"A fable from a true tragedy."
This brief explainer opens "Spencer," director Pablo Larraìn's tale of Princess Diana (played by Kristen Stewart) and her decision to leave Prince Charles and the constraints of royal life over an imagined Christmas weekend. The sentiment can also be applied to Diana's costumes, which are inspired by the iconic style of the Princess of Wales, masterfully interpreted by two-time Academy Award winner Jacqueline Durran.
"This one's quite different, though, isn't it? It’s not my normal style," says the veteran costume designer, renowned for her expansive period work. (She took home Oscars for the costumes in Greta Gerwig's Civil War-era "Little Women" and in the late 19th century-set "Anna Karenina"; she received nominations for bringing fantastical fairy tale gowns to life in "Beauty and the Beast" and establishing another preeminent movie dress moment in the circa-'30s "Atonement.")
Based on Princess Diana's well-documented, real-life style, Durran came up with a sartorial "formula" to trace the mounting pressures, mental health struggles and ultimate emotional awakening through the dramatized arc. "It's quite overwhelming how many pictures there are of Diana," she says, noting that she established "baseline rules" to depict the pivotal days set in the "roughly early-'90s" at the Royal Family's country house, Sandringham. (Princess Diana and Prince Charles separated in 1992; they continued their royal obligations together until officially divorcing in 1996.)
"I went back through probably hundreds or thousands of photographs of Diana to try to put them into some sort of category," says Durran, referring to the Princess's penchant for color-blocking, asymmetric silhouettes, contrast lapels and plaid during that time period. "She did the same things repeatedly. I tried to work out what she was choosing at that particular time."
Durran organized Princess Diana's pattern and color preferences on a board for Larraìn, who selected the motifs he felt best represented his vision and the script (written by "Peaky Blinders" creator Steven Knight). She then applied her own award-winning touch, while still enjoying creative freedom.
"I wasn't too inhibited in interpreting those styles — sometimes things are exactly accurate, sometimes they're not," she says. "Because it wasn't about creating a specific date or moment or anything. It was about creating a wardrobe that had the aura of being Diana's wardrobe."
Through her extensive photo research, Durran noted how Princess Diana wore a great deal of plaid in the autumn of 1992. "I made the whole costume, but I didn't necessarily know where to put it," says Durran. "Pablo said, 'Let's open the movie with the plaid.'"
As the Royal Family begins to gather at Sandringham — prepped with precision by the British Army and a military-like kitchen staff — Diana drives solo to the estate in a sporty convertible with the top down, wearing a wooly green and red tartan blazer, countered with velvet lapels and a matching pencil skirt (above). Her Chanel wayfarers accentuate the presumably frosty English country wind blowing through her winged '90s hair. Realizing she's lost (this People's Princess drops F-bombs), Diana pulls over at a countryside café, grabs her jumbo Chanel black flap bag from the front seat and strolls in to ask shocked patrons for directions.
"I think that just made a great image, with the green Porsche and the sunglasses," Durran says. "It was appropriate because [the suit] was heavy — it was wintery — and she was driving in December. It was very good for us as well, in terms of establishing where we were in Diana's life."
Clothing plays an integral role in Diana rebelling from long-held royal traditions, family pressures and peaking marital tensions as the holiday weekend proceeds. The Firm and Royal Dressers on staff have handpicked, methodically tagged and organized every single outfit Diana shall don for each weekend activity and event on a rolling rack. But Diana passive aggressively revolts and wears the ensembles out of order, enraging the family and top-level staffers.
"It doesn't fit," says a defeated Diana to her favorite dresser and confidante, Maggie (Sally Hawkins), about a scheduled, gold empire-waist gown. "It doesn't fit my mood. It should be black." (She acquiesces in wearing the '30s-by-'90s style dress to Christmas Eve dinner.)
Diana arrives late for Christmas Day breakfast and the annual family portrait, etiquette violations further exacerbated by her unseasonal ivory puff-sleeve blouse, an Easter Egg pastel pencil skirt and white pumps. "There had to be a kind of inappropriateness in some of the things that she chose, so that you would think, 'Why is she wearing that?" says Durran of the custom-designed ensemble.
Complementing the movie's events, Durran and Larraìn also created their own wardrobe schedules, according to the costume designer: "We planned all the things that she would wear from start to finish. And, then, we had a separate thing, which was the clothes that she would have worn if she'd done what she was told." That added a third category, for Diana's flashback looks, which include a recreation of her 1981 wedding gown (above), for a fantastical wardrobe montage. "There were three different things going on all at once. They were like a counterpoint to each other."
In the montage happening in her imagination, Diana wears a custom-designed yellow nautical-themed outfit (above), complete with matching tricorne hat, that eventually will symbolize her freedom at the end of the film. Durran explains that Larraìn wanted to include a reference a similar red military-inspired outfit the Princess wore in 1989 to honor the Royal Navy — "but Pablo wanted it to be a pale yellow costume." (Princess Diana favored buttercream yellow in real life, as also seen on season four of "The Crown.") "I think it was the craziest costume, and I wasn't sure exactly where it would fit in. I mean, it's not very Christmas-y. It's quite different to some of the other pieces, and the pirate hat is such a bold statement."
On Christmas Day, Diana continues to upset the planned wardrobe schedule (and powers that be) by wearing a long red tweed coat to church, where she surrenders to posing for throngs of paparazzi gathered outside after services. The collared coat, as seen in movie promo (and below), is from the Chanel Fall 1988 ready-to-wear collection. Durran custom-designed the netted hat to mimic a similar full look that Princess Diana wore for Christmas Day celebrations in 1993.
Stewart has been a Chanel ambassador for eight years running and, according to the film's PR, connected the brand with the production.
"The saddest thing about the Chanel archive? Because it was Covid, I couldn't go!," Durran says. "Can you imagine how wonderful it would have been to have the chance to go through [in-person] and look for the things?"
Working virtually with the Chanel archivist, she perused and selected looks from the 1988 to 1992 collections that reflected the essence of Princess Diana's style and harmonized with the movie's special "formula." For instance, Stewart's Diana wears a red sweater and houndstooth skirt (top) while bonding with Harry and William on Christmas Eve; the sentimental on-screen moment connects to an outfit that the down-to-earth Royal mom wore IRL to school drop-off in 1990.
With the exception of a black dress, all the Chanel pieces were custom-recreated to fit Stewart's frame.
For the climactic Christmas dinner and ensuing scenes, the breath-taking champagne and gold embellished organza gown (above) was replicated for a different, practical filmmaking reason.
"Chanel sent over a whole lot of evening dresses for us to look at and see whether any worked for the movie, and everybody loved that dress," says Durran about the mermaid confection from the Spring 1988 couture collection. "But it was nearly a crisis, because we couldn't use the dress for those scenes. It was too precious. Because it was from the archive, they wouldn't allow it to be used for more than a few hours, since it could be damaged. It just wasn't possible to use the original. Amazingly, they said, 'Well, we'll remake it in the haute couture work room.'" With its metallic leaves and floral branches, that required 1,034 hours of hand-done work from five seamstresses in the Chanel atelier.
Heading into the climactic scenes of the film, Diana requests a pair of Wellingtons and a rugged winter coat to hike across the countryside brush into her old, now-abandoned family house next to Sandringham. While emotionally distressing for the character, the sequence also caused this writer concern about how the delicate layers of silk organza on the skirting could withstand the elements and physicality involved.
"It's such a beautiful, exquisite princess dress — you've really got the biggest contrast between the dress and the emotional turmoil that she's going through at that moment," says Durran, who, of course, built doubles of the skirting for the more physically intensive and outdoor scenes. "It's great to have the most exquisite, delicate dress be put through this kind of ordeal, isn't it?"
One-third of Stewart's costumes in the film ultimately came from Chanel; the remaining two-thirds were either custom-designed or vintage. With the Chanel archives at her disposal, Durran felt free to pick and choose what organically fit into the storytelling, while also sending a subliminal cautionary message.
"Putting the Chanel pieces into [the costumes] just adds to the aura of having a 'princess's life,'" she says. "It gives the audience a little bit more of that feeling — and then, obviously, the story of the movie is something quite different."