The “wow” moment of Royal Style in the Making was always going to be Diana’s wedding gown. Its 25-foot train occupies most of The Orangery in Kensington Palace, where this new exhibition is housed. Love or hate the design, that vast taffeta orb, with its bows and flounces, is in every sense one of the biggest dresses of the past century.
It not only influenced wedding dresses for the next 10 years, but its naïve representation of a fairy-tale princess’s wedding became a distillation of the many ironies of the Wales’ marriage.
It also made Elizabeth and David Emanuel – the couple responsible for it – and ultimately it broke them. Like many British designers of that era, their business acumen was no match for their talent; they barely ever seem to have operated at a profit.
One senses that David Sassoon, who contributes to one of several specially-commissioned films in the exhibition, would have handled matters more suavely.
By the early 1980s, Belville Sassoon, of which Sassoon was one half, was a well-established fashion label of several decades’ standing, favoured by high society – and exactly the kind of house from which the 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer would have been expected to commission her wedding dress.
On one chilly winter afternoon in early 1981, Diana did visit the Belville Sassoon store on Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge. But it was near closing time, and the intimidating Russian vendeuse in charge, sensing that the tall teenager didn’t know what she was looking for (and keen to avoid working late), redirected her to their concession in Harrods.
There, Diana chose an off-the-rail, slightly frumpy cornflower-blue suit that received a resounding thumbs-down from the critics when she wore it for the announcement of her engagement to the Prince of Wales.
That, maintains Sassoon to this day, is why she rang the Emanuels, a relatively unknown, unconventional couple and – classic Diana – asked them if they would do her the honour of designing her wedding dress.
Perhaps by way of compensation, she asked Belville Sassoon to design the sweet, organdie-collared, peach-coloured going-away outfit. It turns out they designed two – one with long sleeves; the other, which she ended up wearing and is in this exhibition, with short.
Elizabeth the Queen Mother all, at one time, had tiny waists; that the Queen Mother favoured camp early on, backed up by Norman Hartnell, the designer responsible for reinventing the Royals after the chic Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII exited the stage. Hartnell also commented that, in his hands, Diana would never have emerged from that carriage with such a crumpled gown.
Seeing that gown up close is eerie. What will surprise many who have only seen it on film is how sparkly it is – tiny crystals hand-sewn into the lace sleeves and on the cornucopia pattern on the bodice – and how dark an ivory it is. The dress, which officially belongs to the Duke of Sussex – his elder brother inherited the engagement ring – hasn’t been on display at Kensington Palace since 1995.
Beautifully constructed, in some ways it’s both less imposing than anticipated, and overwhelming. It leaves room for only a handful of other dresses in the exhibition. Sketches comprise the rest. We get a glimpse into the making of royal style, but – just as it did on the day – that dress casts a long shadow.