Friday, 7 December 2012


There's a fabulous new show in London called Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment, that's perfect for anyone interested in fashion and photography, plus royal- and social history. Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell, the two stalwarts of British Couture in the 50's and 60's, are currently being celebrated in a unique exhibition at the Fashion & Textile Museum. The show highlights the advent of British couture in the post-war years and in particular Amie's and Hartnell's influence in creating a highly elegant silhouette that attracted the royal patronage of the Queen and was instantly copied by forward thinking department stores and nimble fingered seamstresses. 

Another important element of the exhibition is the photography. The late Norman Parkinson's timeless images effortlessly depict this glamorous era and compliment the sumptuous couture pieces on show.

Norman Hartnell and models, British Vogue 1953
© Norman Parkinson Limited/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) opened his Mayfair salon in 1923 and quickly became known for his elegant and intricately embellished evening gowns, often epitomised in society photographer Cecil Beaton's evocative vignettes of high society's Bright Young Things.

 Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation parade shot by Cecil Beaton in Norman Hartnell’s grand salon in 1953
Photo Credit

The couturier went on to design the Queen's ivory silk, crystal and seed-pearl embroidered wedding dress in 1947 and also her regal Coronation gown in 1953. According to the Hartnell, the 13 foot star-patterned train on the Queen's wedding dress was inspired by Botticelli's Primavera, and captured the imagination of a stricken post-war Britain in search of escapism.

Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Norman Hartnell wedding gown with 13-foot silk tulle train
Photo Credit

Norman Hartnell's final sketch for Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation gown
Photo Credit

Seamstresses in Norman Hartnell's salon watch as the Queen's Coronation dress is taken for delivery 
to Buckingham Palace Photo credit
Princess Margaret, also turned to Hartnell for her marriage to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, opting for a more refined, yet beautifully elegant gown. 'I despise simplicity,' Hartnell is recorded as saying, 'It is the negation of all that is beautiful.'

Norman Hartnell with models wearing two of his wasp-waisted gowns, British Vogue 1953
© Norman Parkinson Limited/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

While Hartnell was revered for his feminine evening gowns and delicate embroidery, Hardy Amies (1909-2003) quickly became known for his exquisite tailoring. Amies cut his teeth at the the British couture house, Lachasse, where tailoring was a speciality. He went on to open his headquarters in a townhouse in Savile Row, the bastion of bespoke menswear tailoring, and focused on both womens- and menswear. I can remember attending his couture shows in the 80's and early 90's. They were always very intimate affairs with Amies or one of his designers, introducing the collection and making a short speech after the event. Society hostesses would sit in the front row on gilt chairs, and the models would hold numbered cards so the audience could cross-reference the details of specific outfits against the running order. It was a fascinating to watch.

Hardy Amies with models wearing his signature tailoring and glamourous evening wear, British Vogue 1953 
© Norman Parkinson Limited/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Amies was as forward thinking as Hartnell, and his full-skirted silhouettes in 1947, were totally in tune with Christian Dior's controversial New Look of the same year. Princess Elizabeth, later to be crowned Queen Elizabeth, became a regular client, and both Hartnell's and Amies' designs were regularly photographed by renowned photographers, such as Norman Parkinson, for British Vogue.

Wenda Parkinson, Norman Parkinson's wife and muse, models a Hardy Amies suit at Hyde Park Corner, for British Vogue,1951
© Norman Parkinson Limited/Courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive

Pristine finishing touches such as gloves, bags and hats were integral to the Amies/Hartnell look and the exhibition also punctuates the role of the couture milliner at this turning point in fashion. Focusing on the Australian-born milliner, Frederick 'Freddie' Fox (1931-2011), who regularly created hats for the Queen and the Queen Mother, the show explores the craft of millinery and the process involved, including Fox's original hat blocks and illustrations.

Milliner Frederick Fox has made more than 350 hats for Queen Elizabeth II, including this pink confection decorated 
with 25 bells for each year of her reign for the Silver Jubilee in 1977
Photo Credit

The show examines the impact of Royal celebrity in the 20th century through fashion and imagery and highlights the fact that today's media obsession with the Royals is nothing new - we just have so many more ways of gathering news updates today. You can sit-in on a fashion show from 1951 at The Savoy Hotel in London, that includes  couture outfits by Hartnell and Amies at: 

Catch the show before it ends on the 23rd February 2013 and marvel at the beautiful confections on display and Norman Parkinson's evocative photography. A real treat.


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