The year was 1953 and the streets of London were lined with people from all over the world; each person was stretching their necks in the hope of catching a glimpse of the new Queen heading to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. Families gathered around their newly purchased televisions eagerly waiting to witness the resplendent pageantry done only like the British could. In front of Westminster Abbey, a grandiose gold carriage slowly arrived at the doors; from inside emerged a beautiful young Queen dressed elaborately in precious jewels and a long velvet train. The most striking thing adorning Her Majesty’s body was a beautiful gown, decorated in silks, diamonds, and pearls. This majestic gown was the creation of the royal favourite Norman Hartnell. Norman Hartnell was an immensely well-known English fashion designer whose heyday stemmed from the twenties all the way to the fifties. Hartnell was a designer, in high demand, who designed beautiful clothes for socialites, Hollywood stars, and royalty.
Norman Hartnell was born in London on 12 June 1911. Both of his parents were publicans, who owned the still functioning pub Crown and Sceptre. After completing his studies at the Mill Hill boarding school, Hartnell began studying at the University of Cambridge. It was here that he began to design for the schools drama club, known as the “University Footlights”. Hartnell was noticed by the Evening Standard when the Footlights staged a production of The Beggar’s Opera at Daly’s Theatre, a popular theatre in London at the time. This exposure landed him jobs under two London fashion designers, including Lucile, a famous fashion designer of the late 19th century; he was fatefully fired from both jobs.
In 1923, Hartnell set up his own fashion label at 10 Burton Street in Mayfair. From the start, he had an influx of customers, his first clients being debutantes and socialites thanks to his successful networking at Cambridge. His first wedding gown, made for Daphne Fielding, the wife of Viscount Weymouth, was coined by the press as “the eighth wonder of the world.” His gowns became known for their long elegant trains and intricate embroidery. Eventually Hartnell moved to a larger workshop at 26 Burton Street, where he officially began working as a couturier.
Hartnell’s relationship with the royal family began when he was called upon to design the wedding dress for Lady Alice Christabel, who was set to be wed to the Duke of Gloucester, the third son of King George V. He also created the dresses for the bridesmaids, Princesses Elizabeth and Margret. As a result of his fabulous work, Hartnell was appointed Dressmaker to the British Royal Family in 1938. Some of his most popular designs for the royal family include the dresses made for Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) for her 1938 royal tour and the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth.
Norman Hartnell’s most famous work was the beautiful gown created for Queen Elizabeth II to wear at her coronation in
1953. He designed eight different gowns from Her Majesty to choose from, and his final sketch was the winner. The gown was made of white satin and was covered in all of the emblems that represented all of Britain’s dominions at the time. Six embroideresses tirelessly worked on the dress, in utmost secrecy, and it was watched carefully until coronation day arrived. Hartnell also designed the gowns for the maids of honour, The Queen Mother, Princess Margret, and many other women who attended the ceremony. In all there were one hundred and fifty dresses designed and he featured them in his summer 1953 collection, called The Silver and Gold Collection. Hartnell would go on to design many other great gowns for the Queen.
The last state occasion Hartnell designed for was the wedding of Princess Margret, for which he created her an unembroidered gown of fine silk. In 1977, Norman Hartnell was appointed Knight Commander of The Royal Victorian Order by Her Majesty the Queen; he was awarded the honour by The Queen Mother. During the sixties, fashion changed dramatically; society rebelled against the traditional structure of British fashion. As a result, Hartnell’s business began to decline. He died in 1979 in modest circumstances. In 2005, the site of Hartnell’s old workshop on Bruton Street was commemorated by a blue plaque.