According to William Ivey Long, Princess Diana achieved a fashion icon status “that hasn’t been equaled.” A six-time Tony-winning costume designer, he should know.
What made her an icon “was the story,” says Long. “I mean, it’s an opera: an arc of someone’s sad rise, fall, burn, and triumph.” Diana, the new musical at the Longacre Theatre, paints a nuanced portrait of Diana—from age 19 until her untimely death at 36—through a whopping 38 costumes for star Jeanna de Waal alone. (The average leading lady in a musical typically wears five to 12.)
Every new project (Diana marks his 76th design for Broadway) begins with his purchase of research materials, but Long didn’t need to for Diana. “A royalist at heart,” Long jokes, Princess Diana’s story has always dazzled him. “Here comes big-eared Charles and this romance with this young, beautiful English rose, seemingly naïve and seemingly simple,” Long recalls. “Of course, she was sophisticated.”
That’s the narrative Long set out to convey. Act 1 starts with girlish Diana, all ruffles and bows. But as her life unfolds, from her courtship with Charlies and their wedding to negotiating public life, so too does her wardrobe. “There’s an extraordinary montage when she learns she can use her clothes and her fashion choices as weapons, because she’s understanding the dynamic with the press,” Long explains. This montage features five back-to-back costume changes thanks to Long’s signature before-your-eyes transformations.
But for all the wow factor, every choice—for every character—serves the story.
As Diana evolves from a “beautiful English rose” to a woman who learned how to weaponize fashion, her wardrobe is in stark contrast to the styles and clothes of her mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth, her husband, Prince Charles, and Charles’ true love, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Queen is always formal, and dressed in (not coincidentally) jewel tones of blues and burgundies; Charles divines ceremony; in Camilla, “we stress the haute country, first woman,” grounded and always in neutral colors highlighting Diana’s vibrance. “They already found themselves,” says Long of the trio’s consistency, “and what we’re watching with Diana’s choices, she’s discovering herself.”
Of course, Long delivers certain “musts” of the biography. You will see the “revenge dress,” the “Elvis dress,” and more, but with adjustments. He’s toned down the Dynasty shoulder pads and reshaped silhouettes because “we want to see her as beautiful, always. We’re looking at her through 2020 eyes, so I have done an impression of these classic looks,” Long says. “Our valentine to a complicated, tortured, and, ultimately, triumphant woman should always look beautiful.”
“This is what a musical can do,” Long adds. “Show you how she takes her power.”
See the first sketches and actual Diana dresses up close in the gallery below: