Born in London on June 12, 1901, Norman Hartnell was educated at Cambridge University, where he designed costumes and performed in undergraduate plays. His parents expected him to become an architect but Hartnell instead turned to dress design. Hartnell left Cambridge without a degree because he spent more time working on his clothes for theater productions than on his schoolwork.
In the beginning of his fashion career, Hartnell worked for a court designer and sold sketches to Lucile. In 1923, Hartnell and his sister opened a boutique, where he set out to emulate the success of British born designer Charles Frederick Worth but was determined to make London the center of fashion. Due to his strong work ethic and beautiful designs, the Hartnell couture house became the largest in London. His first customers were the mothers and sisters of his old friends from Cambridge. Through his entertainingly staged fashion shows, Hartnell displayed latest collection, which included dresses he named with witty terms like “Grandma’s Garnets” or “Goosey Gander.” As his career continued, Hartnell began to design dresses for actresses both on and off stage. He produced romantic clothes with simple silhouettes. In the 1920s and 30s, Hartnell designed innovative wedding dresses for famous brides of the period.
Wedding Dress, 1951, Courtesy of the V&A Collections
In 1935, Hartnell designed the wedding dress for the royal wedding of Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Princess Alice. At the time, Hartnell was the principal designer for the ladies of the British Royal Family and was appointed dressmaker to H.M. the Queen Mother. As the principal designer for the British Royal Family, Hartnell designed the Coronation dress of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. The Coronation dress of 1953 is considered the most important dress of mid-twentieth century design. The last royal wedding Hartnell designed for was Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960. He was knighted in 1977 and died soon after, in 1979.
Image courtesy of My ‘Richard Curtis’ London
During World War II, Hartnell supported the fashion industry and his country’s economy by joining with nine other London houses to found the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, which was modeled after the Parisian Chambre Syndicale.
Hartnell was recognized for his ability to bridge the generation gap as well as to create an individual style for his customers. He is most identified with elaborate evening gowns that are lavishly embroidered and sprinkled with sequins. He also made well-tailored suits and coats in British and French woolens and tweeds. During his time as a designer, his name became synonymous with ultra-luxurious fashion.
For further reading: “Who’s Who in Fashion” by Anne Stegemeyer and “Be Dazzled! Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion” by Michael Pick.