Monday, June 4, 2012

Queen's jubilee, and ol' cousin Norm

Video from yesterday's Thames parade — celebrating the queen's jubilee, 60 years on the throne —is splendid. I celebrated quietly with a spot of tea, and I finally polished my good English silver pot. A few Chicagoans have put out Union Jacks in place of or in addition to their stars-and-stripes this weekend. Jolly good.

While taking jubilee tea, I thumbed back through some notes, books and research. Norman Hartnell, the famed London fashion designer in the mid-20th century — and the man who designed Queen Elizabeth's wedding and coronation gowns — was a second cousin to me. The Hartnell house was one of the longest-running in British fashion history, and Normie's costumes were lavish, to say the least. He loved embroidery, embellishments and jewels jewels jewels. One of his first wedding gowns, worn by the bride of Lord Weymouth, was swathed in silver and gold netting and was described as "the eighth wonder of the world." He loved to tell his clients, "I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful."

Hartnell was appointed official dressmaker to the royal family in 1938. He made Elizabeth's wedding dress in 1947, and her coronation gown (pictured above, in Norman's sketch and as Elizabeth exits her carriage) in 1953. Everything he created for the royals was certainly fit for a queen, but he had to walk a fine line. A queen's clothes have to be regal, yes; they also have to be both not trendy and not obsolete. "The Queen doesn't want to set the style," he said. "She wants to be comfortable." Then again, take a look at the clothes he designed for regular gals — like this video of models posing awkwardly in his spring ’38 collection — and decide how much he really knew about comfort.

In Windsor Forest, Hartnell had a country home (and a mink farm!) where "all sorts of people would roll up for drinks, lunch or tea," according to one biographer. In London, his favorite spot for afternoon tea was Claridge's, in Mayfair, where he had a favorite table near the door. (Today, for some reason, the tea menu at the Doubletree Hotel in Cambridge claims to be "inspired by Norman Hartnell and Lord Byron," which is, for so many reasons, an amusing pairing.) I visited Claridge's on my London tea trip a couple of years ago. I also stopped by the Bruton Street building where Hartnell's fashion house thrived for so many years. It's been nicely restored, and his name is still on it.

Here's to you, Sir Normie. Someday I'll get over there and finally write my book about you.

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