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The Epic Story of Princess Diana's Wedding Dress

The Epic Story of Princess Diana's Wedding Dress: 3 Months, 25 Feet of Train, a 20-Year-Old Bride and a Fashion Legacy for the Ages

 

"Hello, it's me."

So was the greeting that couturier David Emanuel heard on the line on the day his life changed forever. "Hello, me," he replied, as always when he heard that voice.

The voice on the phone belonged to the newly engaged woman who, in a few short months, would become Diana, Princess of Wales—and she was calling to ask Emanuel if he and his wife at the time, Elizabeth Emanuel, would design her wedding gown. Every designer in the world, let alone Britain, wanted the job, and the Emanuels may have been the only ones not to send her a portfolio for consideration.

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David Emanuel tells E! News that he gave the future princess a hearty yes, and then proceeded to say nothing, "absolutely nothing," to anybody about the call of a lifetime. But then, he recalled, so much time passed before she rang back, he started to wonder if the call had been a prank. The phone "did eventually ring, thank God," he said. And no, Diana hadn't changed her mind.

The call wasn't entirely out of the blue. The Emanuels had dressed two members of the royal family already, Katharine, Duchess of Kent and Princess Michael of Kent, and their first couture client was the ever chic Bianca Jagger. Soon enough, as Diana entered the public arena, her inner circle was helping to curate her wardrobe—make it fit for a princess, so to speak. The Emanuels met Diana through an editor at Vogue, and were asked to put together some "pretty" looks.

One of those looks ended up being the hand-tinted, pale pink chiffon blouse and pink silk taffeta skirt she wore in one of her official engagement photos with Prince Charles.

Another time Diana came in and asked for something "quite formal." Call David surprised when he turned on the TV news one night to see that she had worn the strapless black taffeta evening gown she picked out that day to her first public event with Charles since getting engaged, a music recital at Goldsmiths' Hall.

"The car pulled up and out she got, looking like a movie star. 'Holy god, that's my frock!'" he recalled recognizing his handiwork, laughing. He and Elizabeth had also smartly made her a "quick little shawl" to wear in the car, having advised the still only 19-year-old Diana Spencer that she couldn't just show up in a strapless dress. Her hint of cleavage caused enough of a stir on its own.

But the critical response to the gown—glamorous, stunning, even a bit sexy—apparently helped tip the wedding cards in the Emanuels' favor.

And yet that was just the faintest of dress rehearsals for what would become, for the next three months (that's right, the couple only had three months), the most scrutinized and top-secret fashion design project in the world.

Emanuel, who's now sharing his style expertise as the host and creative director of TLC's Say Yes to the Dress UK, says that Diana would usually come alone and unannounced to their tiny studio, located at the time near Claridge's in London's tony Mayfair district—except for when she brought her mother, Frances Spencer, who would become the only other person aside from the designers and Diana to see the sketch of her gown.

It's not easy to separate Diana from the layers of drama that shrouded her image in the final years of her life, which only contributed to the mythos that has formed around her memory in the 20 years since her death. Yet merely 36 years ago she was still a teenage school teacher, prone to blushing but with a cheeky sense of humor.

And though she had to abide by a certain royal conservatism on her wedding day, she was open to ideas. "There was no red tape, there were no limitations" from the palace, Emanuel says. "We had completely, utterly free reign, and it was down to her, and her alone, that she had the confidence to select Emanuel and to believe in it."

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