There are dresses that wear the woman—think of Jennifer Lawrence struggling in an outsized Dior gown at the Oscars—and then there are women who wear dresses. Queen Elizabeth II fall into the latter category. She’s never totally au courant but never totally out of vogue. Rather she’s adopted a uniform that works for her: a bright coat and matching hat, accessorized with pearls, a glittering brooch, gloves and plain shoes and purse. For big formal events, she pulls out all the stops, starting with a tiara and spectacular gems.
But on June 2, 1953 for her coronation, the Queen turned to master couturier Norman Hartnell to create what is certainly the most perfect dress she’s ever worn. Only Hartnell could have dreamed it up. Only she could have carried it off. He spent months researching the topic, and produced nearly a dozen sketches before finalizing the design. The white silk dress, heavily embroidered with the emblems of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well as Commonwealth countries like Canada (yup, there are maple leafs on it), served to emphasize the responsibility being placed onto the then-26-year-old monarch. Made of English silk with a sweetheart neckline and short sleeves, it was so heavy that three layers of horsehair were used, so as to lighten it enough that the Queen could move freely through the complicated manoeuvres in Westminster Abbey. It was delivered to Buckingham Palace days before the big event. (The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor has a lovely piece on the dress.)
The Telegraph has rare coloured film from the event which shows off the dress:
Interestingly, that wasn’t the only time the dress would be worn by the Queen, including the opening of Parliaments in New Zealand, Australia and Canada in 1957. This summer, Buckingham Palace’s exhibition will focus on the events of 60 years ago, especially the outfits. And the highlight will be her coronation dress.
Hartnell’s influence didn’t end there. As the Royal Collection says, “Norman Hartnell (1901-79) was responsible for designing The Queen’s Coronation Dress and Robe, the dresses worn by all the principal ladies of the immediate Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and the outfits for the Maids of Honour. Hartnell’s influence on Coronation Day also extended to the outfits worn by the peeresses. According to the Earl Marshal’s orders, peeresses were expected to wear Robes of State and coronets according to their rank, together with kirtles and coronation dress. Those who were not in possession of this attire, and who were below the rank of countess, could wear alternative robes and dress. Hartnell submitted designs for both alternative dress and head coverings, as his original watercolour and pencil sketches in exhibition show.”
Hartnell, who died in 1979, is known primarily for designing the Queen’s wedding dress and then her coronation dress. But he was also instrumental in establishing London as a leading fashion centre. As Linda Grant stated in the Telegraph, “Hartnell not only designed one of the most important dresses of the 20th century, the Queen’s coronation outfit, but was single-handedly responsible for turning London into a design centre, if not to rival Paris, at least to challenge its sole, overwhelming supremacy. For until Hartnell, British designers such as Charles Worth and Edward Molyneux either moved their operations to Paris, or stayed at home and focused on what even the French grudgingly acknowledged the English were renowned for: tailoring, particularly the tweed day suit so essential in draughty, damp English country houses. There was no British couture and, if you wanted to dress well, you had to cross the Channel.”
Buckingham Palace’s state rooms will be open from July 27 to Sept. 29. Tickets are on sale now. If you’re still deciding between London or another destination, then chose the former. This is one fashion exhibit that is unlikely to be seen again in a very, very long time.