Princesses, Parties and Debutantes: Sir Norman Hartnell – British Couturier

‘I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful,’ – Norman Hartnell (Source V&A Museum, Norman Hartnell biography).

A presentation at court to the royal family was a rite of passage for most upper-class girls during the 1920-30’s. A long lasting tradition of the British establishment, the trip to Buckingham Palace was rooted in history, beginning some 200 years prior to the interwar years, the period that lasted from 1918-1945. Presentations at court only ended in 1958, out of touch with a fast-paced, modernising world where social boundaries were slowly deteriorating.

norman hartnell 1948

72.143. Norman Hartnell evening gown. Silk. c1948. The Museum of London, London, England.

Young girls, would be put forward for invitation normally by their mothers, to courtesy in front of the ruling monarch, symbolising the beginning of the social Season. Presentations would normally occur when the debutante was 18 to 21, although other older ladies such as widows who had not been previously presented could attend the events at court. This was exclusively for the upper-classes; as the rest of the public crowded around the palace and down The Mall to watch the young debutantes arrive in their motor cars.

norman hartnell debutantes

Image Credit: Daily Mail, Diamonds, dance classes and dramas at the debutante ball. c1930’s. Read more: 

Inside the palace, debutantes would courtesy, without tripping on her gown, or wobbling in her shoes, and exit the room, without turning her back to the monarchs. Women attended etiquette lessons from a young age, to prepare her to become a successful suiter and the eventual hostess.

Young women could meet potential husbands and vice versa, and participate in the endless parties, galas, balls, sporting events and hunting weekends away in the country, that lasted from April/May until September.

Debutantes and their wealthy families would travel from manor houses around the country to visit London, socialising at events that included Royal Ascot, the Henley Regatta and the Chelsea Flower Show. For a young lady, the Season was both an exciting and exhausting experience, which of course, required a hefty and expensive wardrobe.

norman hartnell ascot

Ladies attending Royal Ascot. c1920’s. Ladies wearing dresses with wide brim hats, walking and laughing. Black and white image. Photograph. Getty Images. Web.

The Season provided the perfect conditions in which British couturiers thrived. This was a time where British designers could now dictate interwar fashions, competing against the dominance of Paris couture. Women needed wool, tweed day ensembles, perfect for travelling and day to day activities. Evenings required cocktail dresses and dresses appropriate for stately dinners and after-parties, with ball gowns a necessity for the numerous galas that one would be expected to attend.

norman hartnell 1933

T.190&A-1973. Norman Hartnell gown. Silk crêpe faced with velvet. c1933. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

norman hartnell 1923 cocktail dress

E.29-1943. Norman Hartnell illustration for a cocktail dress. Pencil and watercolour. c1923. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For presentations at court, white was the preferred colour of the debutante gown, with matching white gloves and perhaps a string of pearls. Ostrich feathers were worn at all times in the hair with an attached veil; debutantes holding the train of their dresses in their hands. It was about restraint, elegance, and respectability. Image was key.

One designer who flourished during this period was a young gentleman named Norman Hartnell. Known for his beautiful intricacy when designing gowns, Hartnell quickly rose to success after establishing his salon in 1923, choosing to locate at Mayfair, in the heart of the social circle.

norman hartnell 1924 evening dress

86.433. Norman Hartnell evening gown. Satin. c1924-26. The Museum of London, London.

Hartnell himself had a good knowledge of debutante tradition and maintained a solid clientele throughout his career. Beginning his apprenticeships at court-dressmakers such as Lucile and Reville, he was already becoming inclined to design for women who required romantic garments for their social occasions, in comparison to the sporty looks being produced by the likes of Chanel and Jean Patou oversees in Paris. Of course, ladies still purchased couture from abroad, but Hartnell’s gowns were highly appropriate for the Season, understanding the needs and desires of his clients.

T.836-1974, T.306-1978. Norman Hartnell wedding dress designed for Margaret Whigham, later the Duchess of Argyll. Embroidered silk satin with pearl and glass beads and satin appliqué, tulle with metal wire, trimmed with wax. c1933. The Victoria and Albert, London.

Hartnell was revered for his embroidery and embellishment. He created crinoline style gowns that were produced from the highest quality materials. Pastel colours were preferred, adorned with as Dr Jane Hattrick describes in her biography of the designer, ‘fur for collars, cuffs and hems; and artificial flowers to accentuate the waistline or décolletage. His favourite flowers included the rose, the camellia, and the lilac or hydrangea.’ The detail of Hartnell’s gowns were quite phenomenal. (Hattrick: V&A Publishing, 2015. 54)

T.264-1974. ‘The Flowers of the Fields of France,’ dress, given by HRH Queen Elizabeth II. Duchesse satin, embroidered with pearls, beads, brilliants, and gold thread. c1957. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (Hartnell designed this dress for HRH’s visit to France, with bee and flower motifs created from the beads sown into the gown.)

Hartnell excelled in using more delicate materials such as taffeta and chiffon, using these in conjunction with tulles, satins, chiffons and velvets. Exquisite materials that were the epitome of glamour and couture, his clients wore princess/fairy-tale like gowns with crinoline style skirts.

T.253-1981. Norman Hartnell embroidered gown. Satin with bead work. c1953. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1936, Hartnell was awarded the commission of royal dressmaker, already a firm favourite with the Queen Mother, eventually designing the wedding dress of Queen Elizabeth II in 1947, and her Coronation in 1953, the highest acclaim Hartnell could have achieved. Working with the Queen, Hartnell understood exactly what was needed when designing her innumerable wardrobe collections for various state visits and tours.

norman hartnell queen elizabeth

RCIN 100019. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown designed by Norman Hartnell. Duchesse silk satin, white seed pearls, silver thread, sparkling crystal and transparent appliqué tulle embroidery, silk tulle veil. c1947. Royal Collections Trust, United Kingdom. (Hartnell submitted 9 designs for Her Majesty’s wedding dress design, and the Queen accepted the 8th. The dress had a 15 foot silk tulle train attached!)

norman hartnell queen elizabeth coronoation

RCIN 250044. The coronation dress of Queen Elizabeth II. Embroidered silk satin, coloured silk thread, gold and silver thread, bugle beads, diamantes, pearls, sequins. c1953. Royal Collections Trust, United Kingdom.

T.192&A-1973. Norman Hartnell ballgown. Tulle embroidered with sequins, trimmed with tulle, lined with rayon taffeta and moiré and boned. c1948. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Presentations at court eventually ended during the late 1950’s. After WW2 Britain had changed dramatically. Many country houses fell into disrepair, and social class boundaries had become far more fluid. There was a heavy loss of life during the war, and London was suffering with the aftermath of the Blitz. Presentations and debutantes seemed out of touch with the increasingly transforming world – especially with the revolutionary 60’s only around the corner.

Norman Hartnell and his models for Norman Parkinson, British couture editorial, Vogue.

British couture was dying. Of course there were still many clients, but ready-to-wear now dominated the market. As Hartnell’s health worsened from age, he continued designing right up until the late 70’s.

The Hartnell couture house finally closed in the 1990’s. (Hattrick: V&A Publishing, 2015. 58) Despite its closure, the house remained open for an extraordinarily long period. Hartnell witnessed dramatic social change and the effects of war. The days of the debutante may be long gone, but the legacy of Hartnell’s gowns and the Golden Era of British couture lives on.


  1. Jane Hattrick, ‘Norman Hartnell.’ London Couture 1923-1975: British Luxury, eds. Amy de la Haye and Edwina Ehrman, (V&A Publishing, London: 2015) 54.
  2. Hattrick, ‘Norman Hartnell’, 58.

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