Norman Hartnell

Vanessa Semmens

Designer Biography

DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA354

Norman Hartnell’s foundation in fashion came when he was studying at the University of Cambridge, UK, when he designed costumes for the Footlights Dramatic Club. However, he left the university without a degree and then worked briefly with Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon—the couturier Lucile—until she stole some of his designs. Hartnell formally set up his own label in 1923 on Bruton Street, London, and showed his first collection in 1924. Each dress was traditionally given a witty name. Hartnell is known for opulent and elegant designs, with a lot of embroidery, once saying: “I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful.”

In 1927 Hartnell showed in Paris; however, the standard of his dressmaking was not equal to haute couture and he received negative press because of this. In 1929 he returned, to a much better reception.

Hartnell dressed British royalty as couturier and official dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth, which included designing her wedding dress in 1947 and also her coronation dress. In 1938 he did the entire wardrobe for the Queen Mother’s royal tour, which comprised thirty dresses. The brand was granted a royal warrant in 1940. Sometimes Queen Elizabeth would choose dresses from a collection, on an exclusive basis. Norman Hartnell also dressed her sister, Princess Margaret, who was seen as a trendsetter. The label also provided attire for celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. Hartnell was primarily a society dressmaker.

Hartnell was one of the founding members of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, which followed the example of the Parisian Chambre Syndicale. During the Second World War he designed a range of Utility Clothing dresses for Berkertex, on a mass-production scale, and in 1943 he designed an export collection for the Americas. In the 1960s Hartnell opened a ready-to-wear boutique as a part of his store on Bruton Street, called Le Petit Salon.

Hartnell was knighted in 1977, and was the first couturier to be honored in such a way. Hartnell died in 1979. In 1987 Manny Silverman bought the House of Hartnell and Murray Arbeid became head designer, with Victor Edelstein designing the ready-to-wear line. In 1989, Gina Fratini designed the spring collection as a guest designer and in 1990 Marc Bohan became design director; however, he left shortly after in 1992.

References and Further Reading

Almond Kevin. “Norman Hartnell—Fashion Designer Encyclopedia.” Encyclopedia of Fashion, n.d.

Find in Library Grant L. ““Norman Hartnell: Master of the Royal Wardrobe.”” The Telegraph , 30 September 2007 .

Find in Library Hartnell N. Silver and Gold . London : Evans Brothers, 1955.

Find in Library Pick M. Be Dazzled! New York : Pointed Leaf Press, 2007.