Norman Hartnell was born in London, England, in 1901. While studying at Cambridge University he started designing costumes for the drama department’s performances. His costumes got good reviews and a journalist convinced him that his future lay in designing clothes. He left Cambridge without a degree and took a job with a London dressmaker called Madame Desiree.
He was only there 3 months, but the experience convinced him that he had joined the right field. He briefly worked for Lucile and a house called Esther, and in 1923 started a salon under his own name at 10 Bruton Street, Mayfair.
His early work consisted of tailored day ensembles and elegant evening clothes. It was his ceremonial clothing that propelled him to fame. His first wedding dress, made from silver and gold net was a show-stopping finale at one of his shows. It was worn by the bride of Lord Weymouth and was described in the press as "the 8th wonder of the world".
Hartnell showed his first collection in Paris in 1927 and quickly established a reputation for his luxuriously embroidered ball gowns in satin and tulle and for elegantly tailored suits, coats, and woolen tweed garments. Hartnell rapidly began specializing in expensive and often lavish embroideries to heighten his designs and create a distinction between mundane everyday clothes with his own distinctive form of luxury. The in-house embroidery workroom became a famous Hartnell specialty and remained so until his death. It even producing the famous embroidered and prized Christmas cards during quiet August days, a practical form of publicity at which Hartnell was always adept. The originality and intricacy of Hartnell embroideries were repeatedly publicized by press reports of highly original wedding dresses designed for socially prominent young clients during the 1920s and 1930s. This was a natural extension of his designs for them as debutantes, when they wore his equally innovative evening dresses. In 1927 he made the wedding dress of famous authoress Barbara Cartland.
In 1934 Hartnell was financially successful enough to move his house to the sensational glass and mirror art moderne interiors of the large late C18th town house at 26 Bruton Street, Mayfair.
The turning point in his career came when he designed the brides and bridesmaids dresses for the wedding of the Duke of Gloucester, 3rd son of King George V. Two of the bridesmaids were Princess Elizabeth (later Queen) and Princess Margaret. The future Queen accompanied her daughters to the salon to view the fittings and met Norman Hartnell, whose dresses had been seen at varied Royal or social events for over a decade.
Upon the accession of King George VI to the throne, his consort Queen Elizabeth ordered most and then all of her major orders from Hartnell. He created the famous streamlined fitted look for her day and evening wear
In 1938 he was appointed dressmaker to the British Royal Family and designed gowns for overseas visits, especially for Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother).
Within a decade Hartnell again changed the silhouette of fashion worldwide as the crinoline line worn by The Queen created a sensation on the State Visit to Paris in 1938. The death of the Queen's mother, wife of the 14th Earl of Strathmore, shortly before the visit led to Court Mourning and a complete re-creation of the colorful wardrobe Hartnell had already designed for the Queen. Hartnell was intent on the visit and his clothes being a success and luckily knew the history of dress, so was able to suggest that black and shades of mauve were unnecessary for the July state visit, as white had also been used for Court Mourning. The sparkling designs for day and evening created in slim and crinoline silhouette were recreated within two weeks of continuous work. The clothes, known as the White Wardrobe, were met with huge acclaim and Hartnell was decorated by the French government. Christian Dior, publicly stated that whenever he thought of beautiful clothes, it was of those created by Hartnell for the State Visit in 1938, which he viewed as an ingénue in the fashion world. The crinoline fashion for evening wear influenced world fashion and the French designers contributed their own take on the influence of Hartnell and the Queen's ancestry by creating day clothes featuring plaids or tartans in their next season’s designs.
In addition to his royal work, he designed for the theatre - for Noel Coward productions, Mistinguett and Marlene Dietrich. He was also a prolific designer of film costumes. From 1930 until 1963, Hartnell designed costumes for 21 films, including "Suddenly Last Summer" in 1960.
During the war, he was responsible for the uniforms of the British Red Cross, the Women's Royal Army Corp and the Women's Police Force. During World War II he adhered to the regulations for economic use of fabric, lack of buttons, embroidery, etc., even for the Queen and hand painted some of her dresses himself.
In 1947, Hartnell was commissioned by The Queen to create the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth for her marriage to Prince Philip. 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 subsequently became one of the Princesses main designers and so gained a new worldwide younger generation of clients, as the Princess began to take on more duties and visits abroad. The younger Princess Margaret became the obsession of the press and her Hartnell clothes were similarly given huge publicity.
Upon the untimely death of George VI in 1952, Hartnell was the obvious choice for the design the 1953 Coronation Dress of Queen Elizabeth II. Many versions were drawn by Hartnell and these were then discussed with The Queen. The final design was made with the sweet-heart neckline used for the wedding dress in 1947, the fuller skirt with heavy, soft folds of silk embellished with varied embroideries, including the depiction of all the national botanical emblems of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The time-consuming and complicated construction of the various supports forming the undergarments is vividly described by Hartnell in his autobiography, the weight of the dress having to be perfectly balanced to give a gentle forward swaying motion.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the name of Norman Hartnell was continually found in the press. All the ladies of the Royal Family used Hartnell not only for personal wear within the United Kingdom, but also for their own visits abroad. Hartnell fashion shows travelled the UK and were shown on publicized trips abroad. Norman Hartnell was perceived as embodying British fashion until the new London fashion revolution of the mid-1960s and the mini-skirt.
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 for his many Royal clients. It also marked the swan-song of lavish British couture. The bride wore a multi-layered white Princess line dress, totally unadorned, but demanding in its construction, utilizing many layers of fine silk.