On this day in 1947, fashion lovers and critics gathered across the pond to view the British spring collections. In the middle of a dreary and cold London winter and after the end of a long and devastating war—not to mention wartime clothing rationing—the fashion elite was ready to be wowed and inspired; in short, they were craving something decadent. Britain’s premier designer to the stars, Norman Hartnell, did not disappoint. He took a cue from style predecessors Paul Poiret and Leon Bakst, and played to Western society’s ever-present love of the “exotic,” (i.e. nonwhite clothing, colors and cultures.) His instincts were on the money: Hartnell garnered the first spontaneous applause of the week with a bronze, billowing harem-style evening gown. The harem style had earned mainstream popularity after Bakst’s use of the look at the turn of the 20th century, but had not been widely seen since Poiret’s Russian collection of 1911 (an extravagance likely closeted due to World War I), and its fanciful nature now again appealed to a weary nation. The applause may have been somewhat surprising to Hartnell, given that he had sent many of his 20 looks down the runway unfinished. (The model for the two-piece harem dress had the added job of informing the guests that her blouse would have an embroidered neckline when it was finished.) As any fan of Project Runway knows, hastily stitched together pieces can lead directly to “You’re out,” but Hartnell had a good excuse. The rush job was caused by a much more important task than completing a spring collection: He was simultaneously designing the travel wardrobes for the queen (who most of us knew as the Queen Mum) and her two princess daughters, 20-year-old Elizabeth and 17-year-old Margaret, for a Royal Tour of South Africa.
Hartnell was no stranger to designing for the royal family. Queen Elizabeth had proudly worn his crinoline-skirted dresses during pre-WWII state visits to France and the United States. Once wartime restrictions were lifted, she turned back to Hartnell. The South Africa trip would be the family’s first foray abroad since 1939, and the mood was celebratory. The fact that the public knew Hartnell was in the midst of designing for the trip probably added to the excitement at his runway show, but credit must also be given to the designer for knowing what people wanted at the time. Critics commended his return to the female form after the harsh, sharp lines brought on by wartime material shortages. They praised his lush fabrics and rich, detailed embroidery, features that had originally contributed to his fame when he began designing highly original wedding dresses for society ladies in the 1920s and ‘30s.
A dress on the queen or the princesses was like a dress on Michelle Obama today: instant publicity. The royal outfits were numerous and included at least as many corresponding hats and charming “exotic”—yet appropriate—details of their own, such as South African ostrich feather trims and the use of South African wool.
Royal watchers had their eyes on young Elizabeth and Margaret (the latter of whom boasted an 18-inch waist), whom were able to choose ration-free fashions for the first time since girlhood. At his show, Hartnell reported that he had airmailed (fancy!) some of the young ladies’ dresses to Africa just that morning. Designs by Britain’s Molyneux and Miss Ford Ltd. supplemented the princesses’ wardrobes (only the Queen’s wardrobe was exclusively Hartnell), but the couturier created a long list of evening looks for the girls—and one can surmise that Elizabeth likely wore one of his dresses to celebrate her 21st birthday in Capetown. His styles must have won her over, because later that same year Elizabeth commissioned Hartnell to design her wedding dress for her wedding with Prince Phillip, and six years later she would wear a Hartnell for an even more important day: her coronation as the Queen of England. —Rachel Chambers
Credits: Top: Norman Hartnell and models found at Vogue-blog.com, photographer unknown. Middle: Four black and white images by Eliot Elisofon in April 1947, the time of the Royal Visit, for Life Magazine (Getty Images). Third from top: Queen Elizabeth in her Norman Hartnell wedding dress, also found at Vogue-blog.com. Bottom: Southern Rhodesia stamp commemorating the Queen’s visit.