“Lately, I've been dressin’ for revenge,” sings Taylor Swift on her new album "Midnights." It is impossible to hear this phrase and not conjure an image of Princess Diana, particularly when the new season of The Crown has reached the legendary garment that sent shockwaves through the real-life royal family.
It has been a year since Elizabeth Debicki was first snapped on the set of The Crown Season 5 wearing a dress that is as memorable as the extravagant gown worn by Princess Diana on her wedding day. One signals the fairytale union, the other a reflection of a marriage long past saving. The black-and-white symbolism is a tad on the nose, but the message it sends is loud and clear. "Putting on a defiant display in what many are already calling her revenge dress," says a news reporter seconds before Diana exits the car at the Serpentine Gallery’s annual summer soirée in 1994. It is a highly anticipated moment for fans of Peter Morgan’s series, and it lasts for less than 60 seconds.
In the fifth season of The Crown, Diana’s style shifts from trying to please her in-laws to throwing visual grenades in this very public battle. Changing the narrative through her wardrobe choices was something the late princess did to fire back at a system that didn’t let her speak out. The loudest statement came courtesy of the little black dress by a relatively unknown designer that pushed her estranged husband off the front pages.
Royals typically wear this dark color in mourning or as part of remembrance services, and Diana could be seen as giving a chic funeral for her marriage. It is not the first time The Crown has deployed such a look on Diana, as the final gown worn by Emma Corrin as Diana was also black. That was the first shot fired, and costume designer Amy Roberts effectively ties that imagined Balmoral scene to the real-life vision of Diana at the gallery event.
"The war of the Waleses has entered a new and more volatile phase," intones the same reporter when a smiling Diana reveals this killer look to the world. The reason for this act of sartorial defiance? Well, Charles (Dominic West) has sat down with reporter David Dimbleby to discuss rumored infidelities (including the infamous Tampongate) and the state of his marriage. The Season 5 episode "The Way Ahead" shows a tearful Diana watching her estranged husband on TV, but on the night the program was broadcast on ITV, she put on the Christina Stambolian off-the-shoulder black chiffon number that had been hanging in her closet for eight months. Never had a piece of clothing been wielded with such devastating accuracy at a time long before embittered couples took swipes at each other on social media.
For Diana, the British newspapers were her platform to send a message. They were going to take her photograph anyway, so why not give them a show? Pairing a pearl choker with an egg-sized sapphire matching her famous engagement ring is no mistake, nor is the crimson nail polish that goes against the style protocols laid out by the Queen. Colorful nails are a no-no, and it is unlikely Diana did this by mistake; The Crown makes sure to match this detail. While Diana bends the rules, she does keep to the pantyhose etiquette, and the hemline isn’t scandalously short either.
The chiffon scarf flowing from the waist is minimalist, contrasting her wedding gown’s extravagant 25-foot train. In a recent interview with Vogue, Debicki admits this particular look "was pressure." She also understands that this is Diana "claiming the space," and using fashion in this way was "an incredibly powerful currency" to the princess.
Cutting from Diana in full megawatt glam with a sun-dappled background to a dressed-down Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) leaving her family home with dreary lighting emphasizes how the press views each woman. Even when Diana is wearing her off-duty oversized sweatshirts, she still exudes effortless charm, whereas Camilla has yet to figure out how to appeal to the masses. In the Season 5 finale, she wears a dress and necklace similar to Diana's signature revenge look, but it’s no match.
Diana was not the first woman to use clothing as a shield to prove that she is okay or to remind an ex of what they are missing. However, this moment is so monumental that the Christina Stambolian dress has its own Wikipedia page. It is no wonder jaws dropped when Debicki first wore the replica, and her performance as the princess is uncanny in how much she resembles Diana, demonstrating the growth the character has been through since Corrin’s equally mesmerizing turn.
Back then, Diana dipped her toe in the casual uniform of her in-laws, wearing a Barbour-style jacket at Balmoral and the appropriate level of tweeds. Her Sloane Ranger styling ticked all the contemporary upper-class boxes, but this shifts toward low-key modern athleisure when her marriage is in ruins. Roberts has drawn heavily from the real Diana’s closet, including the British Lung Foundation sweatshirt, a bold red puffer jacket, and a navy and gold baseball cap.
When Prince Phillip (Jonathan Pryce) stops by her Kensington Palace residence in the second episode of Season 5, it is noticeable that she is wearing delicate florals. Diana is the model of a young royal here, but after defying the "suggestion" regarding speaking out, she stops dressing like this. She doesn’t resort to only wearing daring headline-grabbing dresses and oversized sweatshirts, as she still dips into the rotation of power suits, but there is a shift from softer patterns.
"Had I known, I would’ve put on a revenge dress," Diana playfully tells Charles when he visits her unannounced after their divorce has been finalized in the penultimate episode of Season 5. "Haven’t you been wearing one of those every day since our separation? It certainly seemed like it, reading the newspapers," he responds with no hint of malice. She is wearing black jeans and a sleeveless tan turtleneck that prompts Charles to say, "For what it’s worth, I think you look even more beautiful looking like that." This "natural" styling is quintessential ’90s Diana, which underscores how visually distancing herself from the family who shut her out was part of her appeal. Breaking the royal mold means Diana has detractors in Season 5, but when it comes to making a statement, the revenge dress has stood the test of time.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.