Man who designed Queen's Coronation gown, reveals all in backstory

Celebrated courtier Sir Norman Hartnell, the man who designed the Queen’s iconic Coronation gown, reveals he was horrified at the thought it made Her Majesty look like she was ‘covered in vegetables’

  • The designer of the 1952 Coronation dress, Sir Norman Hartwell, who died in 1979, recalled when he got the most momentous commission of his career
  • White satin was lightly embroidered around the hem in classic Greek-key design
  • Lattice-work effect had a scheme of national and Commonwealth floral emblems

As the celebrated couturier who had dressed Queen Mary, the Queen Mother and swathes of Britain’s aristocracy, Sir Norman Hartnell (who died in 1979) was the obvious choice to design Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation gown. Here, an abridged extract from his autobiography describes the most momentous commission of his career…

One October afternoon in 1952, the Queen asked me to make the dress to be worn at her Coronation. I can scarcely remember what I murmured in reply.

In simple conversational tones, Her Majesty went on to explain that it should conform in its line to her wedding dress (to which I had put the finishing touches almost exactly five years earlier) and that the material should be white satin.

When my first exhilaration was over, I settled down to study what history and tradition meant by a ‘Coronation dress’.

I visited museums and the London Library and leafed through authoritative tomes.

After gathering all the factual material I could, I retired to the seclusion of Windsor Forest and spent many days making trial sketches.

My mind was teeming with heraldic and floral ideas. I thought of lilies, roses, marguerites and golden corn; I thought of altar cloths and sacred vestments; I thought of the sky, the Earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and everything heavenly that might be embroidered upon a dress destined to be historic.

Altogether I created nine designs which began in almost severe simplicity and proceeded towards elaboration. I liked the last one best, but naturally did not express my opinion when I submitted the sketches of the designs to Her Majesty.

The first I showed her was an extremely simple style in lustrous white satin, lightly embroidered along the edge of the bodice and around the skirt’s hem in a classic Greek-key design, somewhat similar to that worn by Queen Victoria.

The second was modern line, slender and slimly fitting, embroidered in gold and bordered with the black and white ermine tails of Royal miniver.

The third was a crinoline dress of white satin and silver tissue, encrusted with silver lace and sewn with crystals and diamonds.

Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation dress and Robe of Estate holding the spectre and orb and and wearing the Imperial State Crown

The fourth was emblazoned with a theme of Madonna lilies and arum lilies tumbling with pendant pearls.

THE fifth depicted what might have been a flouting of tradition, for I had introduced a note of colour in the violets of cabochon amethysts and in the rubies of the red roses that glittered and mingled in the waving design of wheat, picked out with opals and topaz. But Her Majesty eased my uncertainty by saying that the suggestion of colour was not inadmissible.

The sixth, again of white satin, had spreading branches of oak leaves with knobbly acorns of silver bullion thread that dangled on small silver crystal stalks amid the glinting leaves of golden and copper metals. This design met with gracious approval.

The seventh introduced in bold character the Tudor rose of England, with each bloom padded and puffed in gold tissue against a white gloss of satin and shadowed and surrounded by looped fringes of golden crystals.

The eighth, which automatically suggested itself to me from the previous sketch with the Tudor rose, was composed of all the emblems of the United Kingdom: the thistle of Scotland, the shamrock for Northern Ireland and the daffodil which, at that time, I thought to be the authentic national emblem of Wales.

All these floral emblems, placed in proper positions of precedence on the skirt, were to be expressed in varying tones of white and silver, using small diamonds and crystals. Her Majesty approved this emblematic impression but considered that the use of all white and silver might resemble her wedding gown too closely.

She liked the theme of the fifth design and suggested that I might employ colour in representing the four emblems.

I mentioned that the gown of Queen Victoria was all white, but Her Majesty pointed out that, at the time of her Coronation in 1838, Queen Victoria was only 19 and unmarried, whereas she was older and a married woman. Therefore, the restrictions imposed upon the gown of Queen Victoria did not apply to her own.

I then drew a facsimile of the chosen sketch and enjoyed the pleasure, known to all artists, of painting the small rainbow touches of pastel colours into a pencilled black-and-white drawing.

Later, at another audience, the Queen made a wise observation. It was, in effect, that she was unwilling to wear a gown bearing emblems of Great Britain without the emblems of all the dominions of which she was now Queen.

I then drew and painted the ninth design, which proved more complicated than I had expected.

The Queen after her coronation in 1953 arriving at Buckingham Palace from Westminster Abbey

It was necessary to raise the three emblems of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to the upper portion of the skirt, thus contracting the space they occupied upon the satin background, to allow for more space below where all the combined flowers of the Commonwealth countries could be assembled in a garland, each flower or leaf nestling closely around the motherly English Tudor rose in the centre.

Meanwhile, to confirm the accuracy of these emblems, I consulted that amiable authority, Garter King of Arms, at the office of the Earl Marshal. He supplied me with a particularly decorative Tudor rose, and the thistle and the shamrock proved simple.

But then I made the mistake of asking for the daffodil of Wales. Garter exclaimed: ‘A daffodil! On no account will I give you a daffodil. I will give you the correct emblem of Wales, which is the leek.’

I complained that I would be dressing a beautiful young woman in vegetables if compelled to embroider leeks on to the dress. However, Garter stood firm and the decision was final: leeks.

It became, in the end, not so much a dress as a diplomatic plot. The leek, I agreed, was a most admirable vegetable, full of historic significance and doubtless of health-giving properties, but scarcely noted for its beauty. Could he not possibly permit me to use the more graceful daffodil instead?

‘No, Hartnell. You must have the leek,’ said Garter, adamant.

My enthusiasm blunted, I went to Windsor, greatly depressed.

The fading afternoon light showed only barren trees, a lake glum and grey, and the whole landscape wrapped in November gloom.

I went out to the vegetable garden, pulled up a leek and suddenly remembered the cap badge of the Welsh Guards. Perhaps something could be done with it after all.

In the end, by using lovely silks and sprinkling it with the dew of diamonds, we were able to transform the earthy leek into a vision of Cinderella charm, worthy of mingling with her sisters, the rose and mimosa, in a brilliant Royal assembly – and fit to embellish the dress of a queen.

The final touches to the original coronation dress that adorned Madame Tussauds London’s figure of the Queen in 1953 which will be part of its Royal Dress Collection for the Platinum Jubilee

Samples of the intended floral emblems had to be submitted to Her Majesty before the final decision was made.

My embroidery rooms at once began to evolve the 11 motifs and we finally realised that the only satisfactory method of interpreting all the fine flowers was to use the silken stitchery, as well as jewels, sequins and beads – so, in fact, that the despised leek ultimately proved a real inspiration.

An appointment was made for some members of my staff and myself to visit Sandringham House.

And so, on a very cold Saturday morning, we motored up to Norfolk with two carloads of people and dresses. Apart from the now completed ninth sketch and the precious emblems, we took with us a generous collection of dresses from which Her Majesty might be able to select some for her tour of Australasia early the following year. After lunch, we staged the most informal dress show I have ever presented, for it took place in a large bedroom of old-fashioned charm. The mannequins entered through a door that led out of a capacious white bathroom.

It was my duty to present to the Queen the final sketch together with the coloured emblems. Each had been mounted in a circular gilded wooden frame and I laid out them all out as follows…

England: The Tudor rose, embroidered in palest pink silk, with pearls, gold and silver bullion and rose diamonds.

Scotland: The thistle, embroidered in pale mauve silk and amethysts. The calyx – the part of the flower that supports the petals – was embroidered in green silk, silver thread and diamond dewdrops.

Northern Ireland: The shamrock, embroidered in soft green silk, silver thread bullion and diamonds.

Wales: The leek, embroidered in white silk and diamonds with the leaves in palest green silk.

Canada: The maple leaf, in green silk embroideries, bordered with gold bullion thread and veined in crystal.

Australia: The wattle flower, in mimosa yellow blossom with the foliage in green and gold thread.

New Zealand: The fern, in soft green silk veined with silver and crystal.

South Africa: The protea, in shaded pink silk, each petal bordered with silver thread. The leaves of shaded green silk and embellished with rose diamonds.

India: The lotus flower, in mother-of-pearl embroidered petals, seed pearls and diamonds.

Pakistan: Wheat, cotton and jute. The wheat was in oat-shaped diamonds and fronds of golden crystal, the jute in a spray of leaves of green silk and golden thread, the cotton blossom with stalks of silver and leaves of green silk.

Ceylon (now Sri Lanka): The lotus flower, in opals, mother-of-pearl, diamonds and soft green silk.

Apart from the shamrock, which was judged a little too verdant in tone, the Queen was pleased to agree to the ensemble as my design for her Coronation gown.

Jewels that turned a princess into a queen

By Claudia Joseph 

Marlborough Great George

Suspended from the Garter Collar, this diamond-encrusted badge depicts Saint George attacking a green dragon

 Coronation Armills

A gift from the Commonwealth, these decorative gold cuffs are opened with a Tudor rose clasp

Sovereign’s Ring

The ‘wedding ring of England’, with sapphires, diamonds and rubies that echo the Union flag

 Imperial Crown

Made for the Coronation of George VI and set with 2,868 jewels, the Queen wore it at the end of the ceremony

Sovereign’s Orb 

fter the monarchy’s Restoration, the cross mounted on a gold sphere symbolises the Christian world

St Edward’s Sceptre

Sceptre Dates from 1661 but was altered in 1910 to add the dazzling ‘Star of Africa’ jewel cut from the largest diamond ever found

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