Prince Harry and Prince William may be on the rocks these days, but there’s at least one thing the royal brothers can agree on: loaning their late mother Princess Diana’s wedding dress to Kensington Palace, for an exhibition opening June 3. The iconic garment made its debut on July 29, 1981 at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where a then 20-year-old Diana married Prince Charles, who was 12 years her senior. It will soon be the centerpiece of “Royal Style in the Making,” which takes a closer look at the relationship between couturiers and their royal clients of the 20th century.
Well aware that the dress would make history, designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel went to great lengths to keep the design shrouded in mystery. They first gave Diana a codename, Deborah, and ultimately transported it via a metal safe so large it had to be hoisted through the studio’s windows. (Once inside, it remained under the watchful eye of two bodyguards.) Meanwhile, Diana focused on her weight; she told the journalist Andrew Morton that she shrunk her waist by five-and-a-half inches in the six months leading up to her wedding day.
Diana chose the Emanuels herself, having taken a liking to the blouse they made for her first official royal portrait. They managed to carry out her instructions—she wanted to look like a “real, live fairy-tale princess”—without interference from Buckingham Palace. The end result featured a scooped neckline, puffed sleeves, and fitted bodice with Irish Carrickmacross lace that once belonged to Charles’s great-grandmother, Queen Mary. And then, of course, there was the mother of pearl-sequined train—the longest in royal history, at 25 feet. It was made from silk spun by worms at the last silk factory in the U.K. Thirty-nine years later, Netflix did it all over again—an operation that required four months, 600 hours, and five fittings. (Luckily, Elizabeth Emanuel approved.)
The show’s other standout dates back to 1937, when the Queen Mother was coronated. The toile on display is a rendering of the silk satin gown that Madame Handley-Seymour designed for the royal, featuring national emblems and hand-painted embroidery. Fabric swatches, original sketches, and never-before-seen pieces worn by royals like Princess Margaret will round out the exhibition.