‘Spencer’ Costume Design: Capturing Princess Diana’s Dizzying Eclectic Range
Pablo Larraín’s surreal psychological drama “ Spencer ” unfolds over a few disquieting days during Christmas 1991, when an unhappy Princess Diana’s ( Kristen Stewart ) marital troubles with Prince Charles were just starting to surface. That exact timeframe isn’t necessarily reflected on Jacqueline Durran’s diligent costumes — and that’s very much on purpose.
“The brief Pablo gave me at the beginning was, we weren’t working in a specific date,” recalls the two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer in a conversation with IndieWire. “Our period was roughly [from] 1988 to 1992. So we created a wardrobe [without] replicating anything. Because her costumes are [extensively] photographed, somebody somewhere would pinpoint the date quite easily if [we] were to replicate. And whether that [matches] the date in the movie would [have become] a thing.”
Instead of copying garments, Durran mixed different parts of Diana’s known outfits, ensuring that all of her costumes felt like clothing the princess might have worn. It’s a creative approach that mirrors the film’s chief artistic quality, weaving together a dark fairy tale and a hazy memory piece to reflect a fictionalized version of the happenings at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate.
A balanced juxtaposition between the ease of Diana’s everyday wardrobe and the structure of her oppressive and inhibiting public attire meant alternating between jeans, cozy sweaters, skirt suits and gowns. The process also demanded close collaboration with Stewart, who dedicated herself to understanding and carrying Diana’s clothes through her own innate sense of style.
“I was honored to work with a fantastic character actress,” said Durran.”I had limited access to Kristen, so we had an extremely long [first] fitting. I put together provisional costumes for each scene [that] we had to examine and work out. It was really focused work.”
The official clothes were the project’s main emphasis, a wide-ranging collection of vintage items, custom-made outfits and a rewarding collaboration with Chanel, one of Princess Diana’s go-to fashion houses. “I collated the images of [her] Chanel pieces and asked them if they had any in their archives.”
Luckily, Chanel had the red coat that Diana wore to visit the French president in 1988, as well as the blue jacket-cardigan that she wore on Christmas 1992. The fashion house remade those garments for the movie. “I don’t know that Diana ever wore a Chanel evening dress in our period,” Durran said. “[But] I [wanted] to see what they had from that period that could be appropriate for her style. They sent over things from the archive and we liked the cream dress with the gold embroidery and the full skirt at the hem best — that’s the one in the poster — and they replicated that for us.”
The designer also wanted to portray an eclectic range of Diana’s style, honoring her love of block colors, asymmetric lapels, and evening wear with a thin column shape, an elegant silhouette echoed on the green gown that Stewart wears at an anxiety-inducing holiday dinner. “I wanted to do one of those dresses in contrast to a fuller ball gown, so that we got a wider representation.” In that comprehensive spirit, Durran’s creations included a plaid jacket seen in the opening, various formal blouses, a peach-and-cream coat as well as a yellow marine-themed skirt suit with a pirate hat, an outfit based on one of Diana’s visits to the Naval Base in Portsmouth. “Possibly in ‘88 or ‘89 – Pablo really loved the fact that she had a pirate hat.”
Serendipitous finds also came into play, such as the preppy, varsity-style bomber jacket Durran supplied from a vintage store. “I was really pleased to find it, as I also found a picture of Princess Diana wearing the exact same jacket. Kristen loved it. Part of the idea of our design was to create this aura of her: Occasionally go in really accurately, but then pull out and be less accurate. So there was a mixture, which makes the whole thing a bit more uncertain. You can gain a lot by having a contrast [in] the way things might rub [against] each other.”
For one iconic garment, Durran avoided accuracy: Diana’s storied wedding dress by David Emanuel. The reason was entirely practical since she didn’t want to blow off almost a quarter of her budget on one dress that would be a brief part of a montage sequence that also required dozens of additional looks. She kept her execution aesthetically in step with Larraín’s vision.
“I [bought] an ‘80s wedding dress and adapted it to have what I think as the most important details of [Diana’s] wedding dress: the sleeves, the neckline,” she said. “Because we’re not ‘The Crown,’ it’s really about practical filmmaking as much as keeping with the whole ethos of the design. I just made the clothes in the way that I felt we were talking about the character. And I let them run their course.”