Fantasy vs. Reality: How The Crown Recreated Princess Diana's Iconic Fashion

The Crown's fourth season on Netflix follows the impeccably dressed Princess Diana through the 1980s, from her game-changing wedding dress to the sleek couture she became known for.

By Natalie Finn Sep 19, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Watch: Princess Diana's Iconic Looks Recreated on "The Crown"

Aside from all the gripping palace intrigue, The Crown is perhaps best known for its sumptuousness, the royal family's lavish surroundings and their iconic wardrobes meticulously recreated for the award-winning Netflix series.

So far, the costume department is three for three in Emmy wins, and they should perhaps make room for a fourth. Defending champs Amy Roberts and Sidonie Roberts are nominated again, this time with Giles Gale, for Best Period Costume Design for their painstaking work on season four, which resumed the action in 1977 and introduced a teenage Lady Diana Spencer into the fray.

Overall the show was nominated for 24 Emmys in 2021 and, ahead of the Sept. 19 ceremony, has already won four. But for anyone who followed the hype, you know that this season had a little something extra.

At 20 years old, Diana became the Princess of Wales and one of the most talked-about people in the world when she wed Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, in 1981. 

And the world didn't not talk about her fashion choices, from the cardigans she sported as a kindergarten aide to the blue suit she wore in her engagement portrait to the ideal-for-every-occasion ensembles she became known for as the decade progressed.

Fact-Checking The Crown Season 4

"We almost see Diana's entire journey throughout season four," assistant costume designer Sidonie Roberts said in a press kit interview. "We start at the very beginning and see her evolve from a young girl living with her friends in Sloane Square to the makings of a princess, then actually becoming the 'People's Princess,' to finally the beginnings of the end, which we will see more of in season five."

Sidonie, who joined the production in season three and shared the 2020 Emmy win for Outstanding Period Costumes with costume designer Amy Roberts and costume supervisor Sarah Moore, continued, "I think despite the obvious changes, there is a real sense, or arc, of the same person throughout all these stages in terms of how she dresses. There is and always was a sense of playfulness, an openness, and with that a vulnerability that connects her to her image."

Emma Corrin, 24, had her work cut out for her as the privileged but wide-eyed teen who first catches Charles' eye while he's dating her older sister and, after a whirlwind courtship that included only a handful of private dates, becomes his bride and increasingly unhappy wife. And from the beginning, the British press—and, soon enough, the world—scrutinized everything about her, including what she wore.

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Corrin, who won a Golden Globe for lead actress in a drama series and is nominated for an Emmy, "completely understood just how integral clothes are to Diana's character and therefore the importance of her costumes for season four and our work," Sidonie said. "So, with that said, from the very get-go she was so invested in the most excited, enthusiastic and committed way that it was a real joy for us working together with her."

Some items that Diana wore in real life, such as her voluminous wedding gown, just had to be reproduced for The Crown because of how iconic the images became in real life, but overall the costume department set about interpreting her style rather than copying every outfit. Not least because the big-budget Netflix series is all about showing you the personal moments behind the glossy façade.

"I think the biggest conversation for us regarding Diana was, as someone so well documented, how we negotiated what she really wore versus what or how we designed for her," Sidonie explained. "There were key moments where we adhered to recreating iconic looks she wore." At the same time, she added, "Allowing for moments like this also meant that we then had scope or more creative license when it came to the lesser known public moments or quieter private spaces she inhabits in the story."

She continued, "It was of course always with an essence of truth in mind but adapted for the purpose of ultimately telling a story rather than making a documentary."

The Crown Season 4 Premiere From Home

Whether the fashion is ripped right from reality or tweaked to suit the moment for The Crown's behind-the-scenes purposes, nary a stitch feels out of place.

Charles' Angel

With her feathered hair and smart sweaters, Diana had a demure look that appealed to the royal family's sense of propriety. The press couldn't get enough, either, as this scene in The Crown recreates the first of countless times that Prince Charles' fiancée was followed home by paparazzi.

A Buildup of Buttercup

The Crown's Diana wears pastel yellow overalls—or dungarees, as they call them in the U.K.—over a floral blouse with a Peter Pan collar, just as the real Diana wore to a polo match with Charles in 1981.

On a Roll

Diana was already a mum when she sported the rosy sweater and pink tartan trousers that were seemingly inspired by the ensemble that the slightly younger incarnation pairs with roller skates in The Crown. 

Alas, there are no photos of Diana—who did enjoy roller skating—gliding through the halls of Buckingham Palace listening to Duran Duran's "Girls On Film" on her Walkman as she does on the show. But Emma Corrin, who plays the princess, told the Telegraph, "I think she did do that."

Charming Accents

Feminine to the hilt, Diana popularized pie-crust collars, and she was known to sport a delicate ribbon bow along with the ruffles.

Frame by Frame

The traditional photo session Diana and Charles posed for after their engagement was announced on Feb. 24, 1981, was based in stone-cold fact, right down to the awkward body language and the off-the-rack blue suit from Harrods and printed white pussybow blouse the bride-to-be wore for the occasion. Of course, all eyes were really on her sparkling new sapphire and diamond engagement ring.

The Wedding Dress

They couldn't not recreate the iconic silk taffeta and lace gown designed by David Emanuel and then-wife Elizabeth Emanuel that Princess Diana wore on July 29, 1981, when she married Prince Charles at St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Assistant costume designer Sidonie Roberts said that they had David's blessing to copy the dress, which in real life took three months of round-the-clock work, starting from the time the royal-to-be showed up for her first consultation at the Emanuels' modest studio in London's Mayfair district. The couple and their assistants proceeded to toil away in utmost secrecy, throwing out sketches lest they be glimpsed by the voracious press, blacking out their windows and employing all sorts of subterfuge.

"It was a magical time," David recalled to E! News in a 2017 interview. "She was young, she was beautiful, so how to start to design for someone like that?" He said there was "no red tape" or limitations from the palace and they had "utterly free reign" to collaborate with Diana alone on the dress.

However, regarding the materials, "everything has to be British, British, British," David said. "We've got the [silk]worms and they're British, we've got the taffeta coming, we've got the lace." The prior record for a royal wedding dress train was 20 feet, so they decided to blast past that and make Diana's train 25-feet-long.

"Halfway through we realized, 'We're not going to finish this.' There was a little bit of panic," the designer remembered. Diana had a wonderful sense of humor, he shared, but "behind the scenes we're thinking, 'Maybe we've bitten off too much...keep sewing!'"

Britain's Sweetheart

Diana debuted this beaded red strappy dress with a sweetheart neckline at the 1981 U.K. premiere of the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. It must have been a favorite because she wore it again to the London Royal Opera House, switching up her necklace and earrings, in 1982. The Crown lifted that dress and added the tiara and brooch she wore with a different red dress on her 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand with Prince Charles.

Sidonie Roberts said, "Given how much we know of her and her image, there were of course moments where we consciously decided to stray from what she actually wore and design something more in keeping with the costume story or journey we were telling."

Cheek to Cheek

Any waltzing, fox-trotting or general boogying having been private up till then, news cameras first captured the Prince and Princess of Wales dancing together at a charity ball in Sydney in 1983, a trip virtually recreated for The Crown.

"I'd say actually the most challenging thing was sourcing the correct type of fabrics, specifically for Diana, on her and Charles' Australian tour," Sidonie Roberts said. "The reason being the dresses Diana wore here were so specific to the '80s in terms of the particular weight of the fabrics, which were mainly silks [including this ice-blue Bruce Oldfield confection], and therefore how they drape on the body. As well as weight, they were very distinctively '80s in color and shade also."

She continued, "As with everything in fashion, fabric trends move on too, meaning the specificity of those particular fabrics was harder to source in contemporary fabric shops. However, through a combination of sourcing vintage fabric, dying existing ones and having it made, as well as continuing to hunt for it, we made a collection authentically fitting to the rest of Diana's season four wardrobe."

The show's costume designer, Amy Robertstold The Guardian of the blue dress, "It was a deliberate choice to put her in this. There is a lot of irritation going on, on that tour, but this dress was the moment you felt maybe they did love each other. There's sort of romance and youthfulness. The dress is kind of crazy, pure 80s, shimmery, slightly trashy, but it just moves so beautifully at the dance, when it's all breathless and exciting."

Tied Up With a Bow

When they got to New Zealand, Diana donned a belted blue jacket and matching skirt and hat for a meet-and-greet. 

Saving Lace

Somehow Diana made those puritanical Cavalier collars look fun, a way to make a neckline exciting without showing off any skin.

Artistic License

The flowing strapless Catherine Walker gown Diana wore to the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 was inspired by a dress worn by Princess Grace of Monaco (who was at Diana and Charles' wedding) in Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief, back when she was "just" movie star Grace Kelly.

The Crown gave her red carpet style a bit more pop, with Sidonie Roberts saying, "We decided to isolate the colors she wore that the other royals did not and make that her particular color scheme to further emphasize the narrative of 'her' vs. 'them.' So, with that we introduced a lot more red and black, as well as a typically '80s shade of green and purple into season four." 

Show Stopper

Diana wore this white satin Victor Edelstein ball gown with an embroidered bolero jacket to see a staging of Falstaff, performed by the Welsh National Opera, one of her royal patronages, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Feb. 2, 1989.

"She was—in a word—perfection!" Karen Brooks Hopkins, president emeritus of BAM, remembered to People recently. It was a legendary event for the whole organization, which raised $1 million in one night for the first time, tickets to the Royal Gala benefit selling for $1,000 apiece.

Best of Both Worlds

One-shoulder gowns were all the rage in the 1980s, and Diana wore her fair share, including this Catherine Walker number, to formal events. You can tell from the haircut that sent women around the world scurrying to their stylists that this was taken in the 1990s (1991 on a trip to Brazil, to be exact), but The Crown incorporated what became one of the Princess of Wales' favorite silhouettes into her earlier looks, here with a très-'80s abstract floral pattern.

Seasons one through four of The Crown are streaming on Netflix.

(Originally published Nov. 17, 2020, at 4 a.m. PT)

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