Sir Norman Hartnell (1901 – 79) was the star of London couture during the interwar years, gaining international fame as dressmaker to the British royal family. This abridged extract from his autobiography describes the most momentous commission of his career: the Coronation dress of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
One October afternoon in 1952, Her Majesty the Queen desired me to make for her the dress to be worn at her Coronation.
I can scarcely remember what I murmured in reply. In simple conversational tones the Queen went on to express her wishes. Her Majesty required that the dress should conform in line to that of her wedding dress and that the material should be white satin. It was almost exactly five years earlier that I had put the final touches to the dress which, as Princess Elizabeth, she had worn on the day of her wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh.
When my first exhilaration was over, I settled down to study exactly what history and tradition meant by a 'Coronation dress'. I visited the London Museum and the London Library and leafed through authoritative tomes.
After gathering all the factual material I could, I then retired to the seclusion of Windsor Forest and there spent many days making trial sketches. My mind was teeming with heraldic and floral ideas. I thought of lilies, roses, marguerites and golden corn; I thought of altar cloths and sacred vestments; I thought of the sky, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and everything heavenly that might be embroidered upon a dress destined to be historic.
Altogether, I created nine differing designs which began in almost severe simplicity and proceeded towards elaboration. I liked the last one best, but naturally did not express my opinion when I submitted these paintings to Her Majesty.
The First I showed to the Queen was an extremely simple style in lustrous white satin, lightly embroidered along the edge of the bodice and around the skirt's hem in a classic Greek-key design, somewhat similar to that worn by Queen Victoria.
The Second was modern line, slender and slimly fitting, embroidered in gold and bordered with the black and white ermine tails of Royal miniver.
The Third was a crinoline dress of white satin and silver tissue, encrusted with silver lace and sewn with crystals and diamonds.
The Fourth was emblazoned with a theme of Madonna and arum lilies tumbling with pendant pearls.
The Fifth depicted what might have been a flouting of tradition, for I had introduced a note of colour in the violets of modesty expressed in cabochon amethysts and in the rubies of the red roses that glittered and mingled in the waving design of wheat, picked out with opals and topaz. But Her Majesty eased my uncertainty by saying that the suggestion of colour was not inadmissible.
The Sixth, again of white satin, was of spreading branches of oak leaves, in a way emblematic, with knobbly acorns of silver bullion thread that dangled on small silver crystal stalks amidst the glinting leaves of golden and copper metals. This design met with gracious approval.
The Seventh introduced in bold character the Tudor Rose of England, each bloom padded and puffed in gold tissue against a white gloss of satin and shadowed and surrounded by looped fringes of golden crystals.
The Eighth sketch, which automatically suggested itself to me from the previous sketches with the emblem of the Tudor Rose, was composed of all the emblems of Great Britain. Therefore it included the Thistle of Scotland, the Shamrock of Ireland and the daffodil which, at that time, I thought to be the authentic national emblem of Wales. All these floral emblems, placed in proper positions of precedence on the skirt, were to be expressed in varying tones of white and silver, using small diamonds and crystals for pinpoint coruscation (shimmering light).
Her Majesty approved of this emblematic impression but considered that the use of all white and silver might too closely resemble her wedding gown. She liked the theme of the fifth design and suggested that I might employ the aid of colour in representing the four emblems.
I mentioned that the gown of Queen Victoria was all white, but Her Majesty pointed out that, at the time of her Coronation in 1838, Queen Victoria was only 18 years old and unmarried, whereas she herself was older and a married woman. Therefore, the restrictions imposed upon the gown of Queen Victoria did not apply to her own. I then drew a facsimile of the chosen sketch and enjoyed the pleasure, known to all artists, of painting the small rainbow touches of pastel colours into a pencilled black and white drawing.
Later, at another audience, the Queen made a wise and sovereign observation. It was, in effect, that she was unwilling to wear a gown bearing emblems of Great Britain without the emblems of all the Dominions of which she was now Queen.
I then drew and painted the Ninth design which proved more complicated than I had expected. A new design had to be provided and I found it necessary to raise up the three emblems of Scotland, Ireland and Wales to the upper portion of the skirt, thus contracting the space they occupied upon the satin background, to allow for more space below, where all the combined flowers of the Commonwealth countries could be assembled in a floral garland, each flower or leaf nestling closely around the motherly English Tudor Rose, placed in the centre.
Meanwhile, to confirm the accuracy of these emblems, I again consulted that amiable authority, Garter King of Arms, at the office of the Earl Marshal. He supplied me with a particularly decorative Tudor Rose, and the Thistle and the Shamrock proved simple. I then made the mistake of asking for the daffodil of Wales.
"A daffodil!" exclaimed Garter. "On no account will I give you a daffodil. I will give you the correct emblem of Wales, which is the Leek."
The leek I agreed was a most admirable vegetable, full of historic significance and doubtless of health-giving properties, but scarcely noted for its beauty. Could he not possibly permit me to use the more graceful daffodil instead?
"No, Hartnell. You must have the Leek," said Garter, adamant.
My enthusiasm blunted, I went down to Windsor, greatly depressed. The fading afternoon light showed only barren trees, a lake glum and grey, and the whole landscape wrapped in November gloom. I went out to the vegetable garden, pulled up a leek and suddenly remembered the cap badge of the Welsh Guards. Perhaps, after all, something could be done with it. In the end, by using lovely silks and sprinkling it with the dew of diamonds, we were able to transform the earthy Leek into a vision of Cinderella charm and worthy of mingling with her sisters Rose and Mimosa in a brilliant Royal Assembly, and fit to embellish the dress of a queen.
Samples of the intended floral emblems had to be submitted to Her Majesty before the final decision was made. My embroidery rooms at once began to evolve these eleven motifs and we realized finally that the only satisfactory method of interpreting all the fine flowers was to use the silken stitchery, as well as jewels, sequins and beads, so that the despised Leek proved a real inspiration after all.
An appointment was made for some members of my staff and myself to visit Sandringham House. So, on a very cold Saturday morning, we motored up to Norfolk with two car loads of people and dresses. Apart from the now completed ninth sketch and the precious emblems, we took with us a generous collection of dresses newly prepared for the spring, from which Her Majesty might be able to select dresses for her tour of Australasia in the early part of the following year. These dresses were beautifully packed by the indispensable Florrie who accompanied us this time in the additional capacity of 'habilleuse' (dressser).
The atmosphere of Sandringham is about as different from that of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle as could possibly be imagined, and I can well understand why successive generations of the Royal Family have such a great affection for this rambling Victorian country home and its encircling pine woods.
After luncheon we staged the most informal dress show I have ever presented, for it took place in a large bedroom of old-fashioned charm. The mannequins entered through a door that led out of a capacious white bathroom. From this quaint display some dresses were chosen as the basis of the wardrobe for Australia.
It was then my duty to present to the Queen the final sketch together with the coloured emblems. Each of them had been mounted in a circular gilded wooden frame and I laid out the following emblems:
England. The Tudor Rose, embroidered in palest pink silk, pearls, gold and silver bullion and rose diamonds.
Scotland. The Thistle, embroidered in pale mauve silk and amethysts. The calyx was embroidered in reseda green silk, silver thread and diamond dewdrops.
Ireland. The Shamrock, embroidered in soft green silk, silver thread bullion and diamonds.
Wales. The Leek, embroidered in white silk and diamonds with the leaves in palest green silk.
Canada. The Maple Leaf, in green silk embroideries, bordered with gold bullion thread and veined in crystal.
Australia. The Wattle flower, in mimosa yellow blossom with the foliage in green and gold thread.
New Zealand. The Fern, in soft green silk veined with silver and crystal.
South Africa. The Protea, in shaded pink silk, each petal bordered with silver thread. The leaves of shaded green silk and embellished with rose diamonds.
India. The Lotus flower, in mother-of-pearl embroidered petals, seed pearls and diamonds.
Pakistan. Wheat, cotton and jute. The wheat was in oat-shaped diamonds and fronds of golden crystal, the jute in a spray of leaves of green silk and golden thread, and the cotton blossom with stalks of silver and leaves of green silk.
Ceylon. The Lotus flower, in opals, mother-of-pearl, diamonds and soft green silk.
Apart from the Irish Shamrock, which was judged a little too verdant in tone, the Queen was pleased to agree to the ensemble as my design for her Coronation Gown.
© Hardy Amies London Ltd.
The complete Silver and Gold: The Autobiography of Norman Hartnell is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.