Dressing the Queen: Norman Hartnell

Hi everyone,

With the recent passing of the Queen, I thought it might be a good time to have a look at her favourite couturier, Norman Hartnell.

Hartnell wasn’t her only couturier (she also favoured Hardy Amies) and Elizabeth wasn’t his only celebrity client (he dressed assorted members of the royal family and aristocracy as well as the less notable) but he created some of the most iconic and influential styles of the 20th century and received a knighthood for his service.

Hartnell first met, and dressed the future queen, aged nine, in 1935 when Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott commissioned him for her wedding gown, when she married Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester. Hartnell designed clothing for all the women in the bridal party and as Elizabeth and her sister Margaret were bridesmaids, they went to his Mayfair salon for a fitting. You can see a portrait of the bridal party in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

A decade later Hartnell was well-established, dressing England’s elite, and so it was no surprise when he was chosen for Elizabeth’s wedding gown in 1947. Fabric was limited during post-war rationing, and despite saving her coupons up, Elizabeth didn’t have enough, so members of the public sent her their fabric coupons. However, that was illegal so she returned them and instead, the government granted her an additional 200 coupons so her dress could be made.

The gown was made of silk, woven into Duchess satin in Scotland, and featured an hourglass ‘fit and flare’ shape that accentuated Elizabeth’s curvaceous figure. Similar to the fashionable styles of the time, it had shoulder pads, a sweetheart neckline, long pointed sleeves and a full skirt, supported by petticoats.

Hartnell’s workrooms heavily embellished the dress with appliquéd motifs of star lilies, orange blossom and jasmine. There were over 10,000 American seed pearls and diamanté white roses. He was awarded the commission just three months before the wedding and despite 350 women working on it, they still rushed to get it done: the gown was finished just the night before.

By the night of the wedding you could already purchase a (substantially inferior) copy in the West End.

The gown is now in the care of the Royal Collection Trust and occasionally put on display but its fragility limits its use. For more on the dress and what else the Queen wore, see here. I’m personally very fond of Queen Mary’s fringe tiara, which perfectly offsets the curvaceousness of the gown and decorative finishes and was later worn by her daughter, Princess Anne, and granddaughter Beatrice for their own weddings.

Five years later, when Elizabeth sought a suitable gown for her coronation she again chose Hartnell and this time the inspiration was her beloved wedding gown. The resulting dress (currently on display at Windsor Castle for the platinum Jubilee) was spectacular.

Hartnell was thrilled and researched historical tradition to produce a meaningful gown that represented not only the United Kingdom with roses, thistles, shamrocks and leeks, but all of the commonwealth in the floral motifs: Australia was represented by the wattle.

Like her wedding gown, the silk was woven in Scotland and featured a similar silhouette. It was created by three dressmakers and six embroideresses. The gold bullion was embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework.

Unlike the wedding gown, which was only worn once, the coronation gown was worn again as the Queen later opened the parliaments of New Zealand (1954), Australia (1954), Ceylon (1954), and Canada (1957).

Hartnell was now officially her favourite couturier and in 1957 received the Royal Warrant. He made many beautiful garments for her wardrobe and special events. Here’s a small selection.

For her first official visit as Queen to Australia in 1954, Hartnell created this lovely summery gown of tulle.

For her visit to New Zealand during the same tour, Hartnell’s workrooms produced this lovely lace, one-shouldered gown (photo reproduced courtesy Getty images).

In 1957 she wore the heavily embellished ‘Flowers of the Fields of France’ gown for a state visit to that country. Now in the collection of the V&A.

When her sister, Princess Margaret was married in 1960, the Queen wore this ensemble of silk taffeta gown with matching lace-covered bolero.

Ensembles are the type of garment I most associate with the Queen: the smart look of a dress with matching jacket and here’s a good example that she wore for her daughter Princess Anne’s wedding in 1973 (note Anne wearing Queen Mary’s fringe tiara under her veil). This set is also in the collection of the Royal Collection Trust.

Hartnell passed away in 1979 but subsequent designers -and perhaps the Queen’s personal preference – continued to see the Queen dressed in light and/or bright, sorbet colours to stand out in a crowd, and smart matching sets. His work helped shape the myth and public image of the Queen during her long reign, that we remember today.

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