Princess Diana’s wedding dress designer Elizabeth Emanuel recalls Diana the woman and her ‘ultimate fairy princess’ gown 25 years after her death on August 31, 1997
- Elizabeth Emanuel recalls Princess Diana, 25 years after her death and 41 years after her royal wedding to Prince Charles – and making THAT bridal gown
- Emanuel spent months designing it, putting ‘all the frills on the lace’ to make it ‘the ultimate fairy princess dress’ that was seen and loved around the world
Elizabeth Emanuel cradles the massive scrapbook across her chest before laying it gently on the table and opening its Prussian blue covers to reveal a personal time capsule of her relationship with Princess Diana.
Emanuel got to know Diana during the months she and her then-husband, David, spent designing the future princess’ wedding dress.
Four decades later, there is a sense of intimacy as she leafs through sketches, fabric swatches and photos of Diana, displayed alongside images of the designer’s mother stitching embroidery into the gown. It is like looking at a family album.
That sense of connection helps Emanuel understand why Diana’s death in a Paris car crash 25 years ago resonated with so many people around the world.
“And you felt, you know, very much part of her life in a way. And so when her life was snatched away, it was this big void … it was like a light being snuffed out.”
But for Emanuel, Diana was not just the icon who appeared every day on television screens and the front pages of newspapers. She was a real person who played a central role in her life and career.
The scrapbook documents that story – the story of a designer and a princess-to-be.
Diana liked the blouse so much that she asked who the designers were – then she called them. Emanuel answered the phone and made the appointment, but did not get her name.
So she was shocked when Diana showed up at her door. By then, the engagement had been announced and Diana was famous.
But she did not act like it. Emanuel remembers her wearing a little jumper and skirt and perhaps a string of pearls.
“She was so young and just so sweet and shy, and it was really fun,’’ says Emanuel, who was only a few years older than Diana. “It was a big adventure for her suddenly to see all the clothes in the showroom. And she put a lot of trust in us, really, to come up with clothes that would suit her. And for us, I mean, wow, it was just so fabulous to meet her.”
When it came time to make the wedding dress, the Emanuels’ 12-member team worked in secret to keep details of the garment under wraps. Security guards protected the frock, which was locked in a safe every night.
Emanuel compared Diana’s July 29, 1981, royal wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral to the transformation of a chrysalis into a butterfly – or, in this case, a nursery-school teacher in cardigans and sensible skirts into a fairy-tale princess.
It was the 1980s. Big was in, and Diana walked down the aisle draped in yards of lace with a 25-foot (7.6 metre) train flowing behind her.
“We went completely over the top,” Emanuel says. “I mean, we were young, just out of college. [We said,] ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go crazy. St Paul’s [has] this huge, big aisle. Let’s put all the frills on the lace, everything and make it the ultimate fairy princess dress.’ And we did that. And I don’t think you’re going to see another one like that.”
The wedding, which was televised around the world, was just the beginning of the public’s fascination with Diana. She was rarely out of the headlines for the rest of her life, earning a reputation as “The People’s Princess” when she hugged Aids patients, befriended orphans and championed unfashionable topics like landmine removal.
When her marriage finally ended, the collapse played out for all to see. Daily. In detail. That, too, struck a chord with the public.
“I think when somebody dies young, it really makes an impact,” Emanuel says. “And Diana was the most famous woman on the planet. And she still is, really.’’
“It was such a privilege and an honour to have been part of all of that, to have been part of history as well,’’ she said. “I’ll never tire of it because it was just an extraordinary period in my life and – it was just wonderful!’’