How Amy and Sidonie Roberts, costume designers for The Crown, brought the late Princess of Wales back to life.
For Elizabeth Debicki, portraying arguably the most famous and heartbreaking royal story of the 20th century was inevitably going to be a daunting career challenge. How can one ever do her justice? Should one even agree to place her heavily-publicised story into the social consciousness yet again? Even with such weight on her shoulders, in the latest, and concluding chapter, of Netflix’s The Crown, Debicki masterfully metamorphosizes into the complex Diana of the Summer of 1997 — a Diana the world has never forgotten. Grappling with her position outside of the royal family following her arduous divorce, her developing relationship with Dodi Fayed, and a flashy fleet of exuberant yachts, perhaps Debicki’s greatest tool — in fact, the greatest tool to The Crown, in all — was Diana’s eminent dress.
Catapulted onto the world stage as a shy teenager, 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer’s style was a far cry from the ‘90s sartorial icon she was destined to become. A typical Sloane Ranger, Diana dressed in the style adopted by many upper-middle and upper-class young ladies of the late 1970s and early 1980s, although the young soon-to-be Princess’ global popularity would place this trend for easy chic, country-gone-city, put together in a distinctly not put-together vein. Emma Corrin’s sweet, sincere, and inexperienced Diana was brought to life through the domineering work of costume designer Amy Roberts, who has described Diana as someone “You felt you could reach out and touch.”
In The Crown, a naive, childlike Diana Spencer is first introduced to us in costume. Perhaps a tad on the nose, the visual of Diana playing dress-up is undeniably a metaphor for the life she would soon lead. For those behind-the-palace-walls moments without specific contemporary outfit details, Roberts drew upon looks in which Diana had been publically photographed. It’s due to this thinking that a teenager who favoured textured knit cardigans, pale yellow denim dungarees, floral midi skirts, and well-loved jumpers with youthful Peter Pan collars was formed upon our television screens. So, too, were real-life fashion items recreated, including a pink Peruvian sweater and the white-and-royal blue two-piece worn in her infamous engagement interview, purchased off-the-rack in Harrods.
This gentle introduction to her character via costume allowed for her following ensembles to show a greater, perhaps forced out of character, growth.
The turning point across all seasons for Diana’s style was always going to be the enormous (and promptly recognisable) ivory silk taffeta, 25-foot train wedding gown designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel. The crumpled, crinoline behemoth represented the prominent moment when a quiet young lady was, under the watchful eyes of God and 750 million strangers, transmuted into a venerable Princess of the world’s love, affection, and hubristic greed. Understanding the power of this moment, The Crown’s Peter Morgan opted to not show the nuptials which took place within the walls of St Paul’s Cathedral. Instead, we were simply offered a glimpse of this Diana standing alone in a gilded palace room in her gown. The dress took on the storytelling responsibility. Recreated with permission from the Emanuel’s, Roberts and her team took a whopping ten weeks and five fittings to achieve perfection.
Dressing Diana, now a regular public persona, becomes an easier feat once she is sent out as a political and philanthropic figure. After all, if she was seen then, one has the images to reference her dress. The 1983 tour of Australia, with little Prince William in tow, was the subject of an entire Season 4 episode. Considered a turning point in the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, both literally and in The Crown’s fictional sphere, this tour would prove the juncture at which she blossomed into a woman — and a woman who clearly enjoyed clothing. Reportedly, real-life Diana brought over 200 looks with her to the southern hemisphere. Thankfully for Roberts, she only had to manufacture 17!
The sophisticated evening gowns and reserved day ensembles show a woman growing in confidence. A woman stepping into her position, a woman the world recognises as Diana at the height of her marriage. A 1980s Diana.
The end of Season 4 sets the scene for Diana most readily in the public memory. As Roberts so succinctly points out, nearing the end of her marriage, Diana is “beginning to really get some kind of strength from her clothes.” While no one could ever suggest her style of the earlier ‘80s was anything less than out there, Diana often succumbed to looking slightly like a doll whose child owner was shoving garments onto willy-nilly. Still somewhat out there, through the breakup of her marriage, Diana reached for the bold, the brilliant, and the glittering. Her penchant for a plaid two-piece suit began to emerge, as her shoulder pads seemed less like floatation armbands for support and more the strength of a woman in power of herself.
This change, this growth, is catapulted towards us at great speed, with many looks worn earlier in fiction than in reality. The world came, and it came at Diana without cause for slowing down. Finally, Diana wears the clothes. They do not wear her.
With a new and final set of Crown seasons comes a new Diana, a new actress — but, happily for us, Amy Roberts remained. Speaking on Season 5, Roberts described the switch into the scandal of the ‘90s: “I do think each season has a different tone, [a] different flavor.” Certainly, this ‘90s Diana would be a whole new visual feat.
Debicki’s Diana holds herself with an air of self-assurance, which allows her costumes to glide on and off from scene to scene. Unlike in Season 4, these ensembles can often go unnoticed by the viewer. Not an insult to the designer — this is, in many ways, the greatest possible compliment. Debicki moves as one with the items. We are witness to a new marriage.
While some looks were recreated with intense detail, such as the black revenge dress, every outfit worn feels as though we’ve seen it before — even if it was entirely pulled together by the costume team, relying on video graphics and photographic references. ‘‘Did [Diana] wear it?’ becomes less the important question, but rather, ‘Do I believe that our Diana would wear that?’ associate costume designer and head buyer Sidonie Roberts explained.
The Diana who often reached for bold prints and sharp silhouettes makes way for the Diana who prefers block colours, oversized branded crewneck sweaters, and denim jeans. This Diana does not hide behind what she wears; she shines through it. Forever a fan-favourite, the costume team brought to life the famous Virgin Atlantic sweater and even had Harvard remake the original ‘90s sweatshirt purely for use in the show. To put it plainly, this is a confident, maturing Princess that all can recognise (and the wigs certainly do their fair share to help).
Season 6, Part 1, has finally commenced streaming — following the final two months of Diana’s all too short life. More of a Diana biopic than a show following the Royal family as a whole, Amy and Sidonie Roberts pull together a heartfelt tribute to the late Princess. Covering such a sensitive topic, clothing had to blend into the plot seamlessly, allowing for raw emotion to take the lead. For the pair, recreating the clothing worn by Diana and Dodi Fayed in their last hours was to be a task taken with the utmost care and respect, with Amy summing up: “Over the course of the four seasons that we’ve done, I felt the most duty-bound to do that accurately.” Without dwelling on that horrific moment too long, it’s fair to say the costume team succeeded in their goal. Debicki and Khalid Abdalla, playing Fayed, strike an eerie resemblance.
Taking place over the course of the Summer of 1997, Season 6 is packed full of swimsuits, coverups, and casual outfits. Whether she’s playing 5-a-side with the Prime Minister or walking around Kensington Palace in a men’s Ralph Lauren shirt, there is zero stylistic pretence. While she may often be called a ‘90s fashion icon, this was not the story being broadcast, with Sidonie stating: “I’m keen to say that she was wanting to find her role rather than make a fashion statement.”
Young, uncomfortable characters seek out the armour of clothing; unstable, turbulent ones seek out fashion statements.; grounded, assured characters look further ahead. Unfortunately, we were never witness to what “ahead” would mean for Diana.
No one is in the dark as to where Diana’s story ends. One spends the entirety of Part 1 desperately wishing the inevitable would not happen. Of course, it does. A carefully constructed army of grey suits, ocean-blue one-pieces, baseball caps, Lady Dior handbags, and statement gold earrings only make that soul-crushing instance so much more heartbreaking. Amy and Sidonie Roberts did as much as Debicki did to bring Diana back to life. 🌀