Photograph by Benjamin Wheeler.
He created some of the most famous royal looks of the 20th century and he’s still producing talked about style picks. Sir Norman Hartnell was already a sought after wedding dress designer when he was first commissioned to produce a bridal outfit by the House of Windsor. Over eight decades on, and long after his own death, he was responsible for another famous royal marriage look. On the 85th anniversary of Sir Norman’s first foray into the world of royal wedding gowns, we look back at the dazzling dresses he created for Windsor brides.
Alice, Duchess of Gloucester
Norman Hartnell was already the toast of London’s high society for his wedding gowns when, in 1935, the fiancee of George V’s third son approached him for her own bridal ensemble. Hartnell was famous for his showstopping designs but Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott, newly engaged to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, asked him to create a more modest and discreet dress for her marriage. He put aside his beloved sparkle and came up with a simple but elegant gown with full length sleeves and skirt and Edwardian style high neckline.
However, Hartnell was already renowned for his willingness to buck trends and this royal bride had a very firm idea for her outfit that went against every royal tradition of recent times. For Lady Alice, then 34, had no intention of having a white wedding. Instead, she chose a blush pink hue for her gown. Hartnell sculpted the fabric into a sleek design with a huge train, designed to light up the centre of Westminster Abbey where the marriage was set to take place. However, the death of Alice’s father less than three weeks before her wedding meant the ceremony took place inside the Private Chapel of Buckingham Palace without the huge audience Hartnell had in mind. He was more than disappointed that his royal debut had been scuppered. However, it was the start of a regal relationship that would turn him into one of the most famous designers in the world.
That first foray into royal wedding design brought Norman Hartnell into contact with Alice’s new sister-in-law, Elizabeth, then Duchess of York. She accompanied her daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, to his studios for fittings for their bridesmaid’s dresses and was soon ordering outfits from him herself. By 1947, when Princess Elizabeth herself became a bride, Norman Hartnell was the king of royal fashion designers. The heir to the throne and her mama immediately asked him to create a dress for the history books.
However, there were fresh challenges for the now veteran style guru to contend with. Elizabeth was marrying just two years after the end of World War Two and rationing, including that of fabric, was still in place. The man who set London alight with his extravagant designs had to, literally, cut his cloth accordingly. He came up with an all time classic. The dress featured a sweetheart neckline, long sleeves, fitted waist and flared skirt but there could be no huge train as the material just wasn’t available. Instead, the grandeur of this gown was created in its embellishments. The dress was decked with crystals and over 10,000 seed pearls in designs inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera. It tied in neatly with the symbolism of Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip as a moment of rebirth and celebration after the harsh life of the war years.
Over a decade later, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, followed family footsteps to Hartnell’s studio for her own wedding gown. Margaret’s marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, on May 6th 1960, was a major event and the first to be broadcast live on television. The princess and her dress designer were more than ready for the close up.
Margaret’s wedding dress is perhaps the most stylish of all the Hartnell royal bridal designs. It was immediately praised for its elegance and simplicity. Unlike her sister, Margaret had virtually no embellishments on her gown. Instead, the silk organza was shaped into a fitted bodice style top with long sleeves that flared out into a huge skirt. Her tulle veil was held in place by the Poltimore tiara and Hartnell’s design allowed those diamonds to sparkle. It was a very modern take on tradition by a designer then approaching his 60th birthday but it took him right back to his glory days, giving him another wedding dress that literally stopped London in its tracks.
Norman Hartnell became a royal wedding dress designer again in 2020, 41 years after his death, when Princess Beatrice chose to marry in one of his vintage gowns that had first been worn by her grandmother, the Queen, in the early part of her historic reign.
Beatrice’s dress was made of peau de soie taffeta with short sleeves, a fitted bodice and a skirt that flares in almost exactly the same way as her grandmother’s own wedding gown did all those years before. This is another example of Hartnell’s mastery of embellishment. The bodice features geometric designs in crystals that drop down into the top part of the skirt. Beatrice added a simple, tulle veil (always Hartnell’s pick for a bride) and a tiara that the designer had had to work with in his royal career, the Queen Mary Fringe worn by the Queen at her 1947 marriage. It was a wedding look that brought together many elements of Windsor heritage and underlined, once again, the vital role played in the design of the dynasty’s image by Sir Norman Hartnell.