Norman Hartnell

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Norman Hartnell
Sir Norman Hartnell Allan Warren.jpg
Hartnell in 1972, by Allan Warren
Born12 June 1901
Died8 June 1979(1979-06-08) (aged 77)
Windsor, Berkshire
EducationUniversity of Cambridge
OccupationFashion designer
AwardsKCVO 1979, Officier de l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques 1939, Neiman Marcus Fashion Award 1947
LabelsNorman Hartnell
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Norman Hartnell
Sir Norman Hartnell Allan Warren.jpg
Hartnell in 1972, by Allan Warren
Born12 June 1901
Died8 June 1979(1979-06-08) (aged 77)
Windsor, Berkshire
EducationUniversity of Cambridge
OccupationFashion designer
AwardsKCVO 1979, Officier de l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques 1939, Neiman Marcus Fashion Award 1947
LabelsNorman Hartnell

Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, KCVO (12 June 1901 – 8 June 1979) was a leading British fashion designer, best known for his work for the ladies of the Royal Family. Hartnell gained the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1940; and Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.

Early life and career[edit]

Hartnell was born to an upwardly mobile family in the southwest London suburb of Streatham. His parents were publicans and owners of the Crown & Sceptre, a large coaching inn at the top of Streatham Hill. The young Hartnell attended Mill Hill School, and read Modern Languages at Magdalene College, Cambridge; he left Cambridge without a degree. More interested in performing, and designing productions for the university Footlights, Hartnell was noticed by the London press as the designer of a Footlights production which transferred to the Daly's Theatre in London. In 1923 he opened his own business at 10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, with the help of his father and his sister Phyllis. He had previously worked unsuccessfully for two London designers, including the celebrated Lucile, whom he sued for damages when several of his drawings appeared unattributed in her weekly fashion column in the London Daily Sketch.[1]


Hartnell acquired a clientele of young women and their mothers intent on fashionable originality in dress design for a busy social life centred on the London Season. Although expressing the spirit of the Bright Young Things and Flappers, his designs overlaid the harder silhouettes with a fluid romanticism in detail and construction. This was most evident in Hartnell's predilection for evening and bridal gowns, gowns for court presentations, and afternoon gowns for guests at society weddings. Hartnell's success ensured international press coverage and a flourishing trade with those no longer content with 'safe' London clothes derived from Parisian designs. Hartnell became popular with the younger stars of stage and screen, and went on to dress such leading ladies as Gladys Cooper, Elsie Randolph, Gertrude Lawrence (also a client of Edward Molyneux), Jessie Matthews, Merle Oberon, Evelyn Laye and Anna Neagle. Even top French stars Alice Delysia and Mistinguett were impressed by the young Englishman's genius.

Influenced by his sister, Hartnell insisted on practical day clothes for the bread-and-butter of the house and he achieved a subtlety and ingenuity with British woollens, previously scarcely imagined in London dressmaking, yet already investigated by the Parisian Chanel, who showed a keen interest in his designs when he showed in Paris in 1927 and 1929. Hartnell emulated his British predecessors Worth and Lucile, by taking his designs to the heart of world fashion; Worth in fact was the closest the young designer came to having a hero. Hartnell rapidly specialised in expensive and often lavish embroideries to heighten the allure of his designs, and the in-house embroidery workroom was a mainstay until his death. It even produced much-prized embroidered Christmas cards during quiet August days, a practical form of publicity at which Hartnell was always adept. The originality and intricacy of Hartnell embroideries were frequently described in the press, especially in reports of the sumptuous wedding dresses he designed for socially prominent young matrons during the 1920s and 1930s, a natural extension of his designs for them as debutantes, when they wore his innovative evening dresses.


Hartnell at work in his London studio during wartime source: IWM

By 1934 Hartnell's financial success ensured his acclaimed move to the glass and mirror-filed art moderne interiors at 26 Bruton Street, designed by the innovative young architect Gerald Lacoste (1909–1983). The premises of the large late 18th-century town house are now protected as one of the finest examples of modern pre-war commercial design. Through the years, the exquisite mirrors of Bruton Street reflected royalty, famous models like Margaret Vyner, and a galaxy of society girls and movie stars. Among the latter were Marlene Dietrich, Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time Hartnell moved into his new salon, he acquired his beloved Lovel Dene, a small lodge remodelled by Gerald Lacoste as an oasis of contemplation and inspiration in Windsor Forest, Berkshire. He also resided at The Tower House, Regent's Park, when in London.

Hartnell soon received his first royal order at 26 Bruton Street, designing the wedding dress and trousseau of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, for her marriage to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, third son of King George V. Two bridesmaids were Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). Both King George V and Queen Mary approved the designs, the latter also becoming a client. The future Queen Mother, who was a longtime client of Madame Handley-Seymour, accompanied her daughters to the Hartnell salon to view the fittings and there personally met the designer for the first time.

Although Hartnell's bridal designs for the Duchess of Gloucester achieved worldwide publicity, the death of her father and consequent period of mourning led to the cancellation of the large state wedding at Westminster Abbey. The substitution of a small private ceremony in the chapel of Buckingham Palace prevented the full theatre of a royal occasion. However much Hartnell regretted this from a personal and business angle, his increasing society, stage and film commissions provided adequate consolation. And vast crowds did at least see Princess Alice leave the palace in her Hartnell going-away ensemble.

On the accession of King George VI, his wife Elizabeth ordered dresses for her Maids of Honour from Hartnell, remaining loyal to Handley-Seymour for her Coronation gown. Yet thereafter Hartnell received most and, finally, all major wardrobe orders from the new Queen. He created the streamlined fitted look for her day and evening wear; this, together with his all-over sequinned evening designs, was expertly produced by Mademoiselle Davide, Hartnell's French workroom magician, said to be one of the highest paid needlewomen in the business. This was augmented by Hartnell's re-introduction of the crinoline to fashion, after the King showed Hartnell the Winterhalter portraits in the Royal Collection. King George made the suggestion that in such a gown the petite Queen would gain stature while incorporating an updated symbol for the British monarchy worldwide,. The latter concern, following the uproar over the abdication crisis, was paramount.

Mrs Simpson, subsequently the Duchess of Windsor, was a Hartnell client, although she often also patronized Mainbocher, the creator of her wedding dress. Mainbocher was a friend of Hartnell's with whom the latter credited with sound early advice, when he showed his 1929 summer collection in Paris. Then a Vogue editor, Main Bocher told Hartnell that he had seldom seen so many wonderful dresses so badly made. The advent of 'Mamselle' Davide and other specialists was soon accomplished to visible effect. In fact, Hartnell's long evening dresses, after a decade of rising hems, made a distinct impression in Paris. Though other designers were also beginning to show longer skirts, the young English dressmaker's romantic, sweeping dresses captured the new mood superbly. His clothes were so popular with the fickle French that he was soon able to open a branch in Paris.

Within a decade, Hartnell again helped change the silhouette of fashion when the crinoline line worn by the Queen created a sensation on her State Visit to Paris in 1938. The death of the Queen's mother Cecilia Bowes-Lyon, wife of the Earl of Strathmore, shortly before the visit led to Court Mourning and a complete re-creation of the original colourful wardrobe designed by Hartnell. With the bitter experience of the Gloucester wedding in his mind, he was intent on success this time. Knowing the history of dress, he suggested that black and shades of mauve were unnecessary for a July State Visit, as white was not unheard of for Court Mourning, especially for a young queen. Hartneell's sparkling designs for day and evening, made in both slim and crinoline silhouettes, were all produced within two weeks of the visit. The feat led to huge acclaim and Hartnell was decorated by the French government. Christian Dior, creator of the full-skirted post-war New Look, publicly stated that whenever he thought of beautiful clothes, it was of those created by Hartnell for the 1938 State Visit, which he viewed as an young aspirant in the fashion world. The crinoline fashion for evening wear influenced fashion internationally, and appreciative French designers contributed their take on the English inspiration behind it by creating day clothes featuring plaids or tartans in their next season's designs.

The Queen was provided with another extensive wardrobe by Hartnell for The Royal Tour of Canada and Visit to North America in the days leading up to the beginning of World War II in 1939. Hitler termed Queen Elizabeth "the most dangerous woman in Europe" on viewing film footage of her successful tour. This is captured by Cecil Beaton in the portraits he made of the Queen that year, wearing her Hartnell dresses in and around Buckingham Palace. Hartnell received a Royal Warrant in 1940 for his accomplishments.

By 1939, many other innovative designers, including Victor Stiebel, Charles Creed, Digby Morton and Peter Russell, had set up in London. Redfern, Worth and Paquin already had London salons when Hartnell began in 1923, but they were more conservative than innovative. Before Hartnell, the only native British label with a worldwide reputation for originality in design and presentation was Lucile, but its London branch had closed in 1924. In the 1930s Molyneux, also an Englishman, and Elsa Schiaparelli were two of the most important Paris names in fashion to open branches in London, which helped make the English capital a viable fashion centre attracting overseas buyers, especially from the USA. There were also tax implications involved. Edward Molyneux, in particular, shared with Hartnell a favourite royal client, Princess Marina, who married Prince George, Duke of Kent.

Norman Hartnell designs produced in 1944 to promote the work of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers and photographed by the Ministry of Information source: IWM


During the Second World War (1939–1945) Hartnell – in common with other couture designers – was subject to government trading and rationing restrictions, part of the utility scheme; apart from specific rules on the amount of fabric allowed per garment, the number of buttons, fastenings and the amount and components of embroideries were all calculated and controlled. He joined the Home Guard and sustained his career by sponsoring collections for sale to overseas buyers, competing with the Occupied French and German designers, but also a growing group of American designers. Private clients ordered new clothes within the restrictions or had existing clothes altered. This also applied to the Queen, who appeared in her own best re-worked clothes in bombed areas around the country. Hartnell received her endorsement to design clothes for the government's Utility campaign, mass-produced by Berkertex with whom he entered a business relationship that continued into the 1950s. Through this partnership, he became one of the first leading mid-20th century designers to produce ready-made clothing on a wide scale. His predecessor Lucile, however, was the first major couturier to design an extensive line of clothes for a top, mainstream retailer, signing a contract with Sears, Roebuck as early as 1916.

Hartnell was among the founders of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers – also known as IncSoc – established in 1942 to promote British fashion design at home and abroad. Hartnell was also commissioned to design women's uniforms for both the army and medical corps during the war and subsequently designed other service uniforms, such as those for the women's Metropolitan Police in London.

In 1946 Hartnell unveiled a successful collection in South America, where his clients included Eva Peron and Magda Lupescu. In 1947 he received the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award for his influence on world fashion and in the same year created an extensive wardrobe for Queen Elizabeth to wear on her Royal Tour of South Africa in 1947, the first Royal Tour abroad since before the war. Both slimline and crinoline styles were included. In addition Hartnell designed for the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret; Molyneux also made some day clothes for the Princesses during this trip.

Although worried that at 46 he was too old for the job, he was commanded by the Queen to create the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 for her marriage to Prince Philip (later the Duke of Edinburgh).[2] With a fashionable sweetheart neckline and a softly folding full skirt it was embroidered with some 10,000 seed-pearls and thousands of white beads. He soon became one of the Princess's main designers,[3] appealing to whole new generation of clients. While Princess Elizabeth began to take on more duties and visits abroad, her less restrained younger sister, Princess Margaret, became the obsession of the press, her Hartnell clothes given tremendous media attention.

Hartnell's elegant evening wear from this period can be seen in museum collections to this day.[4]

A lifelong bachelor, Hartnell nevertheless had many women friends, one of whom, Claire Huth Jackson, later Claire de Loriol, appointed the designer as guardian to her son, Peter-Gabriel. He also designed dresses for his long-term friend and fellow Streatham resident, the London socialite and ex-Tiller Girl Renee Probert-Price. A rare Hartnell evening ensemble features in the collection of vintage dresses inherited by Probert-Price's great-niece following her death in 2013.


Hartnell designed the coronation gown for Elizabeth II – which proved to be a complex process due to the gown's weight and embroidery

Following the early death of George VI in 1952, Hartnell was commanded by Queen Elizabeth II to design her 1953 Coronation Dress.[5] Many versions were sketched by Hartnell and his new assistant Ian Thomas. These were then discussed with the Queen. The final design chosen had the similar 'sweet-heart' neckline used for Her Majesty's wedding dress in 1947, the fuller skirt with heavy, soft folds of silk embellished with varied embroideries, including the depiction of the national botanical emblems of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, echoing earlier Coronation Dresses. The complicated construction of the supporting undergarments is described by Hartnell in his autobiography, the weight of the dress having to be perfectly balanced to give a gentle, forward swaying motion rather than the lurching list of the prototypes. This was the work of his expert cutters and fitters, as he could not sew a stitch, although he understood construction and the handling of various fabrics.

Hartnell designed not only the Queen's Maids of Honour dresses at her Coronation, but also those of all major Royal ladies in attendance, creating a veritable tableaux in the setting of Westminster Abbey. He also designed dresses for many other clients who attended the ceremony, and his summer 1953 collection of some 150 designs was named The Silver and Gold Collection, subsequently used as the title for his autobiography, illustrated largely by his assistant Ian Thomas. Together with Hardy Amies, Thomas subsequently shared the task of creating wardrobes for the Queen's many State Visits and Royal Tours abroad as well as numerous events at home. During 1954, Queen Elizabeth made an extensive Royal Tour of most of the countries forming the British Commonwealth. The Coronation Dress was worn for the opening of Parliament in several countries, and her varied wardrobe gained press and newsreel headlines internationally, not least for the cotton dresses worn and copied worldwide, many ordered from a specialist wholesale company Horrockses. Hartnell designs were augmented by a number of gowns from Hardy Amies, her secondary designer from 1950 onwards.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the name of Norman Hartnell was continually found in the press. He was always available for publicity events; he once made a dress of pound notes and regularly created sensational evening dresses for celebrities like pianist Eileen Joyce or TV cookery star Fanny Cradock. Most female members of the Royal Family used Hartnell's skills at one time or another, not only for their personal wear within the United Kingdom, but for visits abroad. Hartnell fashion shows travelled the UK and were presented during publicised trips abroad.

Hartnell's design for the wedding dress of HRH Princess Margaret in 1960 marked the last full State occasion for which he designed an impressive tableau of dresses. It also marked the swan-song of lavish British couture. The bride wore a multi-layered white Princess line dress, totally unadorned yet demanding in its construction, utilising many layers of fine silk, and requiring as much skill as the complexities of the Queen's Coronation dress, which it echoed in outline. The Queen wore a long blue dress of similar design[6] with a slight bolero jacket and a hat adorned with a single rose, reminiscent of the Princess's full name, Margaret Rose. Victor Stiebel made the going-away clothes for the Princess and the whole wedding and departure of the couple from the Pool of London on HMY Britannia received worldwide newspaper and television publicity.

Hartnell in 1973, by Allan Warren

Fashion rapidly changed in the 1960s, and by the time of the Investiture of The Prince of Wales in 1969, Hartnell's clothes for the Queen and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother were short, simple designs, reflecting their own personal style. His royal clothes created an impeccably neat look that managed to be stylish without making an overt fashion statement. This ability exemplified his genius and was practised to perfection, as he became increasingly pre-occupied with royal orders. In this he was helped by Ian Thomas, who left to found his own establishment, and the Japanese designer Yuki (Gnyuki Tormimaru), who similarly left to create his own highly successful business.

At the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, Hartnell was appointed KCVO. On arriving at Buckingham Palace to receive the honour, he was delighted to find the Queen had arranged for it to be given by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, who would remain a loyal Hartnell client beyond his death and until the house closed. Hartnell was described in the press as the First Fashion Knight.

Hartnell was still designing collections up to the time of his death in 1979. Although much quieter now, the house had grown to embrace a ready-to-wear line, introduced in the 1950s, and other mass market merchandise, products ranging from scent to stockings, bags to costume jewellery and menswear, all found in stores around the world. Beginning at Cambridge in 1920, Hartnell's career spanned six decades. At the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, he employed some 550 people in-house and thousands more in allied ancillary trades.

Hartnell was buried on 15 June 1979 next to his mother and sister in the graveyard of Clayton church, West Sussex.

The grave of Sir Norman Hartnell Clayton Sussex

A large memorial service in London was led by the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, a friend, and was attended by many clients including one of his earliest from the 1920s, his lifelong supporter Barbara Cartland, and another from the 1930s, the former Margaret Whigham, whose marriage in a Hartnell dress stopped traffic in Knightsbridge, when she became Mrs Charles Sweeny, latterly still a client as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. The service brought together not only former patrons, but a large number of his models and employees.

Hartnell's business continued after his death, the Queen Mother and other royals remaining steadfast clients. For a short time John Tullis, a nephew of Molyneux, designed for the house. A consortium headed by Manny Silverman, formerly of Moss Bros., acquired the company and, after some guest collections designed by Gina Fratini and Murray Arbeid, the building was renovated under the direction of Michael Pick who brought back to life the original art moderne splendours designed by Gerald Lacoste; the famous glass chimney-piece was retrieved from the V&A as the focal point of the grand mirrored salon. The house re-opened with an acclaimed collection designed by Marc Bohan. Unfortunately, the Gulf War and subsequent recession of the early 1990s killed the venture and the house closed its doors in 1992.

On 11 May 2005, the Norman Hartnell premises were commemorated with a blue plaque at 26 Bruton Street where he spent his working life from 1934 to 1979.

Personal Life[edit]

Hartnell never married. Because of this, and his friendships with several gay men (such as Cecil Beaton and Bunny Roger), speculation about his sexual orientation has existed during his lifetime and since his death. Hartnell never publicly identified his sexual orientation.[7] His rival, Hardy Amies, who Hartnell called 'Hardly Amiable,' was more outspoken, reportedly calling his former rival a 'soppy' or 'silly old queen' whilst describing himself as a 'bitchy' or 'clever old queen.'[8][9]


Norman Hartnell designed costumes for the following films[10]( list incomplete ):

Theatre designs[edit]

Norman Hartnell first designed for the stage as a schoolboy before the First World War and went on to design for a least twenty-four varied stage productions, after his initial London success with a Footlights Revue, which brought him his first glowing press reviews. ( List in compilation).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Randy Bryan Bigham, Lucile - Her Life by Design (2012), pp. 121, 287.
  2. ^ Hartnell's original design drawing
  3. ^ "The Queen and Fashion"
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Daily Telegraph
  7. ^ Cole, Shaun. "Hartnell, Sir Norman". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. GLBTQ Inc. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Crimmens, Tamsin (15 November 2012). "Go see this: Hartnell to Amies Couture By Royal Appointment". Elle UK. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Cole, Shaun. "Amies, Sir Hardy". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. GLBTQ Inc. Retrieved 31 October 2014. 
  10. ^ IMDB

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]