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British RoyalsFeaturesHistoryRoyal Weddings

Forty years on: The Wedding Dress of Diana, Princess of Wales

Charles, Prince of Wales and Diana, Princess of Wales

It is perhaps the most famous royal wedding dress of them all. The gown worn by Lady Diana Spencer for her marriage to the Prince of Wales on July 29th 1981 at St Paul’s Cathedral has a special place in royal history. Designed by David and Elizabeth Emanual, it came to symbolise the fairytale wedding that hundreds of millions of people around the world tuned in to watch. The ending was far from a dream. But Diana’s wedding gown remains an icon of a wedding that became a cultural landmark.

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The anticipation over the dress was huge. It was described at the time as ”the most closely guarded secret in fashion history,” and the designers later revealed that they had a second dress on standby in case any of the details of the gown leaked to the press ahead of the wedding. But the secret was kept and it was their original creation that became world famous.

Diana’s wedding dress was made of ivory silk taffeta, produced by the Suffolk firm of Stephen Walters and Sons, and it reflected the new romanticism that was coming into fashion at the time. It had puffy sleeves and a fitted bodice with a V neck that gave way to a huge skirt. The bride had a twenty-five-feet-long train attached to her gown at the waist, all covered with a veil made of over 150 feet of tulle and anchored in place with the Spencer tiara.

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The embellishments on the dress added to its romantic air. Over 10,000 pearls and sequins were scattered across the gown and train alongside hand embroidered motifs. There were another 542 sequins and 132 pearls on the heart-shaped decorations on Diana’s wedding shoes, and the bride even had a matching umbrella, decked with lace, in case her wedding day turned rainy.

Amidst the modern take on the classic wedding dress were several nods to tradition. The V neck and sleeves of Diana’s gown were trimmed with lace as was the train, providing a link with the royal past. For the Carrickmacross lace used had once belonged to Queen Mary, The Queen’s beloved grandmother. The bride also had a ‘something blue’ sewn inside her gown in the form of a tiny bow while the dress designers added a tiny gold and diamond horseshoe to the label for good luck. But the dress acquired another addition ahead of the ceremony that Diana kept secret.

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Maybe it was nerves, maybe it was excitement, maybe it was just a slip of the hand, but as she was preparing to leave for her wedding, the bride spilt perfume on her wedding dress. The scent, Quelques Fleurs, was a favourite of Diana’s, but it left a mark on her outfit. Her make up artist, Barbara Daly, who later revealed the accident, advised her to hold her dress up slightly to cover it meaning the spillage stayed a secret on the royal wedding day.

Ask anyone who watched this wedding about Diana’s dress and the one word they are all but guaranteed to say is ”creased”. The bride made her way to St Paul’s Cathedral in the Glass Coach, accompanied by her father, Earl Spencer, and despite careful folding, there just wasn’t enough room for all the fabric meaning that Diana emerged on to the steps of the church with crinkles in her skirt and train. They fell out during the ceremony but have remained a lasting memory.

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Elizabeth Emanuel later spoke of how she and David Emanuel had worked as hard as they could on Diana’s arrival to smooth out the creases. The couple, then husband and wife, had been a surprise pick as the designers of the royal wedding dress, but since their biggest commission had been announced in March 1981, just weeks after Charles and Diana’s engagement, they had become all but household names.

The couple were already married by the time they went to the Royal College of Arts to study for degrees in fashion and their shop, Emanuel Salon, opened in 1977. They closed it two years later to concentrate on couture work, and Diana had worn one of their blouses for an engagement portrait. Their careers took off even further following the wedding, and both enjoyed solo success following the end of their marriage in 1990. Even today they remain household names, forever linked with Diana’s wedding dress.

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The gown itself was copied almost instantaneously and was credited as a major influence on bridal fashion for several years afterwards. The original passed to Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, on her death, and in 2014 it was handed to the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex, fulfilling their mother’s wishes that they take custody of her most personal possessions when they were both thirty. In 2021, on the sixtieth anniversary of Diana’s birth, William and Harry gave permission for the dress to go on show at her favourite home, Kensington Palace, where it will remain on display until early 2022.

The dress is no doubt a treasured memory for them both, holding such personal meaning. But it is also an indication of the dual nature of their mother’s life for the wedding gown remains world famous forty years after its first appearance. Like Diana, it made an impression that has stuck. No wonder this is perhaps the most famous royal wedding dress of them all.

There is much more on Charles and Diana’s wedding in our book. Royal Weddings: A Collection is available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.