An evening dress by Norman Hartnell

Last time I wrote about festive party frocks of early 20th century, and promised to continue on the subject. Recently I came across a lovely evening dress from 1930s, designed by Norman Hartnell, and I just had to write about it.

Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) was one of the most prominent British designers of the 20th century, and also dressmaker for Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth II. He started his own company in 1923, after leaving Cambridge without a degree and working with other designers, such as Lady Duff-Gordon, better known as Lucile.

Hartnell’s style was opulent and decorative and he specialised in lavish embroideries employing an in-house embroidery workroom. He offered British haute couture for both domestic and foreign clientele, specializing in creating ethereal and alluring evening gowns and afternoon dresses for the elite, but he also produced variety of ready-to-wear, shoe, perfume, jewellery, bridal and menswear collections over the decades.
However, he is best remembered for dressing the royals. Hartnell gained the favour of the court when he designed the wedding dress and trousseau for Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, marrying Duke of Gloucester in 1935. After that, both Queen Mary and Duchess of York, future Queen Elizabeth, became clients, and especially following the abdication crisis Hartnell became responsible for Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe. She was so taken by Hartnell’s designs that she commissioned him to design the wedding and coronation gowns for Queen Elizabeth II and a wedding dress for Princess Margaret. In 1940 Hartnell received a Royal Warrant for his accomplishments and in 1977 he was appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victoria Order.

The dress in the museum’s collection is from the 1930s when Hartnell was a praised and very sought-after designer. It is a full length silver lame evening dress with a train, and it also has a matching coronet and an underdress that goes with it. We do not know who the dress belonged to, but behind the dress label there is another label saying “Lady M oraan”.

The dress is sleeveless and it has shirring at the bust and an open back with imitation belt on the back side. As is common with dresses of this era, it is bias-cut to accentuate the body lines and drape more softly. The cut of the dress is very interesting in other respects too, since the back side seams are very cleverly cut in zig zag pattern also helping to accentuate the body lines.

The dress closes on the left side seam with hooks and eyes and the side of the hooks changes on the waist seam, creating more secure closure. There is also an egg blue waist tape inside. Narrow straps with press stud closure are sewn inside the shoulders to secure the straps of the underdress in place.

The matching coronet is made of same silver lame as the dress and it has an elastic band sewn on it. Metal wire is twined inside the silver lame braids to form a plait.

The underdress worn with the dress is of egg blue silk with silk chiffon hem and cream shoulder straps. There is a label inside revealing it was bought from Marie Thérèse Gowns, 47 Conduit Street, London. Conduit Street is situated just next to Bruton Street in Mayfair, where Norman Hartnell had his salon throughout his life. The owner of the dress has probably first had the dress done at Hartnell and then bought the underdress from a nearby shop.

For more information on Norman Hartnell, visit

Piia Lempiäinen

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