Costume designer Jacqueline Durran on recreating Princess Diana’s iconic wardrobe in ‘Spencer’
A film about Diana, Princess of Wales, was always going to be anchored by its wardrobe. Dressing Kristen Stewart as Diana in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” costume designer Jacqueline Durran dipped into the Chanel archives, created new gowns by riffing on some of Diana’s own famous and much-photographed clothes, and trolled vintage shops for authentic ’80s denim and Diana’s iconic baseball jacket.
“It was complicated,” says Durran, via phone, ahead of the film’s theatrical opening today, “as this was the most photographed woman in the world.” The world is so familiar with Diana’s wardrobe — it’s frozen in time as captured on film and a million magazine pages. But Durran chose to riff on Diana’s style rather than slavishly replicate it. “Instead, we wanted to ensure we were getting the essence of her style.”
Durran is a seven-time Oscar nominee, winning twice, for “Anna Karenina” (2013) and “Little Women” (2019). She is also venerated in fashion circles for creating the swoon-worthy green dress worn by Keira Knightley in “Atonement” (2007) and Belle’s famous yellow dress, worn by Emma Watson in the 2017 live-action film “Beauty and the Beast.”
Billed at the beginning of the film as “a fable from a true tragedy,” “Spencer” is a reimagining of a Royal Family Christmas at Sandringham, circa 1991. Diana is at her breaking point, roiled by her husband’s infidelity, at the height of her struggle with bulimia, fearing she is losing her mind and possibly her head (Anne Boleyn is a recurring figment of her imagination come to life).
The taut, fantastical psychological drama tracks Diana as she makes the decision to reclaim her life. That the film is titled “Spencer,” Diana’s maiden name, is important to note, as is the ghostly siren call of Althorp, her abandoned childhood home just across the field from the Sandringham estate.
Larrain, whose directing style is often described as “art house,” makes the grand Norfolk castle into a claustrophobic prison for his main character. She is drowning in the rigid traditional routines (Stewart bites into the lines, mimicking the royal’s description of “a bit of fun”). The hallways narrow and lurch as she runs down them; the window curtains are literally sewn shut against the threat of the long lenses of the paparazzi. The servants are always watching, reporting her (small and large) transgressions back to the family that has closed ranks against the princess. The very air Diana gulps to breathe is too thin. The cinematography, dizzying and swooping, keeps us as off balance as its protagonist.
Diana’s clothing, meanwhile, is a burst of colour, vivid and modern, against the “timeless” greeny-grey-brown backdrop of both the Royal Family and their castle. Casting the Royal Family as background players in a film is a neat conceit, indeed.
“That was part of the decision process,” says Durran. “Right at the beginning, Pablo said to me that the clothes are a thing in themselves.” The team worked to map out the colours of the clothes and the sets, “so that it all works together.”
Durran says she and her team gathered (and made from scratch) a huge amount of clothing — much more than you would think anyone could wear over a three-day period. At the beginning of the film, a large clothing rack, each garment marked for a designated occasion over the holiday, is brought into the castle by Diana’s dresser, her one trusted confidant, played by Sally Hawkins.
“All her clothing has been chosen for her,” says Durran, a signal of how little autonomy the princess has over her own life. “I didn’t realize this was an actual fact. It was confirmed that they really do have to change costumes that many times in a day,” says Durran, citing her research of the habits of the Royal Family. Durran made all those dress-up costumes, even if many of them never left the clothing rack.
At an early fitting session with Larrain and Stewart, says Durran, the director “pulled out things he liked, working the clothing up into a narrative through the film.” There is the white strapless embroidered gown for Christmas dinner — a recreation of a Chanel couture gown from that period — that takes a star turn paired with wellies and a cloak when Diana goes on a runner and ends up at her childhood home.
There was the Christmas-themed red-and-green-coloured plaid skirt suit that opens the movie, the logo for Diana’s Chanel sunglasses twinkling in the sunlight of the opening shot in which Diana is lost in the country driving her convertible. (Note: Kristen Stewart is a Chanel ambassador and, though Diana was better known for her embrace of the house in the mid-1990s period after she separated from Charles, the inclusion here feels organic.) And there was the sleek red turtleneck and houndstooth skirt that Diana is seen wearing with her boys, the only fully recreated “from real life” outfit in the movie.
At the end of that early fitting session, there were a number of items that didn’t fit the story, but Larrain found a way to use them anyway. “He shot Kristen every day of filming in one of the 35 extra costumes,” says Durran.
Those gowns make their way into a riveting montage at the climax of the movie. Stewart as Diana is seen dancing in the outfits, an effective device to underscore what the princess has lost in a non-linear narrative representing her life before and after the palace walls began to close in. The montage includes a very brief peek at Diana’s famed wedding gown. “It is the spirit of the dress,” says Durran, adding that they didn’t have the money to do a replica. Rather, “it is an adaptation of a vintage wedding dress.” We see it fleetingly, but it does give the satisfying hit of recognition and a reminder to the audience of the fairy-tale hope of that moment in 1981.
Instead, another outfit became the star of the movie. It is a yellow suit with a rather jaunty pirate hat.
“I tried to put in all kinds of different looks associated with Diana in that period,” says Durran. The production team settled on 1988 to 1992 as the fashion period to focus on, noting that royals often rewore their couture, so exact dating of outfits was not necessary. The suit was “based on an outfit she wore in Portsmouth, to review the navy. We changed details about it, changed the style; like most things, we didn’t make an exact copy.”
Stewart, in particular, wanted to wear a pirate hat. “We thought, a crazy costume with a pirate hat, can we do that?” In the end, the costume takes on a particularly poignant place in the film. We won’t spoil the costume’s eventual fate, but as Durran says, “It is so great that pirate hat ends up on a stick.”