Norman Hartnell

Norman Hartnell (1901-1979)

Norman Hartnell, whose career covered half a century from the 1920s to the 1970s, has been called the best and most famous couturier that England has ever produced.

Hartnell, who lived in the Brighton area from an early age, became a figurehead for British fashion, promoting it throughout his career and across the world as the alternative to the dominant Parisian couture industry. Although mainly remembered for dressing the British Royals, Hartnell designed couture gowns for society beauties and actresses, uniforms during World War II and diversified into ready-to-wear collections sold through department stores.

Royal Pavilion & Museums’ costume collection contains over 23 garments designed by Hartnell. The collection includes lavish couture dresses, costumes for the theatre, a bridesmaid dress and ready-to-wear items for both women and men.

Hartnell’s affection for Brighton and the surrounding areas must have stayed with him throughout his life as he was buried at Claydon Parish Church in Hassocks, East Sussex.

Stage costumes for Doris and Elsie Waters 

Dress CT003458
Dress CT003458

Norman Hartnell first made his name as a designer producing costumes for theatrical productions. Whilst a student at Cambridge University he made costumes for the 1922 production The Bedder’s Opera and it was noted at the time that a successful career in clothes design was an option for the student. This was indeed the path he took and although he was to become a great couturier for the wealthy elite and ruling class he never gave up designing clothes for actresses both on and off stage.

Royal Pavilion & Museums holds a unique collection of clothes designed by Hartnell for two sisters, the actresses Elsie and Doris Waters, who became regular and respected customers.

The sisters created one of the most enduring comedy duos in British variety theatre history as middle-aged and shabbily dressed Daisy and Gert. In reality however Elsie and Doris were well known for wearing Norman Hartnell, a designer who gave them a high level of glamour and distanced themselves from their dowdy comic creations.

The collection holds five sets of garments (a set comprising of two identical outfits-one for each sister) dating from the 1940s and 1950s. The earliest set date from 1943 and was designed for a tour of South East Asia (1943-44) to entertain the troops during the Second World War. Made out of pink wool crepe they have a fitted bodice with wide sleeves, decorated all over with complimentary and contrasting embroidery incorporating glass and plastic beads.

Dressing Society Beauties 

Dress CT004010
Dress CT004010

Hartnell’s wealthy middle-class background meant his social circles included people such as Cecil Beaton and Nancy Mitford. These friends and associates were to become his most loyal patrons.

One of his first patrons was Anne Messel (later Anne, Countess of Rosse) and brother of Oliver Messel the stage and costume designer).

Royal Pavilion & Museums holds a large collection of clothing related to the Messel family and one of its highlights is a Hartnell dress worn by Anne in 1929. The dress, which featured in the exhibition Fashion and Fancy Dress at at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in 2005-2006, is made of dark red silk chiffon with velvet roses decorating the shoulder and left hem.

Both Anne and her brother Oliver were introduced to Hartnell through Gladys Beattie Crozier who was a regular visitor to their homes at Balcombe and later Nymans. Anne said of Hartnell when reminiscing in 1985,’I think he realised from the start the sort of romantic, yet suitable clothes that could complement the English beauty, and he developed a magic talent for making an English girl or woman look her best at all times and on all occasions’. (Reflections, Norman Hartnell, pp. 11-12).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *