He was the man who created the most iconic images of her reign, designing outfits literally fit for a Queen. Norman Hartnell was Elizabeth II’s go to designer for many of the major moments of her time as heir to the throne and young Monarch. And he first dressed the record breaking ruler exactly eighty five years ago.
For the Queen’s very first Norman Hartnell design was a bridesmaid’s gown, worn on November 6th 1935 when she was among the party attending Lady Alice Douglas Montagu Scott as she married Henry, Duke of Gloucester at Buckingham Palace. Young Lillibet was among eight bridesmaids that day, all decked out in designs by Hartnell.
The princess was nine at the time and had already had practice at being a bridesmaid. Her first Hartnell gown was a pale pink creation matching the unusual choice of colour for the bridal gown itself.
The dress was made of satin with puff sleeves, a belted waist and a kneed length skirt which was trimmed with three layers of ruffles. The collar was adorned with golden flowers while Lillibet, like the other young bridesmaids, wore flat shoes and ankle socks and had a garland in her hair. The ensemble had to win the approval of her grandfather, King George V, before the wedding and he made several changes to the initial concept devised by Hartnell.
Norman Hartnell felt rather frustrated by his first royal wedding experience. He had created a look for the bride and her attendants set to fill Westminster Abbey. But just weeks before the marriage, Lady Alice’s father died and the event was switched to the Private Chapel of Buckingham Palace. It meant that the main glimpse of the gowns came on the balcony of the famous royal residence where their full glory was hidden by centuries of architecture. However, it would be the beginning of a very long and fruitful business partnership.
For Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, had been accompanied on their visits to Hartnell’s studios by their mother, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York. She was impressed with the designer and became a client. Her devotion to him rubbed off on her daughters with Elizabeth asking him to create her own wedding gown in 1947 before handing him the commission of his life, the design of her Coronation dress in 1953.
Hartnell designed hundreds of outfits for the Queen throughout his long career, all stemming from a simple bridesmaid’s gown that made its debut eighty five years ago this year.