Monday, February 16, 2015

History’s Runway: The Flowers of the Fields of France Gown, 1957

The Flowers of the Fields of France Gown
Norman Hartnell, 1957
This and all related images:
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Queen Elizabeth II is not the first name that comes to mind when you think of a fashion style-setter. But, iyou go back and look at Her Majesty’s collection of gorgeous gowns, you will notice that they are quite extraordinary, and some of them, rather cutting-edge. For many years, Norman Hartnell was the Queen’s personal designer. Here, we see a creation by Hartnell which is anything but dull.

This full-skirted, full length evening gown in ivory silk satin with a princess-seamed bodice and draped fold at hips, extends into a large self-fabric bow positioned at 7/8ths length down the skirt. It is carefully embroidered with miniature bees, grasses, wheat and wild flowers worked in relief in faceted glass stones, gold beads, “brilliants” and variously shaped pearls, with flowers of mother-of-pearl and gold petals. The gown was designed for the Queen's state visit to Paris, April 8-11th, 1957 and, fittingly, refers to French motifs, including the "Flowers of the Fields of France" (traditionally, poppies, daisies and crossed wheat sheaves) and Napoleonic bees. These diplomatic motifs are worked in relief. And, here’s where the Queen is clever. The dress was intended to both compliment the French nation and draw attention to the Queen. Knowing that she was going to one of the fashion centers of the world, she knew she had to dazzle them. And, she certainly did.
“The Flowers of the Fields of France Gown” was worn to the state dinner on the first night pf the visit. The dinner hosted by President René Coty at the Elysée Palace, and was followed by a visit to the Opéra to see a ballet by Lifar from The Diaries of Cynthia Jebb.

When the dress was displayed at Kensington Palace in 2006-7. Maureen Markham, one of the embroiderers who worked on the dress, recalled that she and her team worked with blacked-out windows to avoid the peering-eyes of the press and that she hoped that the Queen would have “nice plush cushions to sit on so as not to crush the embroidery.”

This is just one bit of Norman Hartnell’s brilliance. He had been court dressmaker since 1938, working the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and continued to work with the Royal Family until his death in 1979. 

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