Lately, things are feeling very similar to March of 1981. The media is buzzing about a royal wedding, and their paparazzi are documenting the bride-to-be’s every outfit in order to analyze what each one might say about The Dress—you know, the royal wedding gown we commoners will base our bridal ensembles on for the next decade (at least). Thirty years ago the fiancée in the spotlight was not pretty Kate Middleton, of course, a woman who has demonstrated her ease with wearing high design and cultivating personal style throughout her eight-year courtship with Prince William (he first saw her modeling a transparent dress on a catwalk, after all). Will’s mother, publicity-shy Lady Diana Spencer, was to marry Prince Charles later that year, and since their engagement announcement on February 24, photographers had documented her every move and sharply criticized her every outfit. They were disappointed, apparently, to find that the preschool teacher dressed, well, like a preschool teacher. But when Diana and Charles made their first official appearance as an engaged couple on this day in 1981, the world saw a new side of Di: Risk-taking fashion plate. The event was the usual royal calendar fare, a charity benefit. But when Diana stepped out of her car to enter London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall, she treated the media to the best assets of her strapless taffeta gown. The ruffly black dress isn’t especially revealing by today’s standards, but according to Time she “left the island gasping.” One observer said, “I thought she was going to take a deep breath and fall out of it,” and the Daily Mail penned, “If this is how she means to go on, then Lady Diana Spencer shows evidence of becoming the most fashion-conscious member of the royal family.” Eager to turn the occasion into a snappy headline, the paper coined the previously “Shy Di” “Daring Di.” It was official: With her not-so-LBD, the dowdy nursery-school teacher had turned a corner, and was bringing sexy style to the monarchy.
What has now become the late Princess of Wales second most famous dress was designed by David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, who also designed the pink, ruffled blouse Diana wore in her engagement portrait and would soon design her iconic, cream-puff of a wedding dress. The designers wanted to highlight the 19-year-old’s youth, so they created a modern gown with a full, flounced skirt and a polka-dot ruffled sweetheart neckline that showed just the right amount of décolletage. The scandal was in the mechanics. “We hadn’t considered the fact that when Diana bent over—as she would have to when getting out of the car—she would show quite a lot of cleavage,” Elizabeth Emmanuel told the Daily Mail in 2010, when the dress was put on the auction block. “We just thought she looked fabulous.” The truth was that Diana had nearly stopped eating since the engagement, and dropped so much weight that it was easier for the Emmanuels to simply make her a whole new dress in a smaller size. The couple kept the original, and that’s the dress that was auctioned off for 192,000 pounds ($279,000) 30 years later.
But the skinnier, regal princess-to-be wore her look with a grown-up sophistication the world had been waiting to see (the gown’s boned bodice may have helped her keep her back straight and head held high), and she was praised for invigorating the royal scene with her bold choice. Not only had she bared her shoulders, but the dress was black, which royals then traditionally reserved for mourning. The dress, along with her choice of understated diamond necklace and earrings, served as Diana’s inauguration as a fashion “It” girl. By August she had landed on the cover of British Vogue. It’s amazing what the right designers and a little cleavage can do. —Rachel Chambers