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Norman Hartnell's sketches of the dresses worn at The Queen's Coronation go on display
Her Majesty The Queen in her Coronation Dress, 1953, Norman Hartnell. Royal Collection Trust/All Rights Reserved.

LONDON.- Sketches by British couturier Norman Hartnell, the principal designer of the outfits worn at the Coronation of Her Majesty The Queen, will go on display this summer as part of the special exhibition, The Queen’s Coronation 1953, at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace (27 July – 29 September 2013). The exhibition celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Coronation by bringing together an unprecedented array of the dress, uniform and robes worn for the historic event on 2 June 1953. Paintings recording the event, works of art and objects used on the day will be included, alongside film footage and sound recordings, to recreate the atmosphere and the pageantry of a State occasion that has remained essentially unchanged for 1,000 years.

The sumptuous outfits worn by royalty and the peerage contributed greatly to the spectacle of Coronation Day. Norman Hartnell (1901-79) was responsible for designing The Queen’s Coronation Dress and Robe, the dresses worn by all the principal ladies of the immediate Royal Family, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and the outfits for the Maids of Honour. Thus Hartnell was able to produce a coherence of style that gave a remarkably unified effect to the onlooker.

Norman Hartnell had great experience of designing for royal ceremonial occasions. His first major commission as a royal couturier was to create the dresses for the Maids of Honour to Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, at the 1937 coronation. He subsequently became principal Designer By Appointment to Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother), producing the majority of her wardrobe until his death in 1979. Hartnell began to design for the future Queen Elizabeth II from the early 1940s, his most notable commission being her wedding dress in 1947. By the time of The Queen’s accession in 1952, he was her principal designer.

Hartnell’s design for The Queen’s Coronation Dress, considered to be his masterpiece of royal couture, is recorded in a sketch presented by the designer himself to The Queen in 1953. The drawing, in watercolour and bodycolour over pencil, shows in detail the full-skirted gown with its tiers of rich embroidery terminating in a wide multi-coloured border. Like many designers, Hartnell used a number of artists to record his initial thoughts in highly finished presentation sketches for clients or the press. The sketch of the Coronation Dress was probably drawn by Ian Thomas, Hartnell’s Assistant, who went on to become a successful couturier in his own right, designing for The Queen from 1970 until his death in 1993.

Hartnell was permitted to release a number of his designs to the press just before Coronation Day, including that for Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s dress. For Queen Elizabeth, Hartnell created a crinoline-skirted gown in white satin, bordered in gold tissue and embroidered with a feather design in crystal, gold and diamanté. The elegant design demonstrates how adept he was at combining rich fabrics and sumptuous embroideries to great effect.

Hartnell’s influence on the spectacle of Coronation Day extended beyond the outfits for the principal royal ladies to those worn by the peeresses. According to the Earl Marshal’s orders, peeresses were expected to wear Robes of State and coronets according to their rank, together with kirtles and coronation dress. Those who were not in possession of this attire, and who were below the rank of countess, could wear alternative robes and dress.

Hartnell submitted designs for both alternative dress and head coverings, as his original watercolour and pencil sketches in exhibition show. He slightly modernised the traditional peeresses' robes, combining their historic design and demarcation of rank with the elegance of post-war style. The spring of 1953 was one of the busiest the couturier had known, as he supplied new robes and numerous dresses and ‘row upon row of cute little Caps of State’, which were lined up in his milliner’s atelier.

Exhibition curator Caroline de Guitaut said, ‘Norman Hartnell had extensive experience of designing for the Royal Family, particularly for The Queen and The Queen Mother, and was therefore uniquely placed to create dresses for the Coronation. He brilliantly combined magnificence with a respect for the tradition and requirements of the occasion. His work for the theatre helped him to envisage a truly coherent “look” for the principal female members of the Royal Family. He made a major contribution to the great spectacle of Coronation Day.’

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