Sir Norman Bishop Hartnell, KCVO (12 June 1901 – 8 June 1979) was a leading British fashion designer, best known for his work for the ladies of the Royal Family. Hartnell gained the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1940; and Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.
Hartnell is famous as the man who made London a viable twentieth century fashion centre during the inter-war years. Born to an upwardly mobile family in Streatham, in southwest London, his parents were then publicans and owners of the prophetically named Crown & Sceptre, at the top of Streatham Hill. Educated at Mill Hill School, Hartnell became an undergraduate of Magdalene College in the University of Cambridge and read Modern Languages. His main interest lay in performing, and designing productions for the university Footlights and he was noticed by the London press as the designer of a Footlights production which transferred to Daly's Theatre, London. He then worked unsuccessfully for two London designers, including the celebrated Lucile, whom he sued for damages when several of his drawings appeared unattributed in her weekly fashion column in the London Daily Sketch. In 1923 he opened his own business at 10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, with the financial help of his father and first business colleague, his sister Phyllis. He is second cousins with actor William Hartnell (Doctor Who).
Thanks to his Cambridge connections, Hartnell acquired a clientele of débutantes and their mothers intent on fashionable originality in dress design for a busy social life centred on the London Season. and was considered by some to be a good London alternative to Parisian or older London dress houses. The London press seized on the novelty of his youth and gender. Although expressing the spirit of the Bright Young Things and Flappers, his designs overlaid the harder silhouettes with a fluid romanticism in detail and construction. This was most evident in Hartnell's predilection for evening and bridal gowns, gowns for court presentations, and afternoon gowns for guests at society weddings. Hartnell's success ensured international press coverage and a flourishing trade with those no longer content with 'safe' London clothes derived from Parisian designs. Hartnell became popular with the younger stars of stage and screen, and went on to dress such leading ladies as Gladys Cooper, Elsie Randolph, Gertrude Lawrence (also a client of Edward Molyneux), Jessie Matthews, Merle Oberon, Evelyn Laye and Anna Neagle. Even top French stars Alice Delysia and Mistinguett were impressed by the young Englishman's genius.
Alarmed by the lack of sales, Phyllis insisted that Norman cease his pre-occupation with the design of evening clothes and he create practical day clothes. He achieved a subtlety and ingenuity with British woollens, previously scarcely imagined in London dressmaking, yet already successfully demonstrated in Paris by Coco Chanel, who showed a keen interest in his 1927 and 1929 collections when shown in Paris. Hartnell successfully emulated his British predecessor and hero Charles Frederick Worth by taking his designs to the heart of world fashion. Hartnell specialised in expensive and often lavish embroidery as an integral part of his most expensive clothes, creating the luxurious and exclusive effect which justified the high prices. They were also created to deflect the ready-to wear copyists. The Hartnell in-house embroidery workroom was the largest in London couture and continued until his death, also producing the embroidered Christmas cards for clients and press during quiet August days, a practical form of publicity at which Hartnell was always adept. The originality and intricacy of Hartnell embroideries were frequently described in the press, especially in reports of the original wedding dresses he designed for socially prominent young women during the 1920s and 1930s, a natural extension of his designs for them as débutantes, when many wore his innovative evening dresses and day clothes.
By 1934 Hartnell's success had outgrown his premises and he moved over the road to a large Mayfair town house already provided with floors of work-rooms at the rear to Bruton Mews. The first floor salon was the height of modernity, like his clothes and the glass and mirror-lined Art Moderne space was designed by the innovative young architect Gerald Lacoste (1909–1983). The interiors of the large late 18th-century town house are now protected as one of the finest examples of art-moderne pre-war commercial design in the UK. The timeless quality of Lacoste's designs was the perfect background for each new season of Hartnell designs, created for aristocratic British women of all ages and worn by most of the famous theatre and film stars of their day, including Vivien Leigh, Gertrude Lawrence, Merle Oberon, Ann Todd, Evelyn Laye, Anna Neagle and trans-Atlantic stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Linda Christian. At the same time, Hartnell moved into the new building, he acquired a week-end retreat, Lovel Dene, a Queen Anne cottage in Windsor Forest, Berkshire. this was extensively re-modelled for him by Lacoste. London life was based in The Tower House, Park Village West Regent's Park, also re-modelled and furnished with a fashionable mixture of Regency and modern furniture.
In 1935 Hartnell received the momentous first royal commands, inaugurating four decades of his world-wide fame and success in providing clothes for the ladies of the British Royal Family. Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, the future Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, a daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, approached Hartnell to design her dress and those of her bridesmaids for her marriage to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, third son of King George V. Two bridesmaids were Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, daughters of the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King King George VI and his consort Elizabeth). Both George V and Queen Mary approved the designs, the latter also becoming a client. The future Queen Elizabeth, then a client of Madame Handley-Seymour, who had made her wedding dress in 1923, accompanied her daughters to the Hartnell salon to view the fittings and met the designer for the first time.
Although Hartnell's designs for the new Duchess of Gloucester's wedding and her trousseau achieved worldwide publicity, the death of the bride's father and consequent period of mourning led to the cancellation of the large State Wedding at Westminster Abbey. The substitution of a small private ceremony in the chapel of Buckingham Palace prevented the full theatre of a royal occasion and Hartnell regretted that his work on the designs for the magnificent occasion was denied world-wide publicity. Vast crowds did see the newest member of the royal family drive off from Buckingham Palace wearing her going-away Hartnell ensemble and the seal of royal approval was reflected in increased business for Hartnell.
For the 1937 Coronation of King George VI, his consort Queen Elizabeth ordered the maid of honour dresses from Hartnell, remaining loyal to Handley-Seymour for her Coronation gown. Until 1939 Hartnell received most of the Queen's orders and after 1946, with the exception of some country clothes, she remained a Hartnell client, even after his death. Hartnell's ability in adapting current fashion to a personal royal style began with slimmer fitted designs for day and evening wear. The new Queen was short and her new clothes gave her height and distinction, public day-clothes usually consisted of a long or three-quarter length coat over a slim skirt, often embellished by fur trimmings or some detail around the neck. His designs for the Queens evening wear varied from unembellished slim dresses, which in the fashion of the day formed a background to the jewellery worn. Some evening wear was embroidered with sequins and glass. There was a complete change of style apparent in designs for the grander evening occasions, when Hartnell re-introduced the crinoline to world fashion, after the King showed Hartnell the Winterhalter portraits in the Royal Collection. King George suggested that the style favoured earlier by Queen Victoria would enhance her presence. It also cam to symbolise the continuing values of the established British monarchy world-wide, after the debacle of the Abdication Crisis, when the uncrowned Edward VIII wanted to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. Having failed to gain the support of the British government, and that of the Dominions, he left for exile and marriage abroad.
Mrs Simpson, subsequently the Duchess of Windsor, was also a London Hartnell client, later patronizing Mainbocher who made her wedding dress. Main Bocher was a friend of Hartnell's with whom the latter credited with sound early advice, when he showed his 1929 summer collection in Paris. Then a Vogue editor, Bocher told Hartnell that he had seldom seen so many wonderful dresses so badly made. Hartnell took his advice and employed the talented Parisian 'Mamselle' Davide, reputedly the highest paid member of any London couture house, and other talented cutters, fitters and tailors to execute his designs to the highest international couture standards. by the 1930s. In 1929 Hartnell showed his clothes to the international press in Paris and the floor-length hems of his evening dresses, after a decade of rising hems, were hailed as the advent of a new fashion, copied throughout the world as evidenced by the press of the time. His clothes were so popular with the press that he opened a House in Paris in order to participate in Parisian Collection showings.
Within a decade, Hartnell again effectively changed the fashion able evening dress silhouette, when more of the crinoline dresses worn by the Queen during the State Visit to Paris in July 1938 also created a world-wide sensation viewed in the press and on news-reels. The death of the Queen's mother Cecilia Bowes-Lyon, wife of the Earl of Strathmore, before the visit resulted in court mourning and a short delay in the dates of the visit to a vital British Ally, of enormous political significance at a time when Germany was threatening war in Europe. Royal Mourning dictated black, and shades of mauve, which meant that all the clothes utilising colour for the planned June Visit had to be re-made and Hartnell's work-rooms worked long hours to create a new wardrobe in white, which Hartnell remembered had a precedent in British Royal Mourning and was not unknown for a younger Queen. The designs featured some lavish use of detail, such as the courtesy shown to France with a day dress of yards of Valenciennes lace, day ensembles trimmed with white fox and the magnificent satin crinoline dress, the ruched decoration highlighted by camellias, worn for a Gala at the Opera and seen to effect on Garnier's impressive staircase Hartnell was decorated by the French government and his friend Christian Dior, creator of the full-skirted post-war New Look, was not immune to the influence and romance of the look. He publicly stated that whenever he thought of beautiful clothes, it was of those created by Hartnell for the 1938 State Visit, which he viewed as an young aspirant in the fashion world. The crinoline fashion for evening wear influenced fashion internationally and French designers were not slow to take up the influence of the Scottish-born Queen and the many kilted Scots soldiers in Paris for the State Visit; day clothes featuring plaids or tartans were evident in the next seasons collections of many Parisian designers.
The Queen commanded another extensive wardrobe by Hartnell for The Royal Tour of Canada and Visit to North America during May and June 1939. At a critical time in world history, the Visit cemented North American ties of friendship in the months before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. The King and Queen were received with enormous acclaim by great crowds throughout the Tour and Visit and the dignity and charm of the Queen were undoubtedly aided by her Hartnell wardrobe. Hitler termed Queen Elizabeth "the most dangerous woman in Europe" on viewing film footage of the successful Tour. The aura of majesty encapsulated by the Queen during the last two years of peace is poignantly captured by Cecil Beaton's 1939 photographs at Buckingham Palace in which she wears some of the Hartnell dresses made inn 1938 and 1939. In 1940 Norman Hartnell received a Royal Warrant in 1940 as Dressmaker to the Queen
By 1939, largely due to Hartnell's success, London was known as an innovative fashion centre and was often first visited by American buyers, before they travelled on to Paris. Hartnell had already had substantial American slaes to various shops and copyists, a lucrative source of income to all designers. Some French designers, such as Anglo-Irish Edward Molyneux and Elsa Schiaparelli opened London Houses, which had a glittering social life centred around the Court. Young British designers opened their own successful Houses, such as Victor Stiebel and Digby Morton, formerly at Lachasse where Hardy Amies was the acclaimed designer after 1935. Peter Russell also opened his own House and all attracted younger smart women. Older more staid generations still patronised the older London Houses of Handley Seymour, Reville and the British owned London concessions of House of Worth and Paquin. Before Hartnell established himself, the only British designer with a worldwide reputation for originality in design and finish was Lucile, whose London house closed in 1924. Then as now, the younger members of the British Royal Family attracted world-wide publicity. Whilst it was a triumph for Hartnell to have gained the impressive figure of Queen Mary as a client wearing his most shimmering sequin encrusted designs off-set by fabulous jewels, the four young wives of her four sons created fashion news - even if Mrs Simpson was a worrying distraction. Princess Marina, was a notable figure and a patron of Edward Molyneux in Paris. He designed her 1934 wedding dress and the bridesmaids dresses for her marriage to Queen Mary's fourth son Prince George, Duke of Kent and when Molyneux opened his London salon, also designed by Lacoste, she became a steady client of his until he closed the business in 1950. Thereafter, she was often a Hartnell client.
During the Second World War (1939–1945) Hartnell – in common with other couture designers – was subject to government trading and rationing restrictions, part of the utility scheme; apart from specific 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 controlled. He joined the Home Guard and sustained his career by sponsoring collections for 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 own often re-worked clothes in bombed areas around the country. Hartnell received her endorsement to design clothes for the government's Utility campaign, mass-produced by Berketex with whom he entered a business relationship that continued into the 1950s. Through this partnership, he became the first leading mid-20th century designers to design mass-produced ready-to-wear clothing. In 1916 Lucile, had shown the way during the First World War by designing an extensive line of clothes for the American catalogue retailers Sears, Roebuck.
Hartnell was among the founders of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers – also known as IncSoc – established in 1942 to promote British fashion design at home and abroad. Hartnell was also commissioned to design women's uniforms for the British army and medical corps during the war. He would go on to design service uniforms for nurses and for the women's Metropolitan Police in London.
In 1946 Hartnell took a successful collection to South America, where his clients included Eva Peron and Magda Lupescu. In 1947 he received the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award for his influence on world fashion and in the same year created an extensive wardrobe for Queen Elizabeth to wear during the Royal Tour of South Africa in 1947, the first Royal Tour abroad since 1939. Both slimline and crinoline styles were included. In addition Hartnell designed for the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret; Molyneux also designed some day clothes for the Princesses during this trip.
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 also created the going-away outfit and her trousseau, becoming her main designer to be augmented by Hardy Amies in the early 1950s appealing to whole new generation of clients. While Princess Elizabeth began to take on more duties and visits abroad, her less restrained younger sister, Princess Margaret, became the obsession of the press, her Hartnell clothes given tremendous media attention.
Hartnell's elegant evening wear from this period can be seen in museum collections to this day.
A lifelong bachelor, Hartnell had many women friends, often drawn from theatrical and film cicrcles. one of whom, Claire Huth Jackson, later Claire de Loriol, appointed the designer as guardian to her son, Peter-Gabriel. He also designed dresses for his long-term friend and fellow Streatham resident, the London socialite and ex-Tiller Girl Renee Probert-Price. A rare Hartnell evening ensemble features in the collection of vintage dresses inherited by Probert-Price's great-niece following her death in 2013.
Hartnell designed the coronation gown for Elizabeth II – which proved to be a complex process due to the gown's weight and embroidery
Following the early death of George VI in 1952, Hartnell was commanded by 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. At the command of the Queen, the final design had the similar 'sweet-heart' neckline used for Her Majesty's 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 Commonwealth countries, echoing earlier Coronation Dresses. The complicated construction of the supporting undergarments and frustrating hours of work involved are described by Hartnell in his autobiography. The weight of the dress made it difficult to effect a perfect balance and lend 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.
In addition, Hartnell designed the accompanying dresses worn by the Queen's Maids of Honour and those of all major Royal ladies in attendance, creating the necessary theatrical tableaux in Westminster Abbey. He also designed dresses for many other clients who attended the ceremony, 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. Thomas subsequently opened his own establishment in 1968 and together with Hardy Amies created many designs included in the wardrobes of the Queen. Queen Elizabeth II undertook an increasingly large number of State Visits and Royal Tours abroad, as well as numerous events at home, all necessitating a volume of clothing too large for just one House to devote its time to. During 1953-1954 she 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, and her varied wardrobe gained press and newsreel headlines internationally, not least for the cotton dresses worn and copied worldwide, many ordered from a specialist wholesale company Horrockses. Hartnell designs were augmented by a number of gowns from Hardy Amies, her secondary designer from 1951 onwards. Most of the ladies of the Royal Family used Hartnell as well as other London designers to create their clothes for use at home and 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. It also marked the swan-song of lavish British couture. The bride wore a multi-layered white Princess line dress, totally unadorned yet demanding in its construction, utilising many layers of fine silk, and requiring as much skill as the complexities of the Queen's Coronation dress, which it echoed in outline. The Queen wore a long blue lace day dress with a bolero echoing the design with a slight bolero jacket and a hat adorned with a single rose, reminiscent of the Princess's full name, Margaret Rose. Victor Stiebel made the going-away outfit for the Princess and the whole wedding and departure of the couple from the Pool of London on HMY Britannia received worldwide newspaper and television publicity.
Fashion rapidly changed in the 1960s, and by the time of the Investiture of The Prince of Wales in 1969, Hartnell's clothes for the Queen and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother were short, simple designs, reflecting their own personal style. His royal clothes created an impeccably neat look that managed to be stylish without making an overt fashion statement. This ability exemplified his genius and was practised to perfection, as he became increasingly pre-occupied with royal orders. In this he was helped by Ian Thomas, who left to found his own establishment in 1966, and the Japanese designer Yuki (Gnyuki Tormimaru), who similarly left to create his own highly successful business.
In the mid 1950s Hartnell reached the peak of his fame and the business employed some 500 people together with many others in the ancillary businesses. In common with all couture houses of the era, rising costs and changing tastes in women's clothing were a portent of the difficult times ahead. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the name of Norman Hartnell was continually found in the press. Apart from designing two collections a year and maintaining his theatrical and film star links, he was adept at publicity, whether it was in creating a full evening dress of pound notes for a news-paper stunt, touring fashion shows at home and abroad or using the latest fabrics and man-made materials. Memorable evening dresses were worn by the concert pianist Eileen Joyce or TV cookery star Fanny Cradock and typified his high profile as an innovative designer, although in his sixth decade - then considered to be a great age. Hartnell designed and created collections on a smaller scale until 1979 with designs for the Queen and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother still commanding his time and attention. The business struggled with overheads in common with all couture businesses and various merchandising ventures had some success in helping to bolster the finances. The sale of 'In Love' scent and then other scents was re- introduced in 1954, followed by stockings, knitwear, costume jewellery and late in the 1960s, menswear. But it was not enough to turn the tide of high-street youthful fashion and he even had to sell his country retreat Lovel Dene to finance the Bruton Street business.Hartnell's elegant evening wear from this period can be seen in museum collections to this day.
At the time of the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, Hartnell was appointed KCVO and on arriving at Buckingham Palace was delighted to find hat the Queen had deputed Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother to invest him with the honour. Prudence Glynn / Lady Windlesham, the astute fashion editor then of the London 'Times' termed him The First Fashion Knight and his work as The Norman Conquest Hartnell designed and created collections on a smaller scale until 1979 with designs for the Queen and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother still commanding his time and attention. The business struggled with overheads in common with all couture businesses
Hartnell was buried on 15 June 1979 next to his mother and sister in the graveyard of Clayton church, West Sussex.
A memorial service in London was led by the then Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, a friend, and was attended by many models and employees and clients, including one of his earliest from the 1920s, his lifelong supporter Barbara Cartland, and another from a time as the Deb of the Year in 1930, Margaret Whigham. Wearing a spectacular Hartnell dress, her wedding to Charles Sweeny stopped the traffic in Knightsbridge. As Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, she remained a client.
After his death the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother remained a steadfast client, as did other older clients. In order to continue and revive the business John Tullis, a nephew of Edward Molyneux, designed for the House until the business was sold. A consortium headed by Manny Silverman, formerly of Moss Bros., acquired the company. Guest collections were designed by Gina Fratini and Murray Arbeid and the building was completely renovated under the direction of Michael Pick who brought back to life its original Art Moderne splendours. The famous glass chimney-piece forming the focal point of Lacoste's scheme leading on from the ground floor to the first floor salon with its faceted art moderne detailed mirror cladding and pilasters was returned by the V&A as the focal point of the grand mirrored salon. The house re-opened with an acclaimed collection designed by former Christian Dior designer Marc Bohan. Unfortunately, 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 were commemorated with a blue plaque at 26 Bruton Street where he spent his working life from 1934 to 1979.
The Norman Hartnell name was acquired by Li & Fung as part of an extensive London fashion portfolio which includes Hardy Amies Ltd, acquired in 2008 by Fung Capital. Hardy Amies is now owned by No.14 Savile Row, which in turn is owned by Fung Capital, the private investment holding company of the Fung family also the controlling shareholders of publicly listed Li & Fung Limited and Trinity Limited. Various Norman Hartnell themed housewares have been produced and there are plans to further develop the brand.
Hartnell never married, but enjoyed a discreet and quiet life at a time when homosexual relations between men were illegal. In many ways, the consummate Edwardian in attitudes and life-style, he considered himself a confirmed bachelor, and his close friends were almost never in the public eye, nor did he ever do anything to compromise his position and business as a leading designer to both ladies of the British Royal Family and his aristocratic or 'society' clients upon whom his success was founded. He was on chilly terms with the self-publicising Cecil Beaton and others of the more flamboyant theatrical set. Hartnell was generally considered to be the leading British dress designer, even by most of his INCSOC colleagues. He rarely socialised with any of them. The younger Hardy Amies, fellow designer for Queen Elizabeth II, was surprised to discover how much he enjoyed his company in Paris in 1959. They were both there during the State Visit to France to view their creations being worn. Hartnell had been known to term Amies 'Hardly Amiable'. In late years, long after Hartnell's death and in a more liberal climate, Amies became known for some unfortunate ad lib remarks during interviews and in explaining his business success compared to Hartnell's near penury at the end, he more than once termed Hartnell a 'soppy' or 'silly old queen' whilst describing himself as a 'bitchy' or 'clever old queen.' Hartnell's elegant evening wear from this period can be seen in museum collections to this day.
Hartnell had many women friends, often drawn from the more talented actresses seen on the stage or on film or more private circles. Claire Huth Jackson, later Claire de Loriol, appointed the designer as guardian to her son, Peter-Gabriel. His dresses were also worn by another Streatham resident of the past, ex-Tiller Girl Renee Probert-Price. A Hartnell evening ensemble features in the collection of vintage dresses inherited by Probert-Price's great-niece following her death in 2013.
He was the second cousin of original Doctor Who star William Hartnell.