How ‘The Crown’ Tackled Princess Diana’s ‘Revenge Dress’
Two years ago, the acclaimed Netflix drama “The Crown” reintroduced the world to a young Lady Diana Spencer. Using pastels, puffy sleeves and floral patterns, the series painted a picture of a young woman struggling to find her place in a family that had only begrudgingly accepted her.
To help chart young Diana’s transformation from the shy daughter of an earl to a glamorous princess stuck in a tumultuous marriage, the series once again turned to the Emmy Award-winning costume designer Amy Roberts and her team of loyal assistants, sewers and textile designers.
Ms. Roberts, 73, knew that when it came to the Princess of Wales, the pivotal moment of Season 5 would be Diana’s arrival to a 1994 gala, wearing a figure-hugging black dress with an asymmetrical hemline, chiffon train and off-the-shoulder bodice. That same day her husband, Prince Charles, obliquely admitted on national television to being unfaithful. Over the years, it came to be known as “the revenge dress.”
The little black dress, designed by Christina Stambolian, became a captivating pop culture moment. Splashed across countless front pages, it marked a potent symbol of defiance: a woman who wanted to show a partner who wronged her what he was missing. Given the cultural fascination with the dress, Ms. Roberts knew that the dress would be meticulously scrutinized the moment it appeared onscreen. “It was important to get that right,” she said.
It also represented a shift in the way Diana would begin to dress and conduct herself in public.
“Her life, what we see of it at the moment, is more quiet visually,” Ms. Roberts said in an interview. In Season 5, which debuted on Wednesday, “it is that revenge dress which comes as a hugely important part of the marriage and her life, and her move to be a strong, independent woman.”
Recreating the dress — a fusion of “two extremes,” with a structured, heavily encrusted bodice on top and soft draping beneath — was “incredibly difficult,” Ms. Roberts said. But the main point she hoped to convey was that the dress was short, dangerous and sexy — a sharp contrast with Season 4’s white meringue-shaped wedding dress, also created by Ms. Roberts and her team.
With the “revenge dress,” Ms. Roberts faced the additional challenge of recreating it without input from the original designer. (Last season, she was able to consult with the designer of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, David Emanuel.)
“It seemed to be impossible to get a hold of the designer,” Ms. Roberts said, referring to Ms. Stambolian. “Wherever she is, I hope she is pleased with what we have done.”
On set, both dresses elicited the same reverent silence from crew members. The moment the actor Emma Corrin emerged in Diana’s wedding dress in Season 4 was almost theatrical, Ms. Roberts recalled, as two doors swung open just before the first take, revealing the dress to the crew for the first time. Similarly, when Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Diana in Season 5, stepped out of a car in the revenge dress, the “atmosphere was electric.”
“When you get those images that are so ingrained in people’s memories, I think it is quite startling for people,” Ms. Roberts said. “I find it quite moving.”
In a moment when her marriage was falling apart, Diana chose to fight back in a way that said, “I’m gorgeous and sexy and bold, and this is how I’m going to do it,” Ms. Roberts added.
She said she tried to convey a similar mood in a different episode when Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) reunited with Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton), her former fiancé, at a party after having not seen each other for decades.
“If you are a woman in that situation, what do you do?” Ms. Roberts said. “If you are a feisty, strong woman like Margaret and Diana, you go for it, and you think, ‘I’m going to wear the brightest color I’ve got in my wardrobe, and I don’t care.’”
The re-creation of the revenge dress is expected to be one of the most scrutinized looks of the show’s current season, but Ms. Roberts says it’s misguided to judge each character’s wardrobe strictly on the basis of historical accuracy.
“For me, doing this job is like doing a huge, great opera about a huge, dysfunctional family,” she said. “These people are not necessarily a double of the people they are portraying, they are a nod to it.”
“The actors bring something else to it,” she continued, “and I think we have to as well — by how we dress them, the rooms they are living in, their hair, the choice of lipstick.”
Even if not an exact replica, the re-creation of Diana’s signature golden, feathered haircut is something Sam McKnight, Diana’s personal hair stylist in the 1990s, could appreciate this season.
“I have seen all of the press stuff from this new series, and I think this is probably the best wig of all,” Mr. McKnight said.
Diana’s haircut of the 1990s was a sleeker, more natural version of the feathered shag she wore in the 1980s — another nod to how her style mirrored her personal journey.
“She was a young woman who wanted to be taken seriously,” Mr. McKnight said. “She didn’t want to be seen as this kind of pretty addition to the royal family. She was carving out her role for herself.”