LONDON – Only a handful of insiders know which designer Kate Middleton has chosen to create her top-secret wedding gown, but at least one person — dressmaker Elizabeth Emanuel — understands what that person is going through.
The woman who co-designed the taffeta confection that Princess Diana wore in 1981 when she walked down the aisle to marry Prince Charles believes Middleton's mystery designer is probably more than a bit anxious as the April 29 royal wedding approaches.
"I'm sure they are nervous now," said Emanuel, relaxed and chatty in her central London studio, surrounded by mannequins wearing dramatic handmade wedding gowns. "It's such a big event, with billions watching, you cannot make mistakes. There is no second chance, it has to be perfect."
Emanuel and her ex-husband David triumphed in their own pressure-packed moment, coming up with a showstopping gown that transformed Diana from a little-known nursery school teacher into a glamorous princess. The dress was groundbreaking for its tight bodice, cinched waist and what seemed like miles and miles of taffeta, silk and lace.
Rosemary Harden, director of the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, said the dress set trends throughout the globe.
"It definitely set the tone for 15 to 20 years," said Harden. "It was something everyone remarked upon — it took people's breath away. It was the archetypal fairy princess dress, with an incredible quantity of beautiful fabric and beautiful silk and that long train."
Harden said the tight bodice, puffed sleeves and very full skirt Diana favored eventually fell out of style as strapless wedding gowns came in — and she believes styles will change again once Middleton's dress is unveiled.
There have been leaks suggesting that Sarah Burton, creative director of the Alexander McQueen house, is designing the dress, but she has denied the reports — though some believe she may be covering up her involvement to maintain secrecy.
Middleton, with her long, lean figure, has likely chosen a classic design with some distinctive "edgy" detailing or feature to make the gown memorable, Emanuel predicted. She thinks Middleton may wear her long hair swept up, while other fashion figures have suggested Middleton should let it cascade to her shoulders as it usually does.
The designer, whose long career has encompassed making outfits for stage and screen, does not expect Middleton's dress to resemble Diana's. The two brides are very different: Diana was still in her teens when she married, and she had not yet plunged into the fashion world. Middleton is 29 and has developed her own style, which emphasizes her slender figure, pale skin, and dark brown hair.
Fashions have changed as well, with softer fabrics like tulle and organza more popular in gowns than the stiffer taffeta used in Diana's dress. There also may be fewer frills, and less volume in the skirt.
"It was perfect for the '80s, but not for today," Emanuel said of her most famous work, which is often on public display at Althorp House, Diana's ancestral home, or touring museums throughout the world.
Emanuel thinks Middleton's designer has moved beyond the planning phase and is now cutting the actual fabric in a nerve-wracking, unforgiving process that can become quite expensive if an error is made and some of the pricey material ruined.
Emanuel remembers her own time in the spotlight as a blur. She and David worked around the clock, even making the bridesmaids' dresses and backup gowns for emergency use by Diana in case the press discovered the real design ahead of time.
They were so worried that something might go wrong that they made an "overskirt" that could be worn on top of the real skirt in case someone accidentally spilled juice or coffee on Diana as she was dressing for the ceremony.
There were endless fittings with the incredible shrinking bride — Diana lost so much weight in the weeks before the ceremony that the designers had to make several successively smaller bodices. She had a 23-inch waist by her wedding day.
Emanuel, 57, said as the wedding date neared she started to worry that the gown's 25-foot (7.6-meter) train would separate from the rest of the dress as Diana entered St. Paul's Cathedral. She feared she would be remembered as the woman who designed the dress that fell apart.
Emanuel used safety pins, hooks and stitches to secure the train and make sure calamity didn't strike.
"We made a parasol in case it rained," she said. "Actually two: one ivory, one white, so the umbrella maker wouldn't know the color of the dress."
Sounds a bit paranoid? Not really. She remembers reporters constantly begging her for information, making up sob stories about how they would be fired if they didn't find out details about the dress.
That was in the quaint, pre-Internet era. Today, Emanuel said, the pressure is even more intense and the need for secrecy even higher because anyone with a camera phone could flummox the palace's best laid plans if they get a shot of Middleton entering a design salon for a gown fitting.
Regardless of the designer, Emanuel believes the fittings are taking place at one of the royal palaces in a secure environment, because the design studios are likely staked out by the ultra-competitive British press.
But why hasn't the name leaked out? Why hasn't the designer boasted to his or her partner, who told the dentist or the school teacher, with the whispered warning not to pass it on, starting a chain reaction that ends with the designer's identity on the front page of tabloids?
Emanuel said it hasn't happened because it's in everyone's interest to maintain secrecy so that Middleton can surprise fiance Prince William — and the world — on their wedding day. Keeping the design out of the news is an important part of the royal wedding gown commission, she said.
"It's got to be a surprise, that's the whole thing," Emanuel said. "Bit by bit, all the details of the wedding are being released, and that's the last thing, and everyone wants to know."
She had faith that the designer — expected to be British — will engineer a showstopper.
"I'm sure it will be a fantastic surprise when she gets out of the car; that's what everyone's waiting for," she said.