into her and she looked quite stern. I said, “Good morning, Ma’am.”
DRESS REHEARSAL: Diana in a black Emanuel gown on her first public function with Prince Charles
‘We all waited on the steps at Clarence House until Diana’s carriage drew up. A stillness descended and nobody spoke. There was just the noise of the crowds outside. This was the moment everything had led up to. Diana was supremely composed and looked beautiful and so did the dress.’
With Diana squeezed into the tiny glass coach alongside her father, it was a struggle packing in the train. ‘But somehow we managed it and then David and I got whisked off to St Paul’s in a police escort.’
The couple were standing just inside the entrance to the cathedral when Diana arrived. ‘My first thought was, “Oh my God, look at the creases!” It creased a lot more than I thought. I was filled with horror at the thought of not being able to pull them out. But in a funny way the imperfections added to the charm.
‘At one point the wind caught her veil and it was just so dramatic. The creases came out easily and we were then behind a pillar so we didn’t see the ceremony. In any case we got whisked out again to go to Buckingham Palace so we were there ready and waiting for when she came back for the photographs. Barbara, the make-up woman, stayed at St Paul’s.
‘We hadn’t wanted to put the veil over Diana’s head as it would have covered the tiara, so we made a separate little face veil, which was sewn on. Before she went back down the aisle, she went into a little room where Barbara unsnipped the face veil. So when she went back you could see her face.
‘Meanwhile, we waited at the Palace for Diana for what seemed like hours. We could have done with a cup of tea but got nothing.
‘After the photo session was over everyone just collapsed on the floor. We told Patrick [Lord Lichfield, the official photographer] that this would be the best shot and he took his camera out again. It was my favourite shot.
‘Much later that night, when we were back at the studio, we had a phone call from Diana who had set off on her honeymoon. She called to thank us all. She said she really loved the dress and loved wearing it. It made our day. For a designer it doesn’t get any better: designing the world’s most famous dress for the world’s most famous woman.’
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