The sight of Diana, Princess of Wales stepping out of the royal carriage and ascending the steps of St Paul’s on her wedding day was “like watching a butterfly coming out of its chrysalis,” Lady Di’s bridal dress designer Elizabeth Emanuel once told British Vogue. With the wind catching her veil as it cascaded over her pearl-speckled train—the longest in the monarchy’s history—the spectacular image was one of majesty-meets-romance. Diana’s completely OTT ’80s frou-frou, made by fashion college graduates Elizabeth and her then partner, David, was grounded in the expert craftsmanship of Britain’s most skilled artisans, including Peggy Umpleby.
Umpleby, affectionately known as Miss Peggy by her employer S. Lock, now Hand & Lock, was tasked with hand-embroidering the princess’s spectacular silk-tulle veil. Despite the fact the premiere embellishment brand had been decorating the official garments of the royal family since the company’s inception in 1767, the commission was shrouded in complete secrecy. Only Miss Peggy was permitted to know the details of the mammoth task. Having been stitching at S. Lock for 35 years, she was deemed the most accomplished candidate to realize the complex creative brief set by the Emanuels.
“I asked that the tiny mother-of-pearl sequins looked as if they were scattered on the tulle,” explains Elizabeth. “As the sequins were almost transparent, only the sparkles of light would be visible, creating a fairy dust effect. We used the same sequins on the gown itself, so that it would also sparkle as Diana walked down the aisle.” With 139 meters of tulle, 10,000 micro-pearls, and no specific pattern, Umpleby set to work, using her own intuition and a specially constructed large frame to accommodate the delicate lengths of fabric.
“At first, Miss Peggy worked on the veil at home at night, sometimes working until five in the morning before bringing it back on the Tube,” recalls Hand & Lock in-house fashion historian Robert McCaffrey. “Progress was slow and to make the deadline she told fellow embroiderers she was going on holiday, but in truth, she sat at her kitchen table embroidering for two solid weeks. The veil was completed, sent to the Emanuels, and she returned to work, only to have her colleagues remark on how pale she was despite her two-week ‘holiday.’”
David and Elizabeth, who had to employ their mothers in order to complete the painstaking needlework on Diana’s dress in time, were Miss Peggy’s only lifeline throughout the solitary process. “Despite the enormous amount of work involved she remained calm throughout,” recalls Elizabeth of the now-retired embroiderer. “We were confident she would interpret our vision perfectly and she did.” The designers only saw Diana wearing both dress and veil at the final fitting in Buckingham Palace, because there was too much froth to fit into the Emanuels’ tiny showroom. “The effect was magical and Diana looked dazzling—like a real-life fairytale princess bride,” she shares. The pictures of the radiant young woman, a nursery teacher-turned-royal shrouded in a cloud of glittering tulle on her 1981 wedding day, would go down in history as one of the most epic bridal looks of all time.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com
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