Norman Hartnell was born on born June 12, 1901, in London, England. While neglecting his studies at Cambridge University he instead focused on his work as a costume designer for the school’s drama club. During a production of “The Beggar’s Opera” in London his creations attracted the attention of the press. After being deemed the ‘the British dress genius of the future’ by the Evening Standard, he dropped out of school and briefly worked for a few dress designers including Madame Desiree, Lucile, and Esther, before opening his own salon in London in 1923.
His early collections were primarily tailored daytime ensembles, elegant evening clothing, and lavishly decorated ballgowns, designed for debutantes and society’s elite during London’s “season”. These were shown in both London and Paris, to varying reviews, although his first wedding gown, a sparking confection of silver and gold, was described as “the eighth wonder of the world”. During this time, Hartnell started focusing more on the quality of his construction techniques, making the interior of his garments just as beautiful as the exterior. In 1929, Hartnell returned to Paris with his new collection: longer skirts which became an influence for the future “New Look” and ushered in the end of the flapper era. He also began specializing in lavish hand embroidery and beading, which he incorporated into his most expensive offerings.
In 1935, Hartnell was approached by Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, who was about to marry the King’s youngest son, the Duke of Gloucester. He was commissioned to design the bride and her bridesmaids, the young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The future Queen Elizabeth accompanied her young daughters to each fitting and shortly thereafter, Hartnell was officially appointed Dressmaker to the British Royal Family. Hartnell became the preferred dress designer for society hostesses, actresses, film stars, debutantes, and royalty including Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth II.
Hartnell’s most legendary commission was an all-white wardrobe designed for Queen Elizabeth to wear during her state visit to France in 1938, while she was still in mourning for her mother. This particular commission received worldwide attention as the choice of white was considered very fashion forward at the time, despite the fact that there was historical context for its use in mourning clothing. Typically mourning attire was black, with purple or mauve colored dresses being worn during the extended mourning period. As each of these colors were deemed dour and unsuitable for the hot summer months in France, Hartnell opted to create her entire wardrobe for the trip from beautiful white silks, chiffons, lace and tulle—all embellished with sequin, embroidery, and pearls.
By 1939, London had become known as an innovative fashion centre, mainly due to Hartnell’s success and the visibility of the clothing he designed for the royal family. London was often visited by American buyers on their way to Paris. During World War II, Hartnell specialized in modifying and altering existing clothing for society’s elite, including the Queen, per wartime rationing and regulations. He was commissioned to design uniforms for the women’s British Army, British Red Cross, and the women’s Metropolitan Police of London. He expanded during this time to include a ready-to-wear line of clothing as well.
In 1947, the same year he received a Neiman Marcus Award for contemporary influence on fashion, he was asked to design Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. In addition to her gown he designed over 150 gowns worn on that day by various members of the royal family, including the maids of honor, the bridesmaids, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, and many of the wedding’s attendees. Just six years later, he was asked to design her coronation robes. The final coronation gown of Queen Elizabeth II was made of white satin and covered in emblems that represented all of Britain’s dominions at the time: The English Tudor rose, The Scottish thistle, The Welsh leek, and the Irish shamrock. The gown also featured the Commonwealth insignia, Canadian maple leaf, Australian wattle, New Zealand silver fern, South African protea, India lotus flower, and Pakistani wheat sheaves, cotton, and jute. The embroidery, executed in seed pearls, crystals, colored silks and gold and silver thread, was carried out by the Royal School of Needlework, taking over 3,500 hours to complete.
Hartnell continued to design for the royal family throughout his lifetime. In 1977 he became the first fashion designer to be knighted. Although Norman Hartnell died in 1979, his legacy was continued by French couturier Marc Bohan whom he had worked closely with over the years. Bohan successfully carried on the Hartnell legacy until the early 1990s, eventually succumbing to the recession. Norman Hartnell closed its doors in 1992.
Barbara. (2014). Hartnell’s Famous White Wardrobe. [Online]. Available: http://theenchantedmanor.com/tag/norman-hartnell/
Grant, L. (2007). Norman Hartnell: master of the royal wardrobe. [Online]. Available: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG3361532/Norman-Hartnell-master-of-the-royal-wardrobe.html
Hirschmiller, S. (2012) Her Majesty’s Coronation gown. [Online]. Available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2151126/The-sketch-Queens-favourite-couturier-Norman-Hartnell-Coronation-gown.html
Johnson, B. (2016). Silver and Gold: A Profile of Norman Hartnell. [Online]. Available: http://royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/insight/silver-and-gold-a-profile-of-norman-hartnell-58635