If you’re Amy Roberts, costume designer for “The Crown,” you try not to dwell on the size of the task at hand. “If I stopped to think about that, I just think I wouldn’t leave the front door,” she says. “The pressure is on anyway. It’s a huge project dealing with this extraordinarily mad family.”
Season 4 of the Netflix drama, which returns Sunday, dives into the Diana years, beginning in the late 1970s when the shy teenager meets her future husband, Prince Charles, and continuing until roughly 1990, when their marriage was in tatters. Along the way, Diana struggles with her husband’s infidelity, an eating disorder and frosty in-laws who don’t understand her emotional frailty.
This personal transformation is reflected in Diana’s style, as she evolves from a naive girl in Laura Ashley frills, to a wide-eyed princess in a (wrinkled) fairy-tale wedding dress, to an outspoken woman in bold colors, embellishments and shoulder pads reminiscent of “Dynasty.”
Princess Diana was thrust into the global spotlight when she married Prince Charles. Emma Corrin, the new star of ‘The Crown,’ can relate.
It’s quite a journey for the character, played by newcomer Emma Corrin — and for her wardrobe.
“When it’s somebody like Diana, you can’t suddenly put her in some crazy old outfit,” says Roberts. But she did take styles Diana was photographed in publicly and incorporated them into private scenes in the series, like fashion Easter eggs for Dianaphiles.
Roberts’ goal was to capture the modernizing spirit that made Diana such an intriguing figure in the staid royal family — someone photographed wearing baseball caps as well as tiaras. More than two decades after her death, Diana, like Jackie Kennedy before her, continues to cast a long shadow over contemporary style, inspiring Gen Z starlets like Hailey Bieber and a recent exhibition at Kensington Palace. And she remains the standard to which other young royals, including her daughter-in-law the Duchess of Cambridge, are compared.
“She just seemed like a breath of fresh air,” Roberts says. “That’s what people wanted and it was delightful and human. You felt you could reach out and touch her, or she’d reach out and touch you — which is what she did. It was that, as much as the clothes, that was so appealing about her.”
Below, Roberts walks us through re-creating Diana’s style at pivotal moments in her life.
When we first meet Lady Diana Spencer, she’s a sheltered but privileged teenager who dresses in the unadventurous style of a stereotypical Sloane Ranger — a breed of posh young Londoners who favored tweedy skirts, pearls and blouses with pie-crust collars. (Think of it as the upper-class British equivalent of a 1980s preppy.)
“They weren’t wildly tasteful or particularly imaginative,” Roberts says of Diana‘s social set, which means Diana gets off to a gentle start, sartorially speaking. “She’s working in the nursery, having fun with her flatmates, wearing bobbly old jumpers,” Roberts says.
In “The Balmoral Test,” Diana, now rumored to be Prince Charles’ girlfriend, is trailed by photographers on her way to work. She’s wearing an overcoat, skirt and sweater — a clear nod to notorious tabloid photos of innocent Diana in a backlit skirt that earned her the nickname “Shy Di.”
“It was fun to think, ‘Well, what was in her wardrobe?’” Roberts says. “That pale lilac skirt with a tiny print. She throws that on with an old V-neck and a Laura Ashley shirt underneath and chucks on a navy blue jacket with a terrible old shoulder bag.”
Elsewhere, we see Diana at Balmoral, the queen’s estate in Scotland, wearing a pink Peruvian sweater — an inexpensive style the real Diana sported several times during her early relationship with Prince Charles and one that was very typical of London in the early ’80s, according to Roberts. The sweater was made for the production by knitwear artist Hilary Sleiman, using a pattern available online.
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“The Crown” also re-created the royal blue, scallop-edged suit and white blouse Diana wore to announce her engagement in February 1981. Diana and her mother bought the ensemble, by a line called Cojana, off the rack at Harrods department store, but it would be depicted on countless souvenirs, from tea towels to piggy banks, commemorating the betrothal.
“It’s not what I would call a young girl’s look,” says Roberts, noting how “shy and awkward” Diana seems while wearing it. “She looks like she’s 35. I don’t think she’d found herself at all.” During this period, she adds, “I felt we were dressing up a doll.”
Roberts describes Diana’s instantly recognizable, Disney princess wedding gown, with its 25-foot train, huge puffy sleeves and voluminous skirt, as “the elephant in the room” this season.
Roberts had to get permission from the original designers, David and Elizabeth Emanuel, to reproduce the dress in the series. Although David Emanuel consulted on fabric choice and brought copies of the original designs to assist Roberts and her team, he encouraged them to have fun with the replica rather than obsessing over the details.
“He said, ‘Just do it.’ He wasn’t precious about it or neurotic about it. That released us from any fear,” Roberts says. “We just went for the feel of it, the look of it, the size of it. Big sleeves, big frills. We didn’t get too stressed. Maybe there’s 201 pearls and we’ve only done 200.”
The replica is seen only fleetingly in “Fairytale,” which does not depict the wedding proper, but it took 10 weeks and five fittings to make.
“It’s there and it’s gone,” Roberts says. “It’s a brilliant way to deal with it. You don’t need to bang on about it, do you?”
The people’s princess
Roberts created 17 looks for “Terra Nullius,” an episode that follows the Prince and Princess of Wales on an official tour of Australia in 1983, a trip that marks a turning point in their marriage.
A hands-on new mother to Prince William, Diana is blossoming into “the people’s princess,” attracting huge, admiring crowds and throngs of photographers everywhere she goes. Her clothes — a fetching mix of glamorous evening gowns and colorful daytime dresses with matching hats — are part of her appeal. (In real life, Diana reportedly brought more than 200 ensembles with her for the tour.)
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Yet Diana struggles to understand why her husband doesn’t adore her the way the public does. Tensions simmer between the couple, though they enjoy moments of married bliss, at one point dancing together joyously as cameras flash away. Diana wears a diaphanous blue and silver belted gown based on a design by Bruce Oldfield, a look that is more sophisticated than Diana’s earlier styles but still suggests “a little girl getting dressed up,” Roberts says.
“It was romantic and tragic at the same time, because of course we know the end of the story. You think for a moment, ‘Oh, they do love each other.’ You just know, always, this is never ever going to work. That dress just was so lovely and sad. She’s got high hopes and it’s all great, and they all get it together, her and Charles. But it’s never going to work.”
Glamour as ‘armor’
The final two episodes of the season chart the disintegration of Charles and Diana’s relationship in the late 1980s. By this time, Diana is “beginning to really get some kind of strength from her clothes,” Roberts says. “As the marriage grows more toxic, she starts to get a sense of herself a little more.”
The Diana of this era favors jeans with crisply tailored blazers, ruched silk dresses and bold plaid suits for casual occasions — and showstopping, quintessentially ’80s gowns with asymmetrical necklines and lavish embellishments for gala events.
“This is when we start showing the Diana people remember, that glamorous, sexy, extraordinary girl that everyone was drawn to,” Roberts says. “She puts on this armor, she’s going to fight back.”
In “Avalanche,” for instance, Diana arrives with Charles for his birthday gala at the Royal Opera House in a purple and gold strapless chiffon gown and matching scarf. The dress was designed by Roberts and inspired by the styles Diana favored in this era. “Her look now is very much of the streamlined, glamorous woman she is becoming, far from the early awkward girlish persona.”
Director Jessica Hobbs “loved the choking or slightly strangled feeling of the scarf at her neck,” Roberts says, “evoking somehow her inner turmoil.”
In the final episode, “War,” Diana travels to New York on her own, despite objections from Charles and his team, where she visits people with AIDS. Her trip is a public relations triumph for the princess, who is privately battling bulimia.
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At a dinner in Manhattan, she wears a white gown and bolero. Based on a design by Victor Edelstein, the ensemble has a distinct — and ironic — bridal feel that’s more grown-up than her Cinderella wedding dress. She looks fabulous and, despite her personal demons, knows how to dazzle both the public and the press.
“We were harking back to the idea of the virgin bride,” says Roberts: “Look where she is now.”
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