Inside the World of Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s Favorite Couturier

Few couturiers are as closely associated with the British royal family as Norman Hartnell. Born in Streatham to a pair of wine merchants, he became devoted to fashion as a young boy while watching musicals in London’s West End, spending his days recreating the costumes he had seen at home in watercolor paint. The flair for sartorial drama he established then never left him, with Hartnell famously declaring at the height of his career: “I despise simplicity; it is the negation of all that is beautiful.”

It was while studying modern languages at Cambridge that he began making costumes for Footlights productions, working alongside Cecil Beaton—until the Evening Standard published a fateful review of his work. “Is the dress genius of the future now at Cambridge?” wrote journalist Min Hogg. “The frocks in The Bedder’s Opera given by the Footlights Dramatic Club yesterday set me thinking as to whether Mr. N B Hartnell wasn’t contemplating conquering feminine London with original gowns.”

Fast forward a few years, and that’s exactly what he did, having dropped out of Cambridge after reading Hogg’s prophecy. Throughout the 1920s, Hartnell designed his signature embellished pieces for the well-heeled friends he had met at university, establishing himself as a favorite of debutantes and Bright Young Things during the London season. As Hollywood stars became as fashionable as society girls, Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich also appeared in his romantic designs, further contributing to his international popularity.

By the mid-1930s, Hartnell’s frothy creations had grown so popular that he relocated from his studio to a Mayfair townhouse on Bruton Street, and his relationship with the royal family began in earnest. In 1935, Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott asked the young creative to make not only her wedding gown for her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester, but also her bridesmaids’ outfits. Included in her wedding party? Both Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.

Queen Elizabeth II in Norman Hartnell at the 1962 premiere of Lawrence of Arabia at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

Photo: Getty Images

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