‘Spencer’ costumes evoke Princess Diana without duplicating her look

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana kneels on the floor with her gown billowing out around her in “Spencer.”
“We wanted to create the aura of her without necessarily re-creating different looks,” says costume designer Jaqcueline Durran of Princess Diana for the movie “Spencer.”
(Neon)
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“Icon” is a term so overused it rarely feels accurate, except perhaps in discussing Diana Spencer. So when director Pablo Larraín (“Jackie”) asked two-time Oscar-winning designer Jacqueline Durran (“Anna Karenina,” “Little Women”) to create the costumes for his film “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, Durran knew public image was at the core of the assignment. But with a twist.

“We wanted to create the aura of her without necessarily re-creating different looks,” Durran says from her home in England. “In terms of accuracy, we wanted to reinterpret and change it slightly, and we didn’t want any costume to say a particular time or place or moment, because all the Diana fans would know its historical place card. We weren’t doing that; it’s not what the film’s about.

Kristen Stewart and Pablo Larraín share secrets of their collaborative process making the unconventional “fable” “Spencer,” inspired by Princess Diana.

“The main thing is we were making a story, our version of Diana; it couldn’t be more different than ‘The Crown’ or a documentary approach. It was about creating an idea of her based on her public visuals. The costumes we created gave Kristen elements she could then use in her amazing performance and interpretation of Diana. It’s an inner journey and we created the outer one.”

Elvis, Bowie, Jackie O — style icons know how to use costume in real life. Does this icon trait make it simpler or more complicated for a designer when approaching a film such as “Spencer”?

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It’s very much a part of my method and approach. Diana controlled her image strong and clear, so it meant when I went through the hundreds and hundreds of pictures of her from the period ’88-92, I started to see themes and styles she’d repeat. That’s how I started off, pinpointing themes: When she went geometric, she does this kind of thing, when she uses velvet, or these colors, this is how she does it. It gave me a way to understand her style and how she made her choices.

Kristen Stewart wears a veiled hat as Princess Diana in "Spencer."
(Pablo Larrain/Neon / Topic Studios)

Would the film have worked if you re-created her exact outfits or even unrecognizable but beautiful clothing?

I think you have to hit certain expectations for people so they understand we’re looking at Diana but we’re not exactly doing it. You must keep images that at least feel like Diana. For instance, take the opening sequence [in which Diana drives to Sandringham in a plaid jacket and big dark sunglasses]. It has elements of Diana, but it isn’t a look you’ll find of her anywhere. She never had those Chanel sunglasses. She did have a lot of plaid jackets and velvet skirts, though not in that pattern or color. But when you look at it, you think Diana. It goes back to finding the themes, and then you kind of riff on it.

I don’t recall Diana being so stylish in her earliest years. Did she have a personal stylist or team to help her, or did she evolve herself?

I think Catherine Walker had a lot to do with it. She was a fashion designer who met Diana in the ‘80s and ended up making most of her clothes. They really worked well together and developed her style. If you look at her transformation during the ‘80s through 1990, it’s a massive transformation. She came to understand the kind of performative function of her clothes. And she really gets on top of it. And then in the ‘90s she came into more of a liberated woman, less about the projection of the royal family.

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Kristen Stewart sports a plaid jacket as Princess Diana in "Spencer."
(Neon / Topic Studios)

Tell us about Chanel’s involvement with the film.

They gave us four or five costumes, the most significant being the beautiful white evening dress — the one in the poster — which is something they had in their archive. They sent us lots of archival dresses for the fittings; big crates of Chanel. It was amazing. We went through all of them, and everybody loved this [white dress].

Even though it wasn’t exactly what we thought we were looking for, it came from the archives and had a great cinematic quality. It’s a gorgeous dress. So they remade it in their workroom for Kristen in her size. It was originally a catwalk dress.

The beautiful red Chanel coat with the black blouse and veiled hat. That was patterned on an actual piece of her wardrobe?

Diana didn’t wear much Chanel in this earlier period of her princess-hood. She wore more as she got into the ‘90s. But there was significantly a trip to Paris during our period where she wore that red coat, and Chanel knew of the coat and made our version for Kristen. We made the veiled black hat. We mixed the Chanel red coat with a look Diana wore at Sandringham at Christmas once and came up with this look.

I loved the peppermint low V-back silk gown you designed worn with the massive pearls.

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That was one of the costumes we made, and it turned out to be very serendipitous, as it was the same color as the soup! It was very similar to other dresses Diana wore in real life, but it wasn’t quite the same; again, it had that Diana feel.

Kristen Stewart wears a gown with pearls as Princess Diana in “Spencer" with Sally Hawkins as Maggie.
Kristen Stewart wears agown with pearls as Princess Diana in “Spencer” with Sally Hawkins as Maggie.
(Neon)

The black velvet ruffled one-strap dress with diamond tiara, was that a riff on the dress Diana wore to the famous White House dinner with President Reagan when she danced with John Travolta?

I actually made a version of the John Travolta dress, but it didn’t make it into the movie. That particular one-shoulder piece in the film was a big theme of hers in the ‘80s. She looked good in one-shoulders, and it photographed well on her.

The wedding dress. Wasn’t that an awful lot of work for 10 seconds in the film?

[Laughs] Funny enough, someone asked me about that and said, “It doesn’t really look like her dress, does it?” The wedding dress isn’t even really in the story; it’s a brief moment in a montage. On any movie, you’d be pushed to make an exact copy of that wedding dress for 10 seconds of film. It’s a very humble homage to her wedding dress; it’s just a suggestion of it. Pablo told us of the montage sequence and she’s probably going to run through the woods. So that’s what we did.

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Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in "Spencer".
(Neon)

For the record:

3:31 p.m. Dec. 23, 2021An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote to Jacqueline Durran: “When I think of Diana as an image, I think about how by her own admission she was so ill and stressed and felt so awful most of the time yet looked so wonderful and even radiant. Just as in the film. I remember an interview where she said her mother had that same ability.” It was spoken by the interviewer. Durran’s response, which had been omitted, has been restored.

When I think of Diana as an image, I think about how by her own admission she was so ill and stressed and felt so awful most of the time yet looked so wonderful and even radiant. Just as in the film. I remember an interview where she said her mother had that same ability.

That’s part of the unique thing that made her who she is and what’s shown so well in the film. I’m not sure what that quality is, exactly, maybe it’s just that she knew how to really wear clothes. Kristen has that same quality; she really knows how to wear clothes. I think Kristen looks different in this movie than she normally does, and I’m just thankful to be a part of that. I think it’s amazing, her performance.

Kristen Stewart wears a yellow sailor suit with pirate hat as Princess Diana in "Spencer."
(Neon)

How involved was Kristen with the costumes, given the COVID restrictions, etc.?

She was very involved. It was the peak of COVID and so very difficult to travel. She came to London in December and then again around January. We had two monster fittings setting everything up. Then because Pablo was in Chile, I was in London and Kristen was in America, I just had to get on with it.

We had an amazingly long, productive first fitting where we pretty much got the direction for each of the main costumes in the film. It was the longest fitting I’ve ever had in my career, about nine hours. Kristen was amazing, as she’d just flown in but was completely focused along with Pablo and myself. That indeed was a productive day.

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The yellow sailor suit with the pirate hat was fun.

Diana had something similar at a review of the navy, and Pablo really loved the idea of her with a pirate hat, so we reinterpreted her suit, which had a boat hat with our yellow one and a pirate hat. But it’s still the same silhouette, it still says Diana. She wore that kind of pale yellow quite often, actually.

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran
“Spencer” costume designer Jacqueline Durran.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Does anyone know where Diana’s actual clothes are? Are they archived in Kensington Palace?

I don’t know. I didn’t want to get too archival about the wardrobe or too involved with the royal archivist. I felt that was more the territory of “The Crown.” But I have a dream that somewhere there must be a ledger and someone wrote it all down. At least I hope so.