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Designer reveals story behind Princess Diana's daring dress worn at 1st royal engagement

She made a major style statement with the black, strapless gown.
/ Source: TODAY

Before the famous white wedding dress, there was the black dress — the stunning evening gown that introduced Princess Diana to the world as a style icon.

Charles and Diana attended a charity recital at Goldsmiths' Hall in London for their first public engagement as a couple. Central Press / Getty Images

The late princess, then known as Lady Diana Spencer, wore the strapless, taffeta gown as she attended her first official engagement with her fiancé, Prince Charles, when she was just 19.

Designer David Emanuel (who would go to design Diana's iconic wedding gown) recalled the moment the young princess-to-be tried on the dress in his studio.

“She said, ‘I'm going somewhere very, very posh,’” Emanuel told TODAY. “Wouldn't give any other detail, happened to have a black silk taffeta bodice in the studio. I said to put that on. And, of course, with pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair it looked ravishing.”

The gown transformed the future princess into a style icon overnight.David Levenson / Getty Images

After telling his client that she couldn't arrive at a function with "just a strapless dress," Emanuel and his team also made a black wrap, which Diana wore as she and Charles attended a charity gala concert in London in May 1981, about two months before their marriage.

“That evening, when we switched on the news, this limousine pulls out, out got Prince Charles and there was this girl, and I said, ‘That’s the girl! That's her! That's the one we’ve just done the frock for!’” Emanuel recalled.

She was just 19 when she made her public debut as Prince Charles's fiancée. Kent Gavin / Getty Images

His former partner, Elizabeth Emanuel, explained how the dress transformed Diana’s public image overnight.

Up until that point, Diana’s style had been “all pale pink and baby blue netting and sequins,” she told British Vogue last year, and said that the black, strapless gown was Diana's “first grown-up” dress.

“It was astounding,” she said. “We witnessed the birth of a fashion icon before our very eyes.”

The gown was Diana's “first grown-up” dress, designer Elizabeth Emanuel told British Vogue last year.Terry Fincher / Getty Images

Diana may have looked confident and glamorous during her first royal engagement, but she later recalled the evening as a “horrendous occasion.”

"I didn't know whether to go out of the door first. I didn't know whether your handbag should be in your left or right hand,” she said in tapes for Andrew Morton’s biography, “Diana: Her True Story — In Her Own Words,” as reported by Harper’s Bazaar.

“I was terrified, really — at the time everything was all over the place,” she said. “I remember that evening so well. I was terrified — nearly sick."

Princess Grace of Monaco (right) apparently comforted Princess Diana at the gala. Like Diana, Grace Kelly was an outsider who married into a royal family.Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

She revealed that she found a friend that night in Princess Grace of Monaco, who also attended the gala.

Grace apparently pulled Diana aside for a private chat in the bathroom, and after Diana opened up to her about her anxiety, Grace reportedly comforted her with some dark humor, saying, “Don’t worry, it’ll only get worse.”

The choice of black for Diana's public debut as Charles' fiancée was especially bold because as Charles apparently told her at the time, it was a color normally reserved for funerals, not evening functions, according to The New York Times.

Nevertheless, the glamorous gown was a hit, and before long, Diana asked the Emanuels if they would “do the honor of making her wedding gown.”

“Can you imagine!” David Emanuel told TODAY. “Excitement, huge excitement.”

He added that his studio was thrust into the media spotlight as soon as Buckingham Palace announced that they would be designing her wedding dress.

“The world went mad! I mean seriously mad,” he said. “Paparazzi ... were on the roof tops, on my studio, looking with huge lenses, so I had to rush around quickly and get some roller blinds and put the roller blinds up, and they stayed down until the wedding day.”

On her wedding day in July 1981, the world finally saw the Emanuels’ incredible creation: a show-stopping, ivory gown adorned with more than 10,000 mother-of-pearl sequins, antique lace that once belonged to Britain’s Queen Mary and, of course, that famous 25-foot train.

It's one of the most famous wedding dresses in history.Fox Photos / Getty Images

“We promised her we’d make her look like a fairytale princess,” Emanuel said.

The late princess’s wedding dress is now on public display in Kensington Palace for the first time in 25 years as part of an exhibit called "Royal Style in the Making.”

Today, Emanuel still looks back fondly on the experience of working with Princess Diana and creating some of her most memorable looks.

“It was all kind of crazy but wonderful, exciting,” he said. “She was great and had a great sense of humor, so it was a joy, an absolute joy.”