Norman Hartnell

Norman Hartnell
Norman Hartnell

Hartnell in 1972, by Allan Warren
Born 12 June 1901
Died June 8, 1979(1979-06-08) (aged 77)
Nationality British
Education University of Cambridge
Occupation Fashion designer
Awards KCVO 1979, Officier de l'Ordre des Palmes Academiques 1939, Neiman Marcus Award 1947
Labels Norman Hartnell

Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, KCVO (12 June 1901, London – 8 June 1979, Windsor) was a British fashion designer. Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to HM The Queen 1940, subsequently Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II 1957.


Early life and career

Born to an upwardly mobile family in Streatham, a southwest London suburb, his parents were publicans and owners of the Crown & Sceptre, a large coaching inn at the top of Streatham Hill. Educated at Mill Hill School, Hartnell read Modern Languages at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but 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 Dalys Theatre in London. Having unsuccessfully worked for two London designers, including Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, whom he sued for copying his designs without a credit, he opened his own business at 10 Bruton Street, Mayfair in 1923 with the help of his father and sister Phyllis.

10 Bruton Street Mayfair 1923–1934

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 more fluid romanticism in detailing and construction, most evident in his predeliction for evening dresses and afternoon clothes often admired at Court Presentations and many lavish Society weddings, then held in London. Hartnell's success in London, Paris and New York ensured continual press coverage and growing business with those no longer content with 'safe' London clothes derived from Parisian designs. Hartnell became popular with younger stars of stage and screen, and went on to dress such names as Gladys Cooper and Elsie Randolph, later gaining as clients Gertrude Lawrence (also a client of Edward Molyneux), Jessie Matthews, Merle Oberon, Evelyn Laye, Anna Neagle and even Alice Delysia and Mistinguett, two French stars impressed by the young Englishman's genius.

Hartnell's more business-like sister Phyllis insisted on the design of practical day clothes for the bread-and-butter of the House and he achieved a subtlety and ingenuity with British woollens, scarcely imagined in British dress-making, but investigated by the Parisian Chanel. She also showed a keen interest in his designs, when he showed in Paris in 1927 and 1929. He emulated his British predecessor Charles Frederick Worth, by taking his designs to the heart of world fashion, Worth being the closest Hartnell came to having a hero. Hartnell rapidly specialised in expensive and often lavish embroideries to heighten his designs and create a distinction between mundane or wholesale clothes with his own distinctive form of luxury. The in-house embroidery workroom became a Hartnell speciality and remained so until his death. It even produced embroidered and prized 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 repeatedly publicised by press reports of highly original wedding dresses designed for socially prominent young clients during the 1920s and 1930s, a natural extension of his designs for them as debutantes, when they wore his equally innovative evening dresses.

26 Bruton Street Mayfair 1934–1940

By 1934 Hartnell's financial success ensured his acclaimied move to the glass and mirror art moderne interiors designed by young innovative architect Gerald Lacoste (1909–1983). within the large late 18th century town house at 26 Bruton Street, Mayfair. These are now protected as one of the finest examples of moderne pre-war commercial design and through the years the mirrors reflected royalty, famous mannequins {later models}, such as Margaret Vyner, and a galaxy of society names and stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Merle Oberon and amongst the post-war stars, Elizabeth Taylor. At the same time he acquired his beloved Lovel Dene, the small foresters lodge remodelled by Gerald Lacoste as an oasis of contemplation and inspiration in Windsor Forest. Berkshire. He also lived in The Tower House, Regents Park, when in London.

Hartnell soon received his first royal orders at 26 Bruton Street and designed the wedding dress and trousseau of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, engaged to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, third son of George V. Two bridesmaids were Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York (later George VI and Queen Elizabeth). Both George V and Queen Mary approved the designs, Queen Mary also becoming a client. The future Queen accompanied her daughters to the salon to view the fittings and met Norman Hartnell, whose dresses had been seen at varied Royal or social events for over a decade.

Although Hartnell's 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 celebration of a wedding in Westminster Abbey. The substitution of a small private wedding in the chapel of Buckingham Palace meant that the full theatre of a royal wedding and display of the Hartnell wedding dress amongst the uniforms and dresses of the guests was cancelled. However much Hartnell regretted this from as personal and business angle, his Society, stage and film commissions soon included those of other members of the Royal Family and he was patronised by all the many Royal ladies until his death. Vast crowds did at least see Princess Alice leave in her Hartnell going-away ensemble.

On the accession of King George VI as King, his consort Queen Elizabeth ordered the dresses of her Maids of Honour from Hartnell, remaining loyal to Madame Handley-Seymour for the creation of her Coronation dress, as she was a client of long standing. Thereafter, Hartnell soon received most and then all of the major orders from Queen Elizabeth. He created the streamlined fitted look for her day and evening wear, this together with his all-over sequinned evening wear worn by his wealthier clients, was expertly created by Mademoiselle Davide, the French workroom magician said to be one of the highest paid experts in the business. This was augmented by the re-introduction of the crinoline to fashion, after the King showed Hartnell the Winterhalter portraits in the Royal Collection with the suggestion that the petite Queen would gain stature and incorporate a visible symbol of updated continuing tradition for the monarchy worldwide, following the uproar over the abdication crisis.

Mrs Simpson, subsequently the Duchess of Windsor, had also been am elegant Hartnell client and the creator of her wedding dress, Mainbocher, was credited by Hartnell 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. But Hartnell's long evening dresses, after a decade of rising hems, made the Parisian silhouette outmoded overnight and all French designers then followed his lead. He opened a House in Paris.

Within a decade Hartnell again changed the silhouette of fashion worldwide as the crinoline line worn by the Queen created a sensation on the 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 colourful wardrobe designed by Hartnell. With the bitter experience of the Gloucester wedding in his mind, he was intent on success and knew the history of dress, so was able to suggest that black and shades of mauve were unnecessary for the July State Visit, as white had also been used for Court Mourning. The sparkling designs for day and evening created in slim and crinoline silhouette were recreated within two weeks of continuous work, 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 State Visit in 1938, which he viewed as an ingenue in the fashion world. The crinoline fashion for evening wear influenced world fashion and the French designers contributed their own take on the influence of Hartnell and the Queen's ancestry by creating day clothes featuring plaids or tartans in their next seasons designs.

The Queen was provided with another extensive wardrobe created by Hartnell for The Royal Tour of Canada and Visit to North America in the worrying days of 1939. Hitler termed Queen Elizabeth "the most dangerous woman in Europe" on viewing film footage of the successful tour with which Hartnell had been involved as designer. This is captured by Cecil Beaton in his 1939 portraits of the Queen wearing her Hartnell dresses in and around Buckingham Palace. Hartnell received a Royal Warrant in 1940 for his accomplishments.

By 1939, other young designers such as Victor Stiebel had also set up their own Houses in London. Redfern, Worth and Paquin already had London salons, when Hartnell began in 1923, but were safe rather than innovative. Schiaparelli and Molyneux were two amongst others opening branches in what had become a viable fashion centre attracting overseas buyers, especially from the USA. There were also tax implications involved in this. Molyneux also had a favourite royal client, Princees Marina, who married Prince George, Duke of Kent.

26 Bruton Street Mayfair 1940–1952

During the Second World War (1939–1945) Hartnell was subject to the daunting government trading and rationing restrictions; apart from strict 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 rationed. He joined the Home Guard and sustained his career with government sponsored collections for show and 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 best possible clothes in bombed areas around the country. Hartnell received her endorsement to design elegant and innovative clothes in the government Utility scheme, mass produced by Berkertex with whom he entered a business relationship that continued into the 1950s. He became the first world-famous designer to design such clothing on a large and varied scale. Together with other prominent designers, he founded The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, known as INCSOC, early in the war, to promote British fashion design at home and abroad. Hartnell was also commissioned to design women's uniforms for both army and medical corps during the war and subsequently designed others, including those for the women's Metropolitan Police in London.

In 1946 Hartnell took a varied and successful collection to South America, where his clients included Eva Peron and Magda Lupescu. In 1947 he received the Neiman Marcus Award for his influence on world fashion and in the same year created an extensive wardrobe for Queen Elizabeth to wear on the Royal Tour of South Africa in 1947, the first Royal Tour abroad since 1939. Both slimline and crinoline styles were included. Hartnell also designed for the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, Edward Molyneux also designing some day clothes for the Princesses.

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). 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 subsequently became one of the Princesses main designers and so gained a new worldwide younger generation of clients, as the Princess began to take on more duties and visits abroad. The younger Princess Margaret became the obsession of the press and her Hartnell clothes were similarly given huge publicity and received much newsreel coverage.

26 Bruton Street Mayfair 1952–1979

Following the early death of George VI in 1952, Hartnell was commanded by the Queen Elizabeth II to design her 1953 Coronation Dress. 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 the 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 the 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 Maids of Honour dresses, but also those of all the major Royal ladies, creating a tableaux in the setting of Westminster Abbey. He also designed dresses for many clients 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 large task of creating wardrobes for The Queens many State Visits and Royal Tours abroad and endless events at home, all three maintaining flourishing Houses. During 1954 Queen Elizabeth II 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, her varied and enormous wardrobe gained press and newsreel headlines internationally, not least for the many cotton dresses worn and copied worldwide, many ordered from a specialist wholesale company Horrockses . The Hartnell designs were augmented by a number from Hardy Amies, her second 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, whether they involved making a dress of pound notes or creating sensational, evening dresses for celebrities such as the pianist Eileen Joyce or the TV cookery star Fanny Cradock. All the female members of the Royal Family used Hartnell's skills at one time or another, not only for personal wear within the United Kingdom, but also for their own visits abroad. Hartnell fashion shows travelled the UK and were shown on 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 for his many Royal clients. It also marked the swan-song of lavish British couture. The bride wore a multi-layered white Princess line dress, totally unadorned, but demanding in its construction, utilising many layers of fine silk, and requiring as much skill as the complexities of the Coronation Dress, which it echoed in outline. The Queen wore a long blue dress of similar design with a slight bolero jacket and a hat adorned with a single rose reminding everyone of the Princess's name, used in full only when she was a girl, 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 press and television publicity; the design of the wedding dress had clear references to the Coronation Dress of the Queen worn in the same building only seven years previously.

Fashion rapidly changed in the 1960s and by the time of the Investiture of The Prince of Wales in 1969 the Hartnell clothes worn by The Queen and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother were short day clothes ingeniously reflecting their own styles. Royal clothes designed by Hartnell created a style for each client and the style was made fashionable without being a high fashion statement. This exemplified his genius and was practised to a sophisticated level, as he became increasingly pre-occupied with the large number of royal orders, many worn for Tours and State Visits. In this he was helped by Ian Thomas, who left to create his own business, and the Japanese designer Yuki[disambiguation needed ] (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 that The Queen had arranged for it to be given by Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, a loyal client of Hartnell beyond his death and until the House closed. Hartnell was termed by the press The First Fashion Knight. Only the late Sir Hardy Amies was similarly honoured and it is unlikely that we shall witness another in this reign.

Hartnell was still designing collections at his death in 1979. Although much quieter, the enormous House also sold ready-to-wear, introduced in the 1950s, and was the source of merchandising,the many products ranging from scent to stockings, bags to costume jewellery and Hartnell mens-wear – also found in stores around the globe. His career truly began around 1920 up at Cambridge and so spanned six decades. It is unlikely that there will ever be such a House in London again, employing at its peak in the 1950s some 550 people in-house and many thousands more employed 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 life-long supporter Barbara Cartland and from the 1930s the former Margaret Whigham, whose marriage in a Hartnell dress stopped the 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 clients, but a large number of his models and employees.

The business continued after Hartnell's death, HM Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother remaining a loyal client with many others. For a short time John Tullis, a nephew of Molyneux, designed for the Hartnell business. A consortium headed by Manny Silverman, formerly of Moss Bros., acquired the business and after some guest collections designed by Gina Fratini and Murray Arbeid, the building was renovated under the direction of Michael Pick and the original art moderne splendours designed by Gerald Lacoste for Norman Hartnell were brought to life, the famous glass chimney-piece 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. 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 and his rare British genius were commemorated with a blue plaque at 26 Bruton Street, Mayfair, London, W1, where he spent his working life from 1934 to 1979.


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

  • Such Is the Law (1930)
  • Aunt Sally (1933)
  • A Southern Maid (1933)
  • That's a Good Girl (1933)
  • Give Her a Ring (1934)
  • Princess Charming (1934)
  • The Church Mouse (1934)
  • The Return of Bulldog Drummond (1934)
  • Brewster's Millions (1935)
  • Two's Company (1936)
  • Jump for Glory (1937)
  • Non-Stop New York (1937)
  • Climbing High (1938)
  • Sailing Along (1938)
  • Design for Spring (1938)
  • Making Fashion (1938)
  • He Found a Star (1941) (dresses for Sarah Churchill and Evelyn Dall)
  • Ships with Wings (1942)
  • The Peterville Diamond (1942)
  • This Was Paris (1942)
  • The Demi-Paradise (1943)
  • Maytime in Mayfair (1949)
  • The Passionate Stranger (1957) (gowns for Margaret Leighton)
  • Women in Love (1958) (TV)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) (costumes for Katharine Hepburn)
  • Never Put It in Writing (1964)
  • The Beauty Jungle (1964)
  • A Double in Diamonds (1967) (TV episode: The Saint)

Theatre Designs

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).


  • BE DAZZLED! Norman Hartnell : Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion. Michael Pick. Pointed Leaf Press. 2007.
  • Silver and Gold. Norman Hartnell. Evans Brothers. 1955.
  • Royal Courts of Fashion. Norman Hartnell. Cassell. 1971.
  • Norman Hartnell 1901-1979. Frances Kennett et al. Brighton Art Gallery and Bath Museum of Costume. 1985.
  • Gerald Lacoste. Michael Pick. The Journal of The Thirties Society. No.3. 1982.
  • The Royal Tour: A Souvenir Album. Caroline de Guitaut. The Royal Collection. 2009.

External links

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