Princess Diana: Designer Shares Story Behind Her Dress for First Royal Appearance

Princess Diana wore many memorable outfits during her lifetime. From her wedding gown to her “revenge dress,” the late Princess of Wales was a style icon. Now, 40 years after she joined the British royal family, the public’s getting the story behind the dress Diana wore to her first royal engagement with Prince Charles.

Princess Diana attended her first royal engagement with Prince Charles before their 1981 royal wedding

Prince Charles wears a tuxedo as he walks behind Princess Diana wearing a strapless gown
Prince Charles and Princess Diana | Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

RELATED: Princess Diana Refused to Wear This Iconic Designer After Her Divorce

Shortly after announcing they were headed down the aisle — the royal family announced the engagement in February 1981 — Diana made her first official appearance with Charles as her fiancé. Only 19 years old at the time, Diana went with Charles to a London charity gala concert.

The event marked the beginning of royal engagements for Diana. She’d go on to attend many more but at the time she was new to royal life. She didn’t have a “cleavage bag” to block cameras from getting shots of her chest, which she often used in later years. And she was still very much in the “shy Di” era where she kept her head down because she was, reportedly, self-conscious about her 5’10’’ height. 

Princess Diana went to the same people who designed her wedding gown for her first royal engagement look

Princess Diana stands next to Prince Charles
Princess Diana and Prince Charles | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

RELATED: Kate Middleton Combines ‘Magic’ and ‘Ordinary’ in a ‘Better Way Than Princess Diana Did’, a Royal Biographer Says

During a June 2021 interview with TODAY, designer David Emanuel recounted the story behind Diana’s black strapless gown. 

“She said, ‘I’m going somewhere very, very posh,’” Emanuel recalled. “Wouldn’t give any other detail, happened to have a black silk taffeta bodice in the studio. I said to put that on. And, of course, with pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair it looked ravishing.”

Emanuel and his former partner, Elizabeth Emanuel, would later go on to design Diana’s iconic wedding dress. But at the time Diana was just another of their clients who needed something to wear to a special occasion.

Emanuel continued, saying he told Diana she couldn’t show up in “just a strapless dress.” So he and his team made her a black wrap, which Diana wore to the event. He also recalled how they had no idea the dress had been for the woman who would be marrying Charles until they saw Diana on TV. 

“That evening, when we switched on the news, this limousine pulls out, out got Prince Charles and there was this girl, and I said, ‘That’s the girl! That’s her! That’s the one we’ve just done the frock for!’” Emanuel said.

Princess Diana later called her first royal engagement ‘horrendous’

Prince Charles and Princess Diana stand on either side of Grace Kelly
Prince Charles, Grace Kelly, and Princess Diana | Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

RELATED: ‘The Crown’ Has Perfectly Recreated 4 Moments in Princess Diana’s Life

Diana didn’t have a good time at her first big royal event. “It was a horrendous occasion,” she later told biographer Andrew Morton. “I didn’t know whether to go out of the door first. I didn’t know whether your handbag should be in your left hand, not your right. I was terrified, really – at the time everything was all over the place.” 

During the event Diana confided in Hollywood actor-turned-royalty Grace, Princess of Monaco, who was also on the guest list. 

“I remember meeting Princess Grace and how wonderful and serene she was -‒ but there was troubled water under her, I saw that,” Diana told Morton. 

The two women spoke briefly in the bathroom where Diana remembered Grace telling her, “‘Don’t worry dear, it’ll only get worse.’”