When Jacqueline Durran, the Oscar-winning costume designer who dressed Kristen Stewart for the upcoming Princess Diana fantasy biopic Spencer, worked on fittings with her lead star, they met in a building in central London where huge windows opened up with clear visibility to the streets below.
“Anyone could have looked up, or the paparazzi could have gathered outside, but no one ever noticed,” Durran told The Daily Beast. “And I really liked that—no one ever looked up. The thing that people would chase Diana around London for, trying to get a picture of, is right there for them. But they just didn’t see it.” She considers this fact a little gift from the spirit of Diana, who died in 1997 at the age of 36.
Spencer, directed by Pablo Larraín, is an artistic rendering of Diana’s torturous final Christmas with Prince Charles, spent with the royal family at Sandringham House in 1991. As Diana traditionalists have noted online, the film is not for those who live and die by the sword of historical accuracy.
It’s a poetic portrayal of Diana’s mental anguish, but not a faithful retelling. The ghost of Anne Boleyn makes an appearance. There are dreamy montages that sort of resemble an old Lana del Rey music video. Stewart tries her best to look like the royal—sometimes she gets it with the Shy Di head tilt—but for the most part, we must rely on our imagination to pretend there’s a resemblance.
Durran, who won an Oscar in 2020 for her work on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (it was her second, after 2012’s Anna Karenina), describes her research into Diana’s wardrobe as “forensic.” She sorted through photos from 1988 to 1992 in search of “themes” for her dressing. “You can replicate every beat of her life, but we didn’t want to do that,” Durran said. “We wanted to keep it loose, so the audience wouldn’t be trying to pinpoint the moment that this exact scene was happening. It was about creating the essence of her, but not really pinning it down.”
And to the armchair critics out there, Durran says: So what? “I don’t understand what the problem is,” she said. “Just watch The Crown. I’ve seen pictures of the new season, and [Emma Corrin] looks very much like Diana. If you want an exact representation, watch that. But if you want an artistic interpretation of an idea, then watch Kristen. That’s what I would say: [the costumes] have the aura of a princess. It may not be for the purists, but this isn’t a film for the purists.”
The purists do get some concessions—Durran and her team of three included a few pieces that were “completely accurate” as a nod to Diana’s personal style. In one scene near the end, Stewart wears an Ontario Provincial Police baseball cap that Diana used to wear to the airport. “We quite liked it, so we just put that in,” Durran said. “It was fun to do something very exact, even though she didn’t wear it in the same context as Kristen does in the movie.”
After graduating from the Royal College of Art, Durran cut her teeth assisting for films like The World Is Not Enough (a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond flick) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She eventually found a creative partnership with Mike Leigh, costuming six of his films. She’s best known for period pieces, including Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.
During the Little Women press junket, Greta Gerwig told IndieWire that Durran “has a way of costuming period pieces so that they look like clothes, not costumes, which I think is a particular talent.” It’s what Durran might be best known for—putting Jo March in lived-in pieces that communicate her character as well as just look pretty. But that wasn’t the task for Spencer, where Diana’s oppressive event wardrobe underscores just how controlled she is by others.
“Those clothes were very presentational, and very much about being seen,” Durran said. “Her personal wardrobe was much more relaxed, but those formal clothes were all about being on show. That’s the thing we picked up for the movie: how do you design a wardrobe that’s for being on show, and how does it contrast with her day-to-day clothing?”
Kristen Stewart has been a Chanel ambassador since 2013, and the French house loaned Durran’s team some archival pieces for filming—a move that was appreciated, since the film shot for a relatively modest budget of less than $20 million. Though the real Diana’s relationship with Chanel was complicated—she reportedly refused to wear the label after her divorce, since the interlocking C logo reminded her of “Charles and Camilla”—Stewart has multiple pieces in the film.
“I was particularly looking for an evening dress from Chanel, because those are such a big thing to make and to find,” Durran said. “It was unavoidable that we chose the one that’s in the film because it was so good we had to use it.” The original, strapless fit-and-flare gown featured in the movie poster was designed by Karl Lagerfeld in the mid-’80s, but that was deemed too delicate to survive a shoot. So Chanel remade the sample just for Stewart.
Spencer was shot in Germany during January and February of this year. The government instilled a travel ban, which majorly complicated filming. “There was a dress that I wanted to be in the movie—it had a bow on the waist and was very 1980s and ballgown-y, with a beaded bodice and big peach skirt—but it got stuck in customs because of Brexit and COVID,” Durran said. “It was never in the movie. I actually bought two to be safe, but I wasn’t safe at all.”
Durran and her team had about eight weeks to prepare the outfits. “It was tough,” she admitted. “We didn’t have a big team, and we didn’t have big premises. We did this on a shoestring, for love.”
As an art student in London in the early ’90s, Durran says she didn’t pay much attention to Diana’s life, though tabloid coverage was of course impossible to ignore. “When I was growing up, she really wasn’t a fashion icon to young people, particularly,” Durran said. “There was this way she dressed that evolved from being a Sloane Ranger to a princess. It was very much about royal dressing. Obviously Diana had an impact on high street fashion because people liked the way she looked, but it wasn’t fashion, it was slightly different.”
Twenty-six years after Diana’s death, her style has become mainstream. There are Instagram accounts dedicated to celebrating her wardrobe. “#PrincessDiana” has over 2 billion views on TikTok. “She’s at the heart of what’s fashionable now,” Durran said. “She’s led me to have a bit more appreciation of the 1980s, large-shoulder style. I can see why it’s becoming more mainstream again.”
Durran never reached out to Buckingham Palace for help with this project. “It didn’t seem necessary for this movie,” she said. But she does wish she had access to one (perhaps imaginary) royal resource. “I wonder if somewhere in Kensington Palace there’s a ledger with all of the costumes Diana wore written down, with all of the dates and designer,” she said. “I bet there is. I would love to know if that exists.”