Norman Hartnell: The Queen's Couturier
Schiaparelli, Chanel, Dior… Hartnell? Not often included in the list of prominent fashion designers, VS shines the light on Norman Hartnell.
By Lea Stam on Wednesday 16th May, 2012
Best known as dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II, designing both her wedding dress and coronation gown, Norman Hartnell’s role in setting London up as a fashion capital of the world is often overlooked. Before Hartnell there was no such thing as British couture and he was the first to challenge the overwhelming sovereignty of Paris as the heart of couture world.
Hartnell’s interest in fashion developed during his time at Cambridge where he often designed both costumes and productions for the university’s theatre club Footlights. In 1922, he designed costumes for a revival of The Beggar's Opera, attracting the attention of the Evening Standard who pronounced him "the British dress genius of the future". Using family money Hartnell set up his own business at 10 Bruton Street in 1923. From the start of his career Hartnell was a society dressmaker acquiring a clientele of young women and their mothers, but his reputation developed and soon his client list included post-war celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Taylor.
All too aware of his clients' belief in the superiority of Parisian designs, especially during the early years of his career, Hartnell’s designs wereclassic and romantic in construction and detailing, exhibited in his signature embroidery and lavish beading. However, instead of putting roots down in the French capital as his predecessor and personal hero Charles Fredrick Worth had done; Hartnell established himself in London as a couturier, moving into a larger atelier at 26 Bruton Street.
Hartnell received his first royal orders to design the wedding dress of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott and those of her bridesmaids, who included the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. It was after his numerous fittings for this wedding that his royal commissions began to proliferate and he would go on dressing the future Queen and her mother for most of his career. Indeed Hartnell designed the Queen Mother's entire wardrobe for her 1938 royal tour; a collection of 30 dresses that was referenced by Christian Dior as his inspiration when he put together the 'New Look' nine years later.
Hartnell’s most renowned creations were for the most important occasions in Princess Elizabeth’s life; her wedding and then her coronation. The wedding dress and its train were embroidered with thousands of seed pearls and crystal beads in garlands of lilies and white York roses. Its successor, the coronation dress, is considered to be one of the most lavishly decorated of the 20th century.
Throughout the 50s, Hartnell continued to design for royal tours. Although he wasn’t setting new trends or championing radical new styles, his clothes represented British craftsmanship. It was the fashion revolution of the 60s, the decade of Mary Quant and Biba, which symbolised a popular revolt against everything Hartnell and the British couture designers stood for. Steadily, Hartnell’s popularity began to wane and by the end of the decade his brand's profits had halved.
At the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, Hartnell was appointed Knight Commander of the Victorian Order, an honour that saw him dubbed ‘The First Fashion Knight’.
A prestigious array of former clients, models and employees gathered together for his memorial service in 1979. Today, Norman Hartnell's rare talent is commemorated with a blue plaque at 26 Bruton Street, commemorating the spot where he spent his working life from 1934 to 1979.