Watched on tenterhooks by hundreds of millions worldwide, the 1981 fairytale wedding of Diana Spencer and Prince Charles was, without doubt, the media event of all time. In 74 countries, viewers held their breath, then gasped as the bride stepped from the Glass Coach into the adoring sunlit world. Here, finally, was the first, feverishly anticipated glimpse of the wedding dress that was to become one of the most iconic in modern history.
Diana wore a stunning ivory silk taffeta gown with puffed shoulders and a billowing skirt for her trend-setting July 29, 1981 wedding to Prince Charles Photo: Getty Images
“It was like seeing a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis,” said the talented design duo behind the astonishing wedding dress, David and Elizabeth Emanuel. They had created a stunning ivory silk taffeta gown with puffed shoulders and a billowing skirt over a crinoline petticoat, using fabric produced by tens of thousands of silkworms in Dorset, all embellished and aglimmer with sequins and a staggering 10,000 pearls – and followed by a majestic 25ft train.
Previous to Diana, in the 1960s and 1970s, many royal brides, like Queen Silvia of Sweden, left, and Princess Michael of Kent, right, opted for much more pared-down looks. Photos: Getty Images
Designed on a scale to stand out among the grandeur of St Paul’s Cathedral, it ensured that all eyes were on the bride. Around the world, brides-to-be took note. With one tiara’d nod, Diana had brought the big white wedding spectacularly back into style.
After two decades of social upheavals and bra-burning counterculture, of brides in minis, peasant smocks and caftans, of devil-may-care beachside and mountaintop vows, the bridal industry exploded back into life as the glam 1980s got underway, with all the frills, ruffled romance and unabashed pageantry that Diana’s wedding gave free rein to. And her big day ushered in a new era of celebrity events, where TV and media, and ultimately social networks, became part of the story, with guests of honor at every wedding bash.
Diana's nuptials were a game-changer for wedding style. "Being a Princess bride became simply irresistible – even for the emerging modern woman," says fashion historian and wedding folklorist Cornelia Powell Photo: Getty Images
“It inspired girls all around the world to have their very own fairytale day. Soon after, punch-bowl receptions went by the wayside and were replaced by lavish receptions, elaborate dresses and even tiaras. The desire for a memorable wedding day is something that lives on today and was no doubt spurred on by the great Lady Di,” explains Leila Lewis, America’s foremost celebrity wedding publicist, who has worked with top planner Mindy Weiss – the creator of magical events for Katy Perry, Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck, Heidi Klum, Nicole Richie and Jessica Simpson.
“An ‘all-eyes- on-the-bride’ philosophy came about after the royal wedding,” says Colin Cowie, wedding and party planner to the stars. Here, Maria Shriver in a princess bride look to marry Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, and singer Thalia in her $350,000 dream gown at her wedding to Tommy Mottola Photos: Getty Images
The elaborate royal wedding of Charles and Diana captured, like no other event could, the hopes and dreams of the uncertain new decade. “The world was ready for order, tradition and glamour – so a glittering royal wedding in 1981 was just the ticket,” says fashion historian and wedding folklorist Cornelia Powell. “Lady Diana Spencer’s charismatic appeal as a bride, wrapped in the gilded splendor of the British monarchy, ignited media madness worldwide, and being a Princess bride became simply irresistible – even for the emerging modern woman!”
Suddenly, it seemed, everyone wanted to get married in style – and every bride wanted a dress fit for a Queen: “Regal and ornate, with a lengthy train, and a jewelled veil… no expense seemed too great,” says Maria McBride-Mellinger, an expert on the wedding dress, which was now to emerge as a celebrity in its own right.
After all, “it’s the most important dress in the life of a woman. Any girl from any walk of life dreams of that special dress,” explained Oscar de la Renta, as he prepared the final fitting for Amal Alamuddin’s dreamy, creamy lace confection ahead of her 2014 wedding to George Clooney.
Oscar de la Renta called the wedding gown "the most important dress in the life of a woman" – and couturiers around the world agree, creating some of the most spectacular looks ever seen. Here, a princess bride masterpiece from Zuhair Murad Photo: Getty Images
How times – and styles – had changed since the swinging Sixties. Jane Fonda, who married the director Roger Vadim in 1965, was simple and stylish in a sleeveless short sheath. Yoko Ono said "love, love me do" to John Lennon in 1969 in a white minidress accessorised with knee-length socks and sneakers. Bianca Jagger rocked her ceremony in a simple white Yves Saint Laurent tux redux when she tied the knot with Rolling Stone Mick Jagger in 1971.
Even royal weddings pared things back. When Queen Silvia married Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf in 1976, she chose Marc Bohan of Dior to design a simple A-line design – with no lace, trim, embroidery, or decorative buttons in sight.
Fast forward, say, to the Duchess of York’s nuptials exactly ten years later: “There will never be a dress to match it,” Sarah Ferguson has very rightly said of the Lindka Cierach creation she flamboyantly wore for her very big day – an ivory duchess satin gown with a scooped neck, padded shoulders and beading running all over the bodice. Her train stretched 17 feet and was emblazoned with a large beaded ‘A’ for groom Prince Andrew.
Soon movie stars and rock royalty were having high-profile weddings like Princes and Princesses. “It put a new era of fancy wedding hoopla into motion: elaborate designer gowns; a return of the status wedding celebration; staged over-the-top productions and celebrity weddings as media spectacles,” explains wedding expert Powell.
In 1994, Celine Dion’s astounding Mirella and Steve Gentile-designed gown reportedly took 1,000 hours to make and featured a 20-foot train, while she wore a whopping seven-pound tiara made of 2,000 Austrian crystals. And when Latin singer Thalía married music mogul Tommy Mottola in 2000, her gorgeously palatial dress, designed by Mexican designer Mitzy, cost $350,000.
Even regular weddings were transformed into carefully crafted pageants, often at castles and stately homes, as everyone got to glam up for the occasion, aided by a cast of bridesmaids, flowergirls and pages.
Pippa Middleton's wedding to James Matthews rivaled a royal wedding – including a host of flowergirls and pageboys, Princess Charlotte and Prince George among them Photos: Getty Images
“Even the most understated ceremony involves a certain respect for ritual and pageantry,” said bridal designer Vera Wang, as she carved out a lucrative niche in the new bridal fashion world. Sarah Haywood, Britain’s No1 luxury wedding planner, agrees: “Brides up and down the land wanted to emulate the idea of the Princess bride with dozens of attendants and grooms as they embraced the idea of the Hollywood, red-carpet style celebration that Charles and Diana enjoyed.”
Of course, the centerpiece of this new trend was the bride herself as spectacle. “An ‘all-eyes-on-the-bride’ philosophy came about after the royal wedding,” says US-based Colin Cowie, wedding and party planner to the stars – like Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest and Kim Kardashian. And, though few brides could expect their big day to be a TV event, or feature the no-expense-spared fantasy gowns shown on the haute couture catwalks by designers like Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad, new technologies since then have enabled everyone to become an instant Instagram star.
“Now the internet allows them to share, share, share! Modern weddings are very bride-focused, as they should be!” adds Cowie.
To stand out from this eager-to-share crowd, today’s selfie generation are increasingly “making their weddings personal to them,” Nancy Hallam, one half of the sister duo behind luxury wedding planning company Lily & Sage, recently told the UK’s Independent newspaper. “Every couple is trying to look for the next big way to tell their story in a unique way through styling and props… weddings have become much more design-led – from large-scale installations to little details like signature cocktails.”
In creating a truly unforgettable day, celebrities always provide endless inspiration. And when it comes to sharing, they may provide a few images for their fans via social media, but they know that nothing equals a beautiful, posed shoot. HELLO! has been entrusted to create countless such exclusives, such as that featuring Eva Longoria’s gorgeous nuptials with Pepe Bastón in Mexico last year.
In this super-connected modern world, huge global audiences are no longer the preserve of Princesses. Celebrities can and regularly do wed like royalty. And every bride has the chance to throw her very own great white wedding extravaganza, whether strictly for family and friends or, like Diana back in 1981, for all those who want to share in the fairytale.
For the best images and exclusive personal insights into Princess Diana, pick up our sister brand HOLA! USA's special 20th anniversary collectors' special, DIANA: HER LEGACY OF LOVE, available on newsstands now.