This retrospective exhibition of ground-breaking London designers Norman Hartnell, and Hardy Amies celebrates the timeless elegance of fashionable London couture. The consummate design skills of these men were – publicised world-wide by the patronage of the Royal Family and helped to re-establish Britain’s reputation as an international fashion centre after the Second World War.
Until the 1920s London couture was inspired by Parisian fashions. The finesse of French dress-making caused many affluent British women to buy clothes in Paris. The greatest French houses, such as Worth, Paquin and Redfern, established branches in London.
Norman Hartnell (1901–79) set out to combat French influences when he opened his Bruton Street, Mayfair salon on St George’s Day 1923. Thirty years later his prestige was such that he was commanded by Queen Elizabeth II to create the iconic dress of the mid-twentieth century, her 1953 Coronation Dress.
Part of the later success of London couture relied upon the unique patronage and individual styles adopted by the Royal family. Yet it was the glamorous women who sought to emulate them, who sustained a viable luxury industry employing many thousands with all the ancillary trades involved. By the 1950s, Hartnell was supreme amongst other influential British designers, including Hardy Amies (1909–2003), all overcoming the intervening problems of war, shortages of materials, finance and skilled labour.
This exhibition explores the designs produced by the two fashion Knights, Sir Norman Hartnell and Sir Hardy Amies together with royal milliner Frederick Fox and the celebrated royal shoe makers, Rayne. A special section of the exhibition display examples of couture from other London Houses, members of the prestigious Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (INCSOC) formed in 1942 to promote British design worldwide.
Norman Hartnell and the Jazz Age
‘I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful.’ Norman Hartnell
Norman Hartnell a child of Edwardian Britain immersed in London theatre, filled his school-books with doodles of actresses. His first public designs were for Cambridge University’s ‘Footlight’s Revues’, when he wore his own creations. Initially supported by the mothers and daughters of Cambridge friends, Hartnell founded his business with his sister Phyllis and a loan from his father.
Hartnell’s clothes reflected Post-War emancipation of woman’s dress. He excelled at moulding the contemporary fashions to romantic afternoon and evening dresses with unique embroideries. A galaxy of wedding dresses followed for beautiful and distinguished women, including the three Guinness sisters, who’s late 1920s dresses hinted at his 1930s re-interpretation of the crinoline styles of his hero Charles Frederick Worth. He similarly took his collections to Paris, where his long evening dresses caused his first fashion coup, all French designers immediately lengthened the skirts of evening dresses. Hartnell opened a branch of his business in Paris. In 1929 the prestigious Best & Co on Fifth Avenue gave Hartnell five New York windows.
Glamorous London Couture of the 1930s
Hartnell’s success encouraged others. In 1932 Victor Stiebel (dates), a younger Cambridge ‘Footlights’ member, also opened in Bruton Street. In 1934 Hardy Amies became manager of near-by Lachasse, founded in 1928 for women’s ‘sports clothes’, as suits for racing or country pursuits were termed. The designer Digby Morton (dates) had left to form his own house.
In 1935 Amies became the Lachasse designer, gaining immediate fame by re-designing the construction of women’s suit jackets, the suits suitable for wear at the Ritz or Cheltenham. Hartnell expanded built into a vast re-modelled house with lavish mirror and glass ‘art-moderne’ interiors at 26 Bruton Street. A large embroidery workroom was included, adding luxury to his designs based on the long silhouette of the 1930s he had re-introduced in Paris.
The sophistication and allure of the London ‘Season’, epitomised by the Prince of Wales and his circle, caused Edward Molyneux to open a London branch, with the advice of his client the Duchess of Kent, Princess Marina of Greece. Schiaparelli, as well as the American Charles James, the most expensive designer of his day, also opened in London. Hartnell’s designs for the London stage and British film industry attracted some of the greatest stars, including Mistinguett, Alice Delysia and Marlene Dietrich. Hardy Amies gained Chaplin’s star of ‘City Lights’, Virginia Cherrill, the former Mrs Cary Grant, a backer of the new Hardy Amies Ltd in 1946.
Hartnell and the Crown
In 1935 Hartnell gained his first royal client, Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, on her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester, third son of King George V. The patronage of Queen Mary and the Duchess of York followed and her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were bridesmaids at the wedding. The Duchess of York inspired Hartnell’s romantic approach to dress design and on becoming Queen Consort to King George VI in 1937, Hartnell’s genius for re-fashioning her image was epitomised by the famous all-white trousseau featuring the re-invented crinoline during the State Visit to France in 1938. One on-looker, Christian Dior, later commented on the impact of the clothes had on him.
In June 1939 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth undertook a Royal Tour of Canada and State Visit to the USA, visiting the World Fair near New York City. This momentous undertaking was an act of political brinkmanship and solidified ties with Britain’s allies on the eve of war. The Queen in her varied Hartnell ensembles again made world news. Adolf Hitler described her as, ‘The most dangerous woman in Europe.’
War, Utility, Austerity and Mass Production
During the 1920s and 1930s most women changed their clothes at least twice a day. The more affluent and fashionable might change three or four times a day and sustained an immense dress-making industry, curtailed by the outbreak of war in 1939. Couture houses showed small collections, re-modelled clients existing clothes, utilising rationed materials and also worked for stage and films. The Royal Family embraced ‘Make Do and Mend’. Princess Elizabeth’s early evening dresses were altered pre-war ones of her mother, The Queen.
Draconian 1941 Clothing Regulations were a welcome challenge to Hardy Amies, in the Army, but officially encouraged to design for Export. Edward Molyneux and Amies relished the opportunity to exclude non-functional detailing. Hartnell achieved a rationed elegance in designs manufactured by Berkertex, with whom he collaborated into the 1950s. He became the first British couturier attaching his name to ready-to-wear clothes.
In 1942 Hartnell, Amies, Molyneux, Elspeth Champcommunal of Worth, Peter Russell, Charles Creed, Bianca Mosca and Digby Morton formed the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, promoting exports world-wide for currency and propaganda. After the war, others joined and a variety of prestigious shows and events were promoted around the world.
Post-war London Design and The New Look
In 1945 Britain suffered severe consumer supply shortages. Hardy Amies bravely founded his own House in the bombed 14 Savile Row, W1. By 1946 American buyers viewed new INCSOC collections and Hartnell took a successful collection to South America. Amies travelled to North America, re-established his links with the great stores of Chicago and New York and returned with substantial orders.
Parisian couture quickly expanded after Liberation in June 1944. In early 1947 Christian Dior astounded the world with the lavish, full skirts of his ‘New Look’ dresses. Amies publicly acknowledged the advantage of French couture organisation and supplies, adapting their methods as far as regulations permitted.
The 1947 Royal Tour of South Africa and Rhodesia gave Hartnell the opportunity to create an extensive wardrobe for The Queen. The two Princesses were first seen as fashionable adults, Hartnell’s designs augmented by Molyneux. Worldwide coverage of the Tour followed by the November wedding of Princess Elizabeth in her Hartnell dress cemented his position as a pre-eminent designer. His workload was such that by 1951 Princess Elizabeth explored the designs of Hardy Amies and in 1952 he became established as the younger second designer, when she succeeded to the throne.
The New Elizabethan Age of the 1950s
British couture flourished in the 1950s. The Festival of Britain in 1951 indicated a new Britain of advanced design and architecture and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was heralded as The New Elizabethan era. The radiant glamour of the young Queen became a potent symbol of Britain’s post-war revival and industrial, scientific and social progress. New man-made fibres were used by all the London couture houses.
1953 formed a peak in the history of London couture houses. Hartnell hired extra workroom space. The orchestration of his dresses worn at the Coronation, viewed on television and later in cinemas, had a profound effect world-wide, as did the Royal Tour of the Commonwealth (November 1953-March 1954). The world’s media concentrated on the Queen wearing a continually changing display of dresses by Hartnell, Amies and also Horrockses.
During the 1950s, Society weddings remained newsworthy, usually featuring dresses from the London Houses, as did the London Season. The post- war swan-song of the lucrative debutante and her mother needing a complete similar wardrobe for The Season dwindled after the end of Presentations at Court in 1958.
Swinging London and Street Fashion
In 1954 Hardy Amies predicted the end of London Couture and he revealed himself as the master of re-invention with an in-house Boutique, selling ready-to-wear, knitwear, scarves, belts and eventually his own scent ‘Amie’. In 1960 he began a lucrative men’s ready-to-wear contract with Hepworths and achieved a new global market.
Most London couture houses attempted ready-to-wear links to department stores or retail manufacturers. By the late 1970s, Hartnell, Amies and Lachasse were the only INCSOC members left in a world dominated by the mini-skirt, scorned by Hartnell and Amies, buut not truly a couture garment. The Investiture of The Prince of Wales in 1969 witnessed the Royal Family dressed in the shortest of innovative dresses Hartnell could design. In 1968 Hartnell’s assistant Ian Thomas left and became the Queen’s third designer with his own business. Yuki was Norman Hartnell’s assistantand designed a collection in 1969.
Hardy Amies and Kenneth Fleetwood, his women’s-wear designer, created the clothes for Stanley Kubrick’s cult movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Fleetwood displayed a talent for modernising the Amies style, as did Jon Moore and Ian Garlant. The maxi-look gave some scope to couture designers in the early to mid 1970s and led to the longer, fuller silhouettes of the 1980s conducive to couture.
After the death of Hartnell in 1979, Hardy Amies remained the only viable grand London couture house. A revival of Hartnell with Marc Bohan failed in 1992. In 2001 Hardy Amies sold his business, which today concentrates on menswear. The company now owns the Norman Hartnell name and has plans for a revival.
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