In honor of the Queen's 80th birthday, an exhibit of 80 evening dresses is on display at Buckingham Palace. Foremost amongst these designs is the intricate, detailed work of Sir Norman Hartnell.
Norman Bishop Hartnell was born on June 12, 1901 in London, and early on showed an apptitude for drawing and design. It was while he was studying at Magdalen College, Cambridge that he became interested in designing clothes. After University began his fashion career as an assistant to the Court Dressmaker, Mme. Désiré. In 1923 he opened his own salon at No. 10 Bruton Street and in 1927 had his first Paris showing. By 1939 he was making 2000 gowns a year for private clients, and would dress the elite of society for five decades. Some of his clientele included Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Cartland, and Vivien Leigh.
Hartnell's background at Cambridge was in theatre productions and many of his designs leant towards costume. He was inspired by French and Italian paintings and for some of his royal commissions, by Winterhalter portraits. Along with designing for society and royalty, he would also work in theatre productions, films and television shows. During the Second World War he designed uniforms for the British Red Cross and in 1969 he was asked to design new uniforms for the Women's Division of the City Police force.
His first royal commission came in 1935 with a request to design the wedding gown for Lady Alice Montague Douglas Scott (wife of Henry, Duke of Gloucester), along with the bridesmaid dresses for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. One of his most famous commissions came in 1938 when he had to redesign Queen Elizabeth's (later the Queen Mother's) entire wardrobe for the State visit to France. Her mother had died five days before the start of the tour and as black was inappropriate for the occasion, he had to remake everything in white; historically an alternate royal mourning color. Although daunted at first, he accomplished this task in three weeks and it became known as the White Wardrobe. This was the first of many such commissions and he continued to design clothing for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the royal wedding dresses of Princess Elizabeth (the present Queen) in 1947 and Princess Margaret in 1960. Undoubtably his most well known commission is the present Queen's Coronation gown in 1953.
Hartnell never married. He published two books, his autobiography in 1955 titled "Silver and Gold" and "Royal Courts of Fashion" in 1971. He was appointed MBE in 1953 and was knighted by the Queen in 1977, the first courtier to receive a knighthood.
He died on June 8, 1979 in Windsor, Berkshire.
© Marilyn Braun 2006
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