Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) was Britain's most successful and distinguished mid-twentieth-century couturier. He was the first in a wave of London-based designers to emerge in the 1920s and 1930s who offered wealthy British women an alternative to patronizing a court dressmaker or purchasing a Paris-designed model.
Designs of Norman Hartnell
His graceful, feminine designs, which combined dreamy nostalgia with fairy-tale glamour, appealed to English sensibilities. He excelled at making dresses for grand entrances and was equally at ease designing court-presentation dresses for debutantes and stage costumes for actresses. The latter were sophisticated and sexy as well as glamorous, but Hartnell is remembered for the romantic, quintessentially English gowns that he designed for the upper classes and the royal family. His role as dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II won him international recognition and honors. He was nominated an officier d'académie by the Institut de l'education nationale de France in 1939 and was given a Neiman Marcus Award for contemporary influence on fashion in 1947. In 1977 he became the first fashion designer to be knighted.
The theater, ballet, fine art, and the natural world inspired Hartnell. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he neglected his architectural studies to design for the university's amateur dramatic societies and then dropped out of school to try his luck as a dress designer. After working briefly as a sketch artist, he set up on his own in 1923 and in 1934 moved to 26 Bruton Street. He made his name designing for debutantes, society weddings, and charity galas, many of which required fancy dress and Hartnell's talents as a stage designer. In 1942 he was a founding member of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers and was named president several times. After World War II, Hartnell was the largest couture house in London, employing a staff of 385.
Hartnell designed clothing for members of the royal family from 1935. His most legendary commission was the all-white wardrobe he designed for Queen Elizabeth for her 1938 state visit to France, when she was still in mourning for her mother. Hartnell and the photographer Cecil Beaton created a lasting image for the queen that was fresh and feminine but unmistakably regal. In 1947 he designed Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress and, six years later, her coronation robes. Hartnell relished the symbolism and pageantry of British ceremonial and found embroidery, which had already become his signature, the perfect medium for conveying the gravity and glamour of monarchy.
Creative Influences Drive Design
Commenting on how the creative impulse is evoked, Hartnell remarked, "Who can say exactly …? A wax-white magnolia in the moonlight is a debutante dancing at Hurlingham. Swans on the lake may turn into a young woman in white arriving to cut the cake at Queen Charlotte's Ball, and a farmyard is redolent of sporting tweeds." (Hartnell, p. 82)
Drama, color, and light suffused Hartnell's designs. He enjoyed working with soft, floating fabrics, particularly tulle and chiffon, and with plain, lustrous silks, which provided the perfect foil for his spectacular, eye-catching embroideries. He was the master of the special-occasion dress that flatters and dignifies both wearer and occasion with consummate tact. His legacy to the future lay in his Englishness, in his creative and romantic engagement with history and tradition, and in his love of spectacle.
Brighton Art Gallery and Museums and the Museum of Costume. Norman Hartnell. Haslemere, U.K.: South Leigh Press, 1985. Well-illustrated and an excellent overview of Hartnell's career.
Norman Hartnell. Silver and Gold. London: Evans Brothers, 1955.
McDowell, Colin. A Hundred Years of Royal Style. London: Muller, Blond and White, 1985.