A Dress Fit for A Princess

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Taken from an article in Woman’s Own, November 10th, 1955. Written by Norman Hartnell: The Court Dressmaker. I have interspersed the original article with additional pictures of relevance. 

Early in July, 1947, the engagement was announced of Her Royal Highness the Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, R.N. The wedding would take place on November 20th and I was delighted to be summoned to Buckingham Palace to discuss her dresses with the Queen who asked me also to submit some sketches for the Princess’s wedding gown. In the middle of August I heard that a design of mine had been improved.

This gave me less that three months to complete the dress and train. It also made it necessary for me to cancel a proposed visit to Dallas, Texas, where, with Christian Dior, I was to receive the coveted Neiman-Marcus award for contemporary influence on fashion, a kind of dressmaker’s ‘Oscar.’ But I also wanted to bring back great quantities of small white American pearls, for I was already visualising a bridal gown of fine pearl embroidery.

Meanwhile, I roamed the London art galleries in search of classic inspiration and, fortunately, found a Botticelli figure in clinging ivory silk, trailed with jasmine, smilax, syringa and small white rose-like blossoms. I thought these flora might be interpreted on a modern dress through the medium of fine white crystals and pearls – if only I had the pearls.

Whisper at the Customs

A few weeks later, my manager Captain Mitchison, returned from America and was asked at the Customs if he had anything to declare. Raising the deep collar of his British warm, he bent forward mysteriously and answered in lowered tone: “Yes, ten thousand pearls, for the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth!”

Somewhat startled, the officials retained the pearls until the prescribed duty was paid, but soon the tiny American pearlswere being delicately fastened by needle and thread to a glossy background of English satin.

Lady Hart Dyke in 1971

Then came the problem of the satin. What was the nationality of the worms that provided the silk from the satin was made and with which I intended to make the dress? Her Majesty the Queen had expressed the wish that I should use a certain satin made at Lullingstone Castle which is directed by the delightful Lady Hart Dyke. This superb satin, rich, lustrous and stiff, I was able to use for the lengthy train, but for the dress itself a slightly more subtle material of similar tint was preferable. I ordered it from the Scottish firm of Wintherthur near Dunfermline; and then the trouble started.

I was told in confidence that certain circles were trying to stop the use of the Scottish satin on the grounds of patriotism; the silk worms, they said, were Italian, and possible even Japanese! Was I so guilty of treason that I would use enemy silk-worms?

I telephoned through to Dunfermline, begging them to ascertain the true nationality of the worms; were they Italian worms, Japanese worms or Chinese worms?

“Our worms,” came the proud reply, “are Chinese worms – from Nationalist China, of course.” After which we were able to get on with the real job with a much easier conscience.

To complete the bridal retinue, I was asked to provide dresses for the eight beautiful young girls of whom the the bride’s sister, Princess Margaret, was the leading bridesmaid.

I had already enjoyed the honour of making many dresses for Princess Margaret and had always noticed with what quick decision she chose her clothes. On this occasion, however, she most unselfishly preferred to state no opinion until the design had been also submitted for the approval of all the other bridesmaids.

Milky Way of blossom

These dresses were finally made of ivory silk tulle with a full flowing skirt and a tulle fichu swathed across the shoulders and fitted corsage. On the skirts was a Milky Way of small star-shaped blossoms embroidered with pearl and crystal. This repeated the motif of the bridal train which, fastened to the shoulder, stretched about 15 yards behind the Princess.

One evening, after her young assistant had gone home, Miss Flora Ballard, my head embroideress, and I laid 15 yards of tracing paper flat on the linoleum workroom floor. I rolled up my shirt sleeves and wore gymnasium shoes, so that I should not slip when running up and down both sides of 15 paper yards secured by drawing pins to the shiny linoleum.

Graphite pencil in hands, I first marked out a long line from shoulder almost to the hem of the main backbone, a central line for the graduated satin syringa and orange blossoms. Similar pearl embroideries were to mark the border edges of the train. Then, crouching on my knees, I marked in the more softly curving lines of the diamond and pearl wheat ears which feathered gracefully to the base of the train.

World curiosity aroused

Sitting cross-legged and suffering from a severe cold in the head, I marked in circles the rich white roses of York to be carried out in padded satin, and centred by raised strands of pearls threaded on silver wire and raised up in relief. All these motifs had to be assembled in a design proportioned like a florist’s bouquet.  Wherever there was space or weakness of design I drew more wheat, more leaves, more blossom.

I have many memories of the crowded weeks that followed. I had been commanded by Her Majesty the Queen to design her dress of apricot and golden brocade, gracefully draped and trailing; also by Her Majesty Queen Mary to provide her ensemble, a dress and coat of golden tissue embossed with sea-blue chenille, the last dress I ever had the honour of making for that great lady.

The Princess had naturally requested, like any other bride, that no details of her dress should be made public, but we had little anticipation of the world-wide curiosity which had been aroused. Surmise became wild and almost hysterical.

It was rumoured that the design would be ‘pirated’ and put on the wholesale market to coincide with the wedding, but I had no fear of this, knowing that the principal asset of the dress was its complicated embroidery and the time and money it would take.

A neighbour of mine had an offer of a two months’ tenancy of rooms overlooking my own workrooms. I am gratful that he declined. We then had the workroom windows white-washed and curtained with thick white muslin. The tension and speculation over the dress reached such a point that, to be quite sure the secret was preserved around the clock, my manager volunteered to sleep in the next room.

About a month before the wedding I received permission to show something of the nature of the dress to a selected group of fashion writers, each of whom would be asked to sign a promise not to reveal the details until the day of the Abbey ceremony.

There was a leakage in the end, but just how it came about we could never discover. The ‘Giornale d’Italia’ published a rough picture of my sketch obtained at the second preview a week before and this was reproduced in the New York ‘Daily News’. A London paper which had not signed the pledge promptly followed suit.

On the eve of the wedding, hundreds of headlines informed the world that the ‘Princess gets her Bridal Gown at Palace in 4-ft Box.’ What I hoped would be the most beautiful dress I had so far made now belonged to its lovely young owner. All that was left to me was to see it worn in the setting for which I had designed it – Westminster Abbey.

The missing bouquet

With the dress went, of course, a magnificent bride’s bouquet. Yvonne, my devoted saleswoman, told me after the ceremony that when she reported at the Palace to dress the bride, the bouquet could not be found. The personal maid to Her Royal Highness had gone in advance to the Abbey to be ready there, with my two sewing women, for any emergency.

Furthermore, the rest of the staff had all been given standing room in the forecourt of the Palace to see the cortege leave. The Palace was, therefore, deserted for this one unusual moment, except for the King and his daughter, the bride.

Yvonne asked if there was not a bouquet, but the Princess had no idea where it was.

The King, of course, had no knowledge of its whereabouts, so Yvonne harried from room to room, through long deserted corridors, prying here and there and afterwards searched the huge ground floor. Finally she discovered the bouquet in one of the porters’ lodges and hurried back with it to the bride.

The spectacle in the Abbey was superb; the High Altar with its gold plate and the rich glow of the candles against the heavy brocades, the Gentlemen-at-Arms in their scarlet tunics and with the plumes of their helmets swaying slightly as they moved with great dignity from one point to another, and finally the peals of bells as the bride approached.

A memory to treasure

On this great occasion I treasure most the memory of the young bride’s graceful obeisance before her parents, the King and Queen. And the smile she gave the assembly as, in gloss of satin and shimmer of pearl, she passed serenely from Westminster Abbey.

The years that followed the war had been occupied with preparing many clothes for the many Royal tours. When the King and Queen planned a visit to South Africa with the Princesses I was commanded to make three separate wardrobes for each of the Royal ladies.

Her Majesty first set foot in South Africa wearing a panelled dress of ice blue, trimmed with a soft band of ostrich feather. At the first garden party she wore a long white chiffon dress with a large hat fringed with white ostrich fronds, the latter being a compliment to this important native product.

I recall that from two similar yachting suits of white linen made for the Princesses, the King, their father, insisted that the brass buttons be removed, for they were authentic naval buttons, and replaced by plain ones.

In May of 1948 Princess Elizabeth, now with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited Paris, and again I provided nearly all of the clothes for Her Royal Highness. I took care that the Gala evening dresses had small sleeves or straps, either broad or narrow, on which to affix the Orders of the scarlet Legion of Honour or the blue sash of the Garter.

A year later, Princess Margaret visited Italy and I designed many simple Summer suits and dresses for this lovely young Princess. There followed visits be Her Royal Highness to Holland and Sweden and again I provided a selection of clothes.

Towards the end of that year I was busily engaged on a varied wardrobe for Her Royal Highness when she and Prince Philip, with the country’s blessing, set out on their visit to Australia. After only a few days it became the heartrending duty of His Royal Highness to inform his young wife of her father’s death. She was, now, by will of God, Queen Elizabeth the Second.

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