It’s one of the most iconic outfits in popular culture history, Princess Diana’s stunning off-the-shoulder black cocktail gown which made headlines in 1994. And now, it’s been immortalised further in the fifth season of The Crown, with actor Elizabeth Debicki striding through a scene in the garment famously known as the “revenge dress”.
In episode 5, Princes Charles (a superb Dominic West taking over from Josh O’Connor) seeks public support in a time of strife for the monarchy and the Prince of Wales personally — “Camillagate” is afoot, the intimate leaked recordings between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles having been re-enacted in the episode, almost word for word. The sequence imagines Diana reading the paper, curling into a ball, as her fears of Charles’ infidelity are very publicly confirmed.
Scrambling for public support and on the advice of his team, Charles gives his famous TV special interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in which he admits his affair with Camilla publicly for the first time, a scene delivered with spectacularly frustrating finesse. Charles confesses to cheating only “until it became obvious that the marriage couldn’t be saved. Both of us having done our best. At which point I tried to do my duty, but there was nothing to be done. So yes, old friendships were rekindled.” And the shot lingers on Diana’s unmoving, but visibly upset face watching the interview.
As reporters in voiceover speak of palace officials being “deluged with calls of support” and the Prince of Wales waves to cheering admirers having “no regrets,” an understandably furious Diana heads to her wardrobe with intent, people.
Attending Vanity Fair’s summer party at the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Hyde Park, Debicki steps out wearing a recreation of Diana’s own outfit: a multi-strand pearl and diamond choker adorned with a colossal sapphire, bright red nails, and a version of Greek designer Christina Stambolian’s stunning off-the-shoulder black silk crepe cocktail gown, with a ruched bodice and sash coming off the side — thanks to Emmy-winning costume designer Amy Roberts. If anyone tells you fashion isn’t political, show them this scene.
“The war of the Wales’s has entered a new and more volatile phase,” commentates a reporter.
Credit: Princess Diana Archive / Getty Images
According to Vogue, Stambolian had made the dress for Diana three years earlier, but “it had been sitting in her wardrobe for three years, with Diana worrying that it was too daring.” The magazine’s also notes Diana’s choice of outfit was last-minute, as she had been reportedly been set to wear a Valentino outfit but “changed her mind.”
“She wanted to look a million dollars — and she did,” said Anna Harvey, late Vogue deputy editor and Diana’s confidential fashion advisor.
According to Stambolian, who wrote about the revenge dress in journalist Claudia Joseph‘s book Diana: A Life in Dresses, Diana stopped by her boutique in Beauchamp Place in Sept. 1991 and after shopping, requested “a special dress for a special occasion,” so Stambolian sketched some designs on paper. “The dress was revealing, quite short, and showed quite a bit of leg and flesh. Diana was not sure about it. She thought it was a bit risky. I said: ‘Why not be daring?’ But she wanted everything more covered up, longer and the neck higher,” she writes.
The press response to Diana’s dress was (intentionally) colossal. As Stambolian notes, the Telegraph called it “the brave, wicked, historic little ‘Serpentine Cocktail'” and “possibly the most strategic dress ever worn by a woman in modern times,” one that “flipped her husband clean off the front pages.” The Sun ran the less classy headline “The Thrilla He Left To Woo Camilla.”
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The Crown declares Diana’s outfit choice as overtly intentional, as Debicki’s character even refers to the outfit later when Charles pays an unexpected (and, it turns out, completely unwelcome) visit: “Had I known, I would’ve put on a revenge dress.” The term “revenge dressing” has now become synonymous with famous women wearing strategically awesome outfits after a break-up.
Debicki herself knows the power of the dress. “It fascinated me how entranced people were with that dress,” she told EW in an interview. “When it became known that I had the part, I received these text messages saying congratulations, [but] there was also a huge amount of text messages about the revenge dress. ‘Do you get to wear the revenge dress?’ ‘Oh my god, you get to wear the revenge dress!'”
Recreated in the episode of The Crown too, the pearl choker itself is emblematic of Diana’s creativity and ability to find individual expression within the monarchy. The sapphire brooch in the middle, according to Marie Clare, was a wedding gift from her grandmother-in-law, the Queen Mother, and Diana had it made into the pearl and diamond choker. As Stambolian notes in Diana: A Life in Dresses, it matched her engagement ring from Charles, making it the perfect accessory for the revenge dress.
Diana’s red nails are important too, also worn by Debicki in The Crown, shown in close up as she’s getting ready. The Queen reportedly had strict rules about nail polish for the Royal Family, only allowing bare nails or neutral tones. With a simple red manicure, Diana reclaimed a sense of individualism, personal power, and creative expression.
Where The Crown maybe plays the situation a little on the nose is having Debicki’s Diana walk out of shot into the high-profile party, full glamour, empowered as hell, then cutting to an identical shot of Camilla leaving her own house, wearing more casual clothes and beleaguered by paparazzi calling her “plain Jane”. We don’t need to pit women against each other aesthetically in this moment or any, despite what the tabloids did at the time.
Since we glimpsed Diana’s revenge dress worn by Debicki in The Crown Season 5 trailer, we were pumped, and the series’ inclusion does not disappoint. At the time, as the TV show imagines it, Diana felt voiceless, watching her adulterous husband scrape back public approval through his bashful interview admission. If you’ve watched House of the Dragon, you know how political women in power’s choice of dress can be.