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Even if the women of the royal family are more closely scrutinised than almost any others in the world, many of us can usually sympathise in some way with their sartorial dilemmas- what to wear to a wedding or for a formal dinner etc. But the conundrum faced by the Queen on June 2 1953 was unique.
In a documentary about the coronation broadcast in 2018, the Queen discussed her memories of the day for the first time, telling Alastair Bruce about the precariousness of the crown jewels and how her robes were so heavy that they became stuck on the carpet as she glided through the abbey.
But while that anecdote might suggest an awkward, centuries-old outfit, the Queen’s coronation gown and robe were created for her by Norman Hartnell, the couturier who had been designing for the royal family since the 1930s and who had made her wedding dress five years before.
Hartnell was christened ‘the world’s most envied dress designer’ by The Telegraph’s Style Correspondent of the time, Winefride Jackson. She noted that even Christian Dior, then one of the most feted and influential names in the industry, would be jealous of Hartnell’s long standing relationship with the royals. His commission to create the coronation gown and robe, as well as dresses for her six maids of honour and other senior female members of the royal family was the crowning glory of an illustrious career.
In the months leading up to the coronation, newspapers were full of speculation about what the Queen would wear. That Hartnell would mastermind the gown- and many of the guest outfits- was never in doubt, though. The previous January, he showed his spring collection which included lots of ‘slim silhouettes’ for the women who would need something elegant to wear in the cramped pews they would have to sit in during the ceremony. It was the first hint of what was to come.
“Britain was becoming very dynamic and strong in the field of design, industry, architecture and fashion; it was a moment of strength in country,” Caroline de Guitaut, senior curator at the Royal Collection Trust, told The Telegraph in 2017. For Hartnell, then, the challenge was to create a dress which projected that power but also the glamour of the 27 year-old Queen- and not just to the guests in Westminster Abbey and the crowds thronging The Mall but the 20 million people who watched on television.
Hartnell and the Queen chose motifs from across the UK and Commonwealth: maple leaves for Canada, wheat sheaves for Pakistan, lotus flowers for South Africa, the English Rose, Welsh leeks, Scottish thistles and Irish shamrocks. They were embroidered in ‘a shimmering haze of colour’ on a base of white satin (gold and white are the regulation colours for coronation). Diamonds, crystals, pearls, amethysts and rose-coloured stones were used as twinkling embellishments to the gold and coloured silk threads. The design took six embroiderers 3000 hours to complete.
It was ‘more beautiful and colourful than one could imagine possible’ read The Telegraph’s verdict. Over the top of the gown, the Queen wore a purple robe which had been lined with silk rather than the customary ermine to make it lighter and sleeker. It was embroidered with olive leaves and wheat sheaves - signifying peace and prosperity - by the Royal School of Needlework.
Hartnell was reportedly offered huge fortunes to share his design with American shops so that they could run up copies as soon as possible, but he showed his loyalty by keeping the dress a complete secret. In other areas, he was more nonchalant. ‘I will only be in the way at the palace,’ he said ahead of the ceremony, explaining why he wouldn’t be with the Queen as she was dressing in what would become one of the most memorable outfits of the 20th century.