I’ve recently finished poring over the book Bedazzled! Norman Harnell Sixty Years of Glamour & Fashion by Michael Pick and highly recommend it. It highlights how Norman Hartnell led the charge to turn London into a fashion capital and has oodles of rarely seen pictures of the Queen to boot.
Norman Hartnell was born on June 12, 1901 and started his business on April 23, 1923.
According to Michael Pick, his first customers were the mothers and sisters of his friends from his days at Cambridge, where he studied Modern Languages. While at university, he also started designing costumes for plays and found he had quite a knack for it.
Here’s an example of one of his early designs. This dress is from 1924:
Fun Fact: each of Hartnell’s dresses were given a witty name, like “Grandma’s Garnet’s.” I’d like to think that the dress above was called something like “Cascading Crystals.”
The Royal Connection Begins, 1935
We recently touched on the 1935 wedding of Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, to Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas Scott. It was this wedding that brought Norman firmly into the Royal fold. When he heard about the impending wedding, Norman took the smart move of sending a letter to the bride asking for permission to submit designs for the wedding. Lady Alice took him up on the offer and came to see his work at his salon. She was so impressed with what she saw and chose him to design her dress as well as those of the bridesmaids. Two of her bridesmaids were Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.
On the day of the wedding, he was asked to be at Buckingham Palace while the official wedding photos were taken at which point Queen Mary told him. “We are very pleased. We thing everything is very, very pretty.” He must have been all, “HECK YA!” at that.
Lady Alice’s dress was made in pale pink satin (her father had recently died so white wasn’t considered appropriate) and was beautifully draped:
The Duchess of York (the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mum) was impressed and asked him to start making clothes for her as well. In particular, he help build her wardrobe after the abdication crisis.
The 1938 State Visit to France
The 30 outfits that Norman Hartnell designed for this significant trip became known as “The White Wardrobe.” The Queen’s mother Coutness Strathmore passed away five days before the trip, and consequently the visit was postponed by three weeks. Since a wardrobe of black mourning clothes would just not do for a hot Parisian summer, it was decided that the clothing that had been created for the visit would be recreated in all white. He wrote, “silks, satins, velvet, cloth, taffeta, tulle, chiffon, and lace were all to be in white.” We can only imagine how frantic they must have been. It must have been a sewing frenzy over at the House of Hartnell!
All that hard work paid off because the trip – and the Queen’s stunning wardrobe- was a HUGE success. This was the equivalent of the ink that was spilled to recount the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe during her North American tour. The Queen was all over the papers and everything she wore was considered a sensation.
The clothes that Hartnell designed helped to solidify her image as a strong Queen of England and resonated with many. Christian Dior paid Hartnell the ultimate compliment when he said “Whenever I try to think of something particularly beautiful, I always think of those lovely dresses that Mr. Hartnell made for your beautiful Queen when she visited Paris.” Oh la la! That’s almost as good as the “we are very pleased” comment we just spoke about.
Here are a couple of those frothy, floaty designs:
Queen Elizabeth loved the dresses so much she put them on for some formal portraits taken by Cecil Beaton at Buckingham Palace:
She loved that parasol:
The white wardrobe is now preserved as part of The Royal Collection and an exhibition of the gowns was put on at Buckingham Palace during the summer of 2005. The Queen popped in for a look:
Our next post on Normal Hartnell will review the war years and beyond. He was a very busy man. See you then! In the meantime, what do you think of the white wardrobe?
Click here to Read Part Two
Click here to Read Part Three
and Click here to Read Part Four…