The fairytale happily ever after quickly descended into marital woes, but Princess Diana’s legacy is everlasting, and more than 20 years after her untimely death, the “Diana Factor” is still in full sartorial swing. The late princess has been portrayed in television movies and critically savaged big-screen biopics, but nothing has been as highly anticipated—or acclaimed—as Netflix juggernaut The Crown. The season 4 wait is over and Diana’s (Emma Corrin) arrival reflects the sensational and transformative effect she had on the royal family in real life. Her opulent wedding gown is the centrepiece, of course, but viewers will feast on her Sloane Ranger beginnings, ballgowns, and the ‘80s shoulder pads—attention to detail is a Crown signature that continues in its fourth year.
In September, costume designer Amy Roberts won the Emmy for Outstanding Period Costumes—three for three in this category for the Netflix series (Michele Clapton designed for season 1, while Jane Petrie took on season 2). Roberts returned for season 4, and ELLE.com joined the designer for a virtual roundtable conversation to discuss the arrival of Lady Diana Spencer and her journey from shy teen to the most photographed woman in the world. “I’m glad it happened this way ‘round,” Roberts says of the challenge overshadowing her second year working on this series. Becoming fully versed in “The Crown DNA” on season 3 meant the designer had a handle on the challenge facing her for season 4, which not only covers Princess Diana’s introduction but also Gillian Anderson as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, the incredibly divisive Margaret Thatcher.
“It was the most fantastic thing to be able to show people not just the Diana we all remember—this amazingly glamorous, attractive, vibrant, refreshing creature—but there’s this journey to that point, [which] we see this season,” explains Roberts. Eighty individual pieces chart Diana’s teen years to her late 20s: “I think it’s fascinating to see how she develops with her clothes,” Roberts says. While the queen (Olivia Colman) has settled into her role, Diana’s “breath of fresh air” provides an opportunity for the costumes to portray an extraordinary and ultimately toxic journey. Here, Roberts talks us through Diana’s season 4 arc, from first to final appearance.
The First Meeting
Designing costumes for real-life figures with a library full of reference points means there are moments viewers expect to see. “It’s a funny one, The Crown, it’s always bookended by real events that you know,” Roberts says. “For Diana, it would, of course, be the wedding dress, her Australian tour.” However, the initial meet-cute gave Roberts the freedom to create something altogether unexpected. “It’s something nobody will expect of our first view of her.”
The Shakespearean costume that highlights the spellbinding teen nods to Josh O’Connor’s introduction as Prince Charles in season 3. Still very much living the bachelor lifestyle, Charles is dating Sarah Spencer when he encounters her younger sister at the family’s countryside estate. Roberts was thrilled when she read Peter Morgan’s script for the first episode. “I thought, we’re going to see Diana as a Puck or a little creature. That was an absolute gift.” The theatricality of this moment also provided the creative jumping-off point that links to Diana’s dancer background: “I immediately thought of the Nijinsky Spectre de la Rose, with a bit of inspiration from Ballets Russes.”
The Pre-Royal Wardrobe
After their initial meeting in The Crown, the prince doesn’t get a clear look at his future wife until a more public event. The youthful yellow overalls and floral top Corrin wears in this scene are based on a real Diana ensemble worn at the Cowdray Park polo match. In Diana: Her Life in Fashion, author Georgina Howell describes this outfit as “her favourite outfit of summer 1981. She even wore [it] to Vogue, when called in to choose clothes,” Howell wrote. (Diana’s mother rang family friend and Vogue beauty director Felicity Clark to aid her daughter in this particular arena. Fashion editor Anna Harvey was enlisted to “provide a clothes vocabulary from which Diana could ‘shop’ according to her needs, and make her own fashion statements.”)
Brits call this style the “Sloane Ranger.” Similar to the tongue-in-cheek guide that gave rise to the term “preppy,” The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook was a satirical guide that described the sartorial leanings of the upper-middle-class set who resided in Chelsea’s Sloane Square (an affluent London district). Effortless tweeds, ruffles, Barbour wax jackets, floral prints, and pearls comprised the signature girly aesthetic of this posh set. Even though a lot of Sloane Ranger styles are making a comeback, Roberts refers to young Diana as having “very little fashion sense”—her take on the Sloane wasn’t exactly fashion-forward at the time.
Corrin herself discussed the specific look in an interview with ELLE, pointing out, “The public knows her as the woman and not the child. Actually, the child is one of the most important parts of understanding her.” While Diana’s athleisure would later become her signature (including the iconic bike shorts Gen-Z stars are now adopting), the overalls demonstrate just how young Diana actually was when she entered the royal family. “The costumes show that she’s not just shoulder pads and power suits,” Corrin added.
When she’s first bombarded by the press near her Kensington flat, Diana’s a “shy, charming, very appealing girl,” Roberts says. “And then she’s grabbed by the palace, not just grabbed by Charles.” The packed closet she’d soon become known for was not something she brought from the apartment she shared with three girlfriends—in fact, they all shared clothes. “She had to go shopping with her mum and buy everything because she literally had one coat, one evening dress, a couple of skirts,” Roberts says. “I was trying to convey that kind of messiness of her beginning. Teenagers haven’t quite got their look.”
Typical family dynamics are at the heart of The Crown. Despite the royal family’s wealth, palaces, and extensive jewellery collection, Diana’s story is “a journey of a young girl, whether she’s a princess or not,” Roberts explains. There’s a “just like us” aspect to her design process—while these characters are based on real-life people with a unique lifestyle, she doesn’t let herself get caught up in the pressure of designing for royals: “It’s like doing a big opera with incredibly difficult people—like us all. It’s this big family, all those things we experience [in] any walk of life.”
The blue engagement announcement skirt suit is instantly recognisable, but the moment Diana chooses her equally iconic diamond-and-sapphire ring is another case of creative freedom. “There are areas when you don’t actually know what happened,” Roberts says. “Those are the moments you can be more imaginative, freer if you like, but still adhering to this young girl’s journey.”
Wedding Gown Tears
Watched by 750 million people across 74 countries, Diana and Charles’s nuptials were the wedding of the century. The dress Corrin wears is not an exact recreation—Roberts explains she is “forensically accurate with uniform” but likes to take creative liberties elsewhere—but she did speak with co-designer David Emanuel and reference his sketches.
Much like a real wedding dress, Corrin required five fittings. The day they shot the gown scene for episode 3, Roberts recalls that other than a handful of people, nobody had seen the final look, and it had real emotional impact for Corrin. “She was dressed, she walked out, and she burst into tears,” Roberts describes. “I’ve never known a crew so quiet, and she found that incredibly moving. She tapped into a kind of sensitivity about people and Diana.”
Working with the newcomer on a character with such a deep public connection was “an absolute delight,” Roberts says. “It was a joy because she is a joy. She’s like another daughter.” As wide-eyed as the character she is playing, Roberts adds of Corrin, “I just love the freshness. And everything was interesting to her. There’s nothing jaded about her.”
Finding her Feet in Australia
“I still felt very strongly she was finding herself,” Roberts says of the events following Prince William’s birth and the first major test abroad for the young mother. International tours have been grand affairs on previous seasons of The Crown, but the sheer crowd size across the Prince and Princess of Wales’s Australia and New Zealand trip dwarfs those previous ventures. In the show, this is when the Diana factor dials up, but she’s still on shaky ground—quite literally at first. “When she goes to Ayers Rock in that cream silk dress, she slips and Charles is really impatient with her and it’s all so public,” Roberts says.
A total of 17 costumes are worn during the Australia tour in episode 6, which reflects Diana’s fashion and PR education. There was a push/pull at this stage as Diana “was still being somehow manipulated: Dress her up in a nice little outfit for every eventuality,” Roberts says. As the crowd sizes swell and the ‘80s colours, patterns, and shapes come into play, there’s a noticeable shift: “She’s getting a little bit more muscle, she realises that people rather like her. People are drawn to her, but at the beginning she was still not steady, not sure.” Several evening gowns stand out, including a red polka dot number the real Diana wore to a reception in Hobart, Tasmania, and a stunning blue frock for a scene of fairytale happiness with her husband in Sydney. “The moment where she’s in that blue and silver evening dress, she’s dancing with Charles, it’s supremely happy, romantic—and because we know what’s going to happen—very poignant.”
‘80s Power Dressing
If Australia was “dressing up dolly time,” the change is complete toward the end of the season. From “bobbly old cardigans and not getting it quite right,” Diana heads into “clearer ‘80s colours; that purple, big bold checks, wider shoulders, more streamlined.” Roberts notes, “It’s interesting, when you look at the Diana everybody thinks of—glamorous, gorgeous—how very little pattern [she wears]. It’s blocky colours.” Subconsciously, Roberts was nodding to where Diana’s style is headed in season 5. “It’s all a bit naff at the beginning and then the middle bits are still a bit naff, but more expensively done. Then at the end, it’s clearer where she’s gonna go.”
These are the areas where Roberts continues to flex her creativity. She notes the delicate balance of the factors a designer on The Crown must consider: “The need to be correct about things but also look knockout—[it’s] not just about accuracy.”
Fighting Back in Black
The fairytale is very much over by the end of the season, and Diana’s alienation is also reflected in the final costume choice. “Black, to me, was the smartest colour you could have at the age of 19—it was a real grown-up dress,” is how Diana describes the black Emanuel gown she wore for her first public engagement prior to her wedding. These remarks can be heard in the documentary Diana: In Her Own Words, which Corrin cited as a vital part of her research. Not only was the cut of that Emanuel dress considered risqué, but per royal dress etiquette, this shade should only be worn while in mourning. It’s also notable that the infamous “Revenge Dress” worn in 1994 was also black.
By 1990, despite a bitter estrangement from her husband and unsympathetic in-laws, Diana still has to indulge in the Balmoral Christmas tradition. For this imagined Crown creation, Roberts explains this scene is “a moment when she starts putting on armour. That’s what she does in the next series. This is the first real moment where she thinks, ‘Well, I’m going to fight you lot. I’m going to survive.’” This big family gathering is the last place Diana wants to be, “so she puts on a killer dress and it’s black.”
This is exactly how you silence your in-laws with fashion. The daring backless “killer dress” is reminiscent of a bottle-green velvet Catherine Walker halter Diana wore in the now-iconic Mario Testino Vanity Fair shoot; the tuxedo lapel smoking jacket style was originally designed for Diana to wear to formal dinners at royal residences including Sandringham and Balmoral, Howell writes in Diana: Her Life in Fashion.(Diana even had a matching dinner jacket made for Charles, but “whether he ever wore it remains unknown.”)
Referring to the first and last images as a “huge gift for a designer,” Roberts relished the extraordinary journey from shy teen to fighter. “From this strange little creature in leaves [in episode 1] to this woman looking so sexy and strong at the end. It just sums her up to me.”