The Design by the Emanuels
Clearly, being asked to design this most important royal wedding dress was an honour that must have been coveted by every fashion designer in the country.
Nevertheless, after the announcement was made, many designers who were much better known and established than we were at the time graciously wrote to us to offer their congratulations. Hardy Amies was dressmaker by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, so might legitimately have expected to be asked. But the general consensus of opinion seemed to favour Bellville Sassoon. We felt humbled and overawed to receive such kind sentiments from these design greats.
We believe Diana chose us because the feel of Emanuel at the time was soft, pretty, romantic and very importantly youthful. But we knew that the dress we would create for her would also need to be grand enough to be a part of history. The prospect of designing the gown, though exciting, was also quite daunting. We didn’t have any experience in designing royal wedding dresses.
A History of Royal Wedding Gown Sketches
The extraordinary thing was that we weren’t given any restrictions by the palace. There was no protocol. There wasn’t even anything to say the dress had to be white.
In the end, the design process was quite simple because there were just the three of us: David, Elizabeth and Diana. We began by showing Diana all the dresses that we had samples of and we encouraged her to try them all on so that she could get an idea of what she felt comfortable in.
She had never really worn anything quite like this kind of dress, so it was important for her to try on every single shape we had. She was terribly excited to be trying on huge bouffant petticoats, satin skirts and boned bodices, and she loved every minute of it.
Eventually, she settled on a style that looked fantastic. It had a frill at the shoulder, a tiny waist, a big skirt — very romantic — and we decided together that this shape would form the basis of the look we would create for her.
The next thing we did was to draw up something like fifty different designs, but all based around the same silhouette.
We did an enormous amount of research on other royal brides, and looked through as many books as we could find for inspiration and influence.
Queen Victoria’s Wedding Dress
One thing that immediately struck us was the use of antique lace in Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, something that was already part of the Emanuel signature.
We wanted to include as much lace as we could on the dress, and yet ensure a style that would suit a contemporary young royal bride.
Although Diana had mentioned a Spencer family tiara, we loved the romantic sense of the wax orange blossom bridal garland typical of the Victorian era. Elizabeth managed to find such a garland at Phillips, the auctioneers, but after working with it we discovered that it was too fussy, and so we quickly discarded the idea.
We were also curious to discover if there were certain emblems or motifs we should incorporate into the design, but none of the modern royal brides had used such ideas.
There were no written instructions from the Palace, so we felt free to go back further in history, looking at the dresses of Princess Marie of Edinburgh, Princess Mary of Teck, and other designs from a more romantic era. Another Emanuel signature idea that we wanted to include was the boned bodice to enhance Diana’s shape (drawn in very tight at the waist). Also, we wanted to create a very full skirt to give a scale to the dress that would reflect the fact that the wedding was to be at St Paul’s, one of the largest cathedrals in the world.
The Emanuels, 1981
In the back of our mind was the knowledge that Diana would arrive at the steps to St Paul’s and so we researched royal trains.
We discovered the longest train in history had been twenty-three feet. So we were very excited to think that we might create an even longer one, and the vision of what Diana would look like in the dress, climbing those steps was born.
The day had finally arrived when we would present our designs for the wedding gown.
A wary Diana and her mother, Mrs. Shand Kydd, sat patiently on the showroom floor while we spread out our sketches around them. We have always had a problem with editing down our designs and, with the excitement of the prospect of creating the wedding gown of the century, our creative juices had really been flowing.
The carpet was literally covered in our pencil drawings. It must have been quite a daunting sight for the future princess and her mother, who sat stunned and speechless for the first few minutes before they began to examine the sketches.
We held our breath for what seemed like forever and then finally the smiles broke out.
As soon as we had begun to draw up sketches of possible designs for the dress, we realized that we would need to find somewhere secure in which to keep anything connected with it.
We rang up a safe maker, who dutifully came and measured access to our little mews building. On the day the safe was due to be delivered, the truck backed up to the front door, only to find that the safe wouldn’t fit through it.
The following day they returned and had to arrange for half a wall and a window to be taken out, and a huge crane was needed to hoist the safe into position. The press were beside themselves and it seemed that the whole of the West End could see what was happening.
As the safe inched into its final position, we heard applause from the crowds outside – what we had wanted to be a very low-key event had turned into public entertainment.
But every night from then on we kept everything to do with the dress locked securely in that safe. And the rest, shall we say, is history!!
Lady Diana’s earrings for her 1981 wedding