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Royal fashion affairs: Norman Hartnell

The name – and fame – of some designers is sometimes bound to that of their prestigious clients. Sir Norman Hartnell is one of them. In his more than fifty years of activity, the British designer had the honour to dress remarkable clients, but it is his his link to the British Royal family what made him gain a prominent role in the history of Western fashion.

Dress designed by Norman Hartnell. Courtesy Gemeentemuseum den Haag, all rights reserved.

Before beginning his career as a fashion designer opening a shop in London’s Mayfair in 1923, Sir Norman Hartnell had been the costume designer for the Footlights Dramatic Club of the University of Cambridge. It is this favour for the theatrical that characterised his own work, legible on his richly embroidered creations.

Dress designed by Norman Hartnell, produced by Berketex, ca.1942 - 1955. © Norman Hartnell for Berketex, Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY.

A prolific designer, Norman Hartnell has worked on women’s daywear, eveningwear and also homeware products, including a line that he designed for the British government utility campaign. It is, however, for the highly decorated gowns and dresses that he produced for his Royal clients that he is most remembered.

Wedding dress designed by Norman Hartnell, 1937. Courtesy Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, all rights reserved.

Although his first Royal commission was the wedding dress for the future Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester in 1935, Norman Hartnell gained the Royal Warrant as dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1940 and later to Queen Elizabeth II in 1957. For over three decades till his death 1979, he was appointed the design of the clothes that the two Queens have worn in public and private events, including the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth for the marriage to Prince Philip in 1947 and her Coronation Dress six years later.

Both lavishly decorated, they exemplified the taste of the designed which said to ‘despise simplicity’. Reflecting the glaming allure of his clients, Normann Hartnell sticked to the sense of the spectacular that he seemed to have pursued since his early days as a costume designer: something that keeps defining his creations, worth princess and queens.

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