For David Emanuel, the memories are always close to the surface. Straightening the veil, smoothing ruffles of ivory silk taffeta, whispering “a few sweet things” to Diana Spencer before she walked down the aisle in St Paul’s Cathedral and became the Princess of Wales.
“It was a long time ago, darling,” he says, of creating what is probably still the world’s most famous wedding dress, with his ex-wife Elizabeth in 1981, “but when we talk about it it comes back in a flash, like it was yesterday. It was magical.”
Next month, the gown will be the centrepiece of Royal Style in the Making, an exhibition at the Kensington Palace Orangery that explores the relationship between couturiers and royals. Other exhibits include a piece of toile made for the Queen Mother at the 1937 coronation of King George VI, and pieces by Bellville Sassoon and Norman Hartnell. The Diana dress, which hasn’t been publicly displayed since princes William and Harry inherited it in 2014 after both had turned 30, will steal the spotlight, with its 10,000 mother-of-pearl sequins and 25ft train.
The frock was designed to take up space, says Emanuel. “St Paul’s is enormous, huge – you couldn’t do a low-key little gown.” A full-throated fashion statement, its capacious crinolines projected a message of fairytale romance to a global audience. A million meringue copycats followed – attuned to the decade’s maximalist mood. He describes “having a giggle” with the Princess of Wales about the train, which was 5ft longer than the previous longest royal bridal train on record.
Since then, its associations have become as heavy as its underskirts. Countless documentaries – as well as The Crown – have suggested that the frothy optics did not match relations behind the scenes, a story that feels freshly poignant after a year of royal fracture.
But for Emanuel – who was pole-vaulted to stardom – the memories are positive. He has become a sort of unofficial custodian for that day’s magic, speaking frequently about what a joy it was. There was no palace involvement in the design, he says, and despite journalists rifling through the bins outside their studio, “everything was straightforward. She made it fun. Lordy, lord, was she beautiful”, he says.
He is full of tales of Diana’s twinkling blue eyes and handwritten thank-you notes. “I’ve dealt with movie stars, actresses, divas, you name it, but this girl did not change from day one until the end. She was sweet as pie.”
He was consulted on the replica of the dress created for the The Crown, and worn by Emma Corrin, helping to choose the perfect colour: “They had all these swatches. I said ‘That one’ in two seconds flat. A very pale, soft, iridescent ivory. Not white, not cream and certainly not clotted cream.”
He has issues with the plot, even though he realises it was fiction. “Let me tell you, she was not sobbing the night before. I spoke to Prince Charles, I spoke to the Queen, everybody was happy.” Moreover, “all the years that I looked after her, she never broke down – somewhere along the line if you’re truly unhappy, you might show things. That’s kind of what annoys me,” he says. “People write all of these stories and … I’m sorry. I blame the TV producers and directors – check your facts. I was there, so don’t give me all of this nonsense – I can’t have it.”
Emanuel, who was raised in Bridgend in Glamorgan, spent two summers as a student working at the Queen’s couturier, Hardy Amies, watching sketches being presented to the palace. “It was then that I realised this is what I want to be – I love all this,” he says. He met Elizabeth, in the mid-70s; they were married by the time they both enrolled for the masters programme at London’s Royal College of Art. They hadn’t long graduated when they got the Diana commission.
He assures me he doesn’t get bored of talking about it. It has loomed large in his later career, which has encompassed designing for Bonmarché, an I’m a Celebrity appearance and presenting the reality show Say Yes to The Dress, in which brides-to-be try gowns while their friends and family swoon and bicker, entertainingly.
There have been downsides, including acrimony with Elizabeth since their 1990 professional split and later divorce. The relationship continues to be fraught: David recently took legal action against Elizabeth, attempting to stop her selling new sketches based on Emanuel archive designs. In her response, Elizabeth filed legal papers claiming she was the relationship’s “key creative force” and arguing that David’s role in the business was more organisational. The legal action is ongoing.
He says he can’t comment on this but points out that, in videos of the day, he was the one who passed Diana her bouquet, and was the last person to talk to her before she walked down the aisle. “What can I say? I certainly don’t want this to tarnish that memory, it was a magical time. I know what I did and I know what I brought to it – that’s sacred.”
Elizabeth responds, in a phone call, that she “had to defend myself” in the case and asserts that it was her distinctive design “signature, very romantic, which the business was based on”. She says: “David played a very, very important role. We had different skill sets and that’s why it worked so well.” She adds that she will be “happy sad” to see the dress again; it will be thrilling, and also “quite sad as a reminder of the fact she is not with us”.
Certainly, the dress’s cultural footprint remains as large as its silhouette. Just as weddings are tentatively rebooked, post-lockdown, Emanuel sees a return of epic skirts for modern brides. For a while, “dresses went a bit straight and a bit quiet and a bit slim”, he says, “but let me tell you, they are all coming in now, they want the fairytale crinoline skirt. It’s coming back and it’s because of Diana,” he says.