behind the seams

How Jacqueline Durran’s Costumes for Spencer Evoke the ‘Aura’ of Princess Diana

Photo: Neon

When you think of Princess Diana, it’s easy to imagine her in one of her hundreds of distinctive outfits: her wedding dress, her “revenge dress,” the carefully chosen outfits she wore on her official duties, and the clothes she wore while paparazzied in her time off. She was a fashion icon, so thoroughly photographed you can put any day of the year into Google and find her dressed in something specific. So when you’re making a movie about Diana, you’d better get the costumes right, even if you’re working within a largely invented set of circumstances.

That’s the challenge that Jacqueline Durran faced in dressing Kristen Stewart in Spencer, a movie that operates as a fantasia on the themes of Diana’s life, imagining her on a Christmas visit to Sandringham while she and Charles are estranged but not yet divorced. Aside from a brief fantasy moment when we see Diana in her wedding dress, the film’s costumes are all meant to evoke Diana’s style without acting as one-to-one re-creations of any specific outfit. “We would weave in and out of accuracy, sometimes within the same costume,” Durran said, in terms of how closely the costumes resembled something Diana herself wore. “It was about creating an aura of her and not being specific.”

Durran, who has won two Oscars for the costumes she created for Little Women and Anna Karenina, set some basic factual grounding for Spencer as she started designing the costumes for the film. Since the film is set in the early 1990s, she looked through images of Diana from about 1988 to 1992 to get a sense of her overall style at the time and identify what she wore repeatedly in that era — plaid and gold double-breasted buttons, for example. “I’m sure that doing The Crown, for instance, is good fun because you’re trying to find the exact details and replicate,” she said. “But given that our movie isn’t one of exact replication, it’s a work of art you’ve got leeway to interpret in different ways. It’s great to do costumes that have that freedom.”

Then, also, the film’s version of Diana happens to wear a lot of Chanel. A third of the costumes are re-creations from the brand’s archives. Diana did wear the brand fairly often, especially in the period a little after when Spencer is set, but there are also practical reasons for why you see so much of it. Chanel came onboard because Kristen Stewart is an ambassador for the brand — but, as Durran explained, she has also worked with the brand in the past and just found it to be a reliable partner. “They are great at delivering,” Durran said. “When you make an arrangement with them, the costumes arrive and they fit and they’re beautiful, so I was happy to make the connection with them. The idea was that they would supply whatever we wanted for the movie within their power. There was no number of things we had to use, or any restrictions on anything.”

With those basic goals in mind, Durran walked us through how she then developed nine of Spencer’s most Diana-esque costumes.

Diana’s Driving Plaid and Sunglasses

Photo: Neon

Stewart first appears in the film driving to Sandringham alone — a rebellion against the royal family — wearing a thick plaid jacket over a white turtleneck, with a black skirt and Chanel sunglasses. The outfit was handmade for the film, with the cream blouse based around a style that Diana wore in 1988 and the jacket meant to evoke the larger-print plaids that Diana often sported in the period. “It was quite difficult to source the fabric, actually, because it was difficult to find a plaid on that scale, since we haven’t had that ’80s check in a while,” Durran said. “Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to find it again because this ’80s revival will be around.”

You can see the Chanel logo on Diana’s sunglasses, which were provided by Chanel and then sized down by the brand to fit Stewart’s face. Later in her life, Diana reportedly told one designer that she stopped wearing things with the CC logo because the letters reminded her of Charles and Camilla. “I read that as well,” Durran said. “But luckily, I wasn’t in that stage [of her life] yet, so I just didn’t take that in.”

The Green Silk Dinner Dress

Photo: Neon

Once Diana arrives at the castle, the royals assign her a whole scheduled wardrobe for the weekend’s festivities, which she is expected to follow beat by beat. One of the first outfits in that set is this green silk dress, which she wears with a constricting necklace of giant pearls she imagines tearing off and scattering into her soup. The dress is a Durran original (and she knows her way around green dresses). “She wore a lot of those long, slender column dresses in our period, and so I riffed on the idea of a couple of them and combined them together,” Durran explained. “The color green looks like it was planned, because it was the same color as the soup, but maybe when the production designer saw the dress, he made the soup [the same color].”

The pearls are from a jewelry house called Mouawad, which supplied all the film’s fine jewels (Chanel provided the costume jewelry). “They’re real,” Durran said, “and I think the slightly large size works well in telling that story.”

The Cream Evening Dress

Photo: Neon

Perhaps the film’s standout item, and what you see on the poster, is a sequined evening gown that’s from Chanel’s archives and re-created for the film. Durran found the piece by asking Chanel’s archivist to look into an ’80s evening dress in a light color with a kick out at the hem. She wanted a lighter-toned piece to contrast against darker backgrounds, since Spencer has Diana run away from dinner and into the foggy night on Sandringham Estate in the dress. As for that flouncy hem, the film’s Diana puts on her father’s old hunting jacket over the dress, and Durran figured that silhouette would fit well with her in the coat. “So they sent that dress and it wasn’t exactly what we thought we wanted,” Durran said. “We thought it should have sleeves, but when we put it on, we just thought it had to be that dress.”

The original dress Chanel sent — a haute-couture piece from its 1988 spring/summer collection — was too precious for Stewart to actually wear in the film, especially since she’d be traipsing through mud in it. “We almost lost hope that we would be able to have it,” Durran said. “But then Chanel said they would reproduce it in their workroom. So they made a replica, including all the beading and embroidery that went into the original. And in Kristen’s size!”

The Scarecrow’s Coat

Photo: Neon

Early in the film, Diana stops by the side of the road to retrieve her father’s tattered old hunting jacket from a scarecrow on her family’s old estate. That’s what she decides to wear on top of that exquisite haute-couture piece, and the item itself was a collaboration between Durran, director Pablo Larraín, and the production designer, Guy Hendrix Dyas. “Since it starts its life on the scarecrow, it had to be something the art department wanted,” Durran said. “I hadn’t originally imagined it to be a waxed coat, but that was what worked best for the art department, and Pablo wanted the color. I wanted it to be believably a British aristocrat’s coat from the past. I took onboard what everyone said about how a wool coat wouldn’t have lasted for that amount of time, so I went back to a Barbour-style coat. It was good that it wasn’t a green coat, because you never would have been able to see it as different from all the other coats that were being worn in the movie.”

Diana’s Christmas Hat and Coat

Photo: Neon

In Spencer, Diana confronts the paparazzi during a Christmas visit to a local church while wearing what amounts to almost her full armor: a black hat, a veil, a black top, and a red coat. The complete outfit is a blend of references to different pieces Diana wore in her real life. The red coat is from Chanel. “We asked Chanel for replicas of any clothes Diana had worn from them, and in the early period it wasn’t many, but there was a coat she wore to visit the president of France in 1988,” Durran said. Stewart tried on the coat, but it was too big to be worn on its own; Durran decided to use it as an overcoat for the church scene instead. Diana did wear a red coat to church in Sandringham in 1993 with a black hat and veil, but the two coats differ. “We mixed the two things up,” Durran said. “It was all about taking pieces that said ‘Diana’ and mixing them up for the purposes of our movie.”

Diana’s Double-Breasted Blue Top

Photo: Neon

Spencer sets itself well within Diana’s double-breasted era, and this blue top is a Chanel piece she wore while visiting Great Ormond Street in 1992. “I said to Chanel, ‘Do you have that?’ and they made it for us,” Durran said. “It’s something that she actually wore, but in the context we’ve put it, but we’re still there in her world.”

The Pirate Hat

Photo: Neon

One of Spencer’s bigger flights of fancy is a pale-yellow dress with a double-breasted top, pleated skirt, and what Durran dubs a “pirate hat.” Diana never wore any part of the outfit, but she did once wear a similar hat in red to a visit to Britannia Royal Naval College in 1989. “Pablo liked the color of a pale-yellow costume she wore another time, so we just kind of mixed it,” Durran said. For a long time in the development of the film, everyone loved the costume and “everyone loved the idea of having a pirate hat,” but no one was sure where exactly they could get it into the film. “But then it turned out to be the perfect costume for her to put on the scarecrow,” she said. “Because it’s a kind of pirate, and she’s leaving, and it just seemed to work.”

The Red Wool “They Don’t” Jacket

Photo: Neon

The red wool jacket that Diana wears on the beach when she escapes for some peace and quiet with her dresser Sally Hawkins is an original piece that, by pure luck, Durran managed to find. It happened to match something Diana had worn. “She’s shaking hands with some nurses wearing exactly the same jacket,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that I found it. I was beside myself, and Kristen loved it, and we just thought, ‘That can be the jacket for the beach.’”

Diana’s Escape Jeans

When Diana does finally leave Sandringham at the end of the film (no stills for this one were available), she shifts away from formal attire and back into her version of streetwear: Jeans, a blazer, sunglasses, and a baseball cap. “She just wore jeans a lot when she was more relaxed,” Durran said. “We referenced the repeated thing she did with a long blazer and gold buttons, because it was such a look of hers.” The baseball cap, with the insignia of a Canadian police force, was also a cap that Diana wore in real life. “Then we just thought, ‘Shall we clear it and do it?’” Durran said.

More on Spencer

How Spencer’s Costumes Evoke the ‘Aura’ of Princess Diana