The man who designed for royalty, and more importantly brought back the long evening dress…
Following his 2012 book about the fashion of Norman Hartnell, British design historian Michael Pick returns to ‘the man who dressed the ladies of the Royal Family’, with a fully comprehensive biography. As well as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, fashion powerhouse Hartnell’s clients included Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Linda Christian. Pick’s title delves into the person behind the glorious designs, exploring his sexually active private life and how –having owned two wonderful houses and a world-famous business empire – he ended his domestic life sketching in the garage of a suburban house. Here the author supplies a taste of “the man who put London fashion design on the world stage”.
Just a royal figure?
Hartnell had a particular knack, having designed for the stage and then for film, for seeing how a dress would look in a certain setting, and that’s very relevant to senior royal figures. That was his great forte really. But you’ve got to remember he was much more than this royal figure. He actually had a huge profound influence on world fashion, several times in fact. He was the first designer internationally to create long evening dresses again after they’d got shorter and shorter through the twenties, he had great commercial success in America. When I was writing about him in the late seventies, he was often disparaged –‘He only designs clothes for the Queen Mum and the Queen’ – but he actually had this extraordinary career of invention and success.
Sex as great relief
When I spoke to people who’d known him, they knew he was gay, but so were a lot of people – as long as you didn’t go out and frighten the horses, it didn’t really matter, particularly if you were in the field of clothes and fashion. What surprised me was what a powerful private life he had. It was his pressure valve; it released him from all the tensions of having to conform, having all these lustrous clients, an enormous workload, financial problems. I think his sex life really was his great relief, and I imagine it was for an awful lot of other people too.
He never came out publicly, just as he didn’t come out publicly about his origins. The fact he was born in a pub, and his parents kept a pub in Stretton, was never mentioned. In the twenties he had a publicist and together they cooked up a story that he came of an old Devon family, which is totally true (on his father’s side), but the pubs were never mentioned. By the time the sixties came, it was almost trendy to say your mother had washed floors and your father had been a porter at King’s Cross, but it was too late because he’d created this history of his own life which was so untrue that he couldn’t really do much about it. What was true was he went to Mill Hill School, from there he progressed to Cambridge. It was the Cambridge Footlights which was really the making of him, rather than studying which he wasn’t particularly keen on. He had a wonderful time performing, designing costumes and wearing women’s clothes – that really set him on the path.
“A silly old queen”
He was immensely witty, and he had a great facility for puns and jokes involving words in one way or another. He had a great sense of humour, people always found him very lovable and likable, men and women. Hardy Amies was known to Hartnell as ‘hardly amiable’ because he had this austere, slightly chilly persona – Amies called him “a silly old queen” which probably didn’t help. There’s a great, lovely character in Hartnell. He remained slightly childlike throughout his life, which lead ultimately to his financial near-ruin.
Hartnell’s downfall: a sign of the times, or of him?
Slightly a sign of the times. But actually total incompetence from his business manager and boyfriend. A name like Hartnell, which was on everybody’s lips, constantly in the press and often on the screen, led to enormous merchandising linkups – all of which ultimately floundered by miscalculation, mismanagement and ineptitude. Hartnell was rather to blame in a way, but also he couldn’t do everything. Dior had Marcel Boussac, Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Bergé, Pierre Balmain had somebody, they all had somebody. Hartnell never really took advice from people who knew better, because they always wanted to get rid of his business manager who really wasn’t good for the business in the long-run.
All the great names either live on through merchandising or they fade into history. How does one remember Worth? The name still lives on in Paris, through scent and merchandising. Hartnell never really made a success of that. There was jewellery, there were stockings, there were shoes, scarves, you name it, it was going on. There was even menswear but all too late and too half-hearted. At the moment he lives on with me in the Fashion and Textile Museum. I’ve got a tribute room of Hartnell’s clothes there, so people can see what a genius he was, and how absolutely extraordinary his designing was.
Norman Hartnell: The Biography, published by Zuleika, is out now. Norman Hartnell – A Tribute is at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum until 26 January.
Images courtesy of Fashion and Textile Museum, London