Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Queen’s dressmakers’ private papers revealing royal wedding scandal up for auction

Sir Norman Hartnell was alleged to have taken out cancellation insurance against Princess Margaret’s forthcoming wedding

Joanna Whitehead
Monday 04 October 2021 11:41 BST
Sir Norman Hartnell’s sketches of dresses for Princess Anne
Sir Norman Hartnell’s sketches of dresses for Princess Anne (Ewbank’s Auctions)

A rediscovered cache of drawings and legal documents that once belonged to the Queen’s dressmaker Sir Norman Hartnell have revealed details of a scandal over Princes Margaret’s wedding dress that made headlines in 1960.

Sir Norman, who gained a royal warrant as dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1940 and became the Queen’s dressmaker in 1957, was reported to have taken out a £10,000 cancellation insurance policy on the forthcoming wedding of Princess Margaret, the Queen’s younger sister, to Antony Armstrong-Jones.

The Daily Express broke the story a week prior to the royal wedding in early May 1960, with the news causing a furore for both Hartnell’s company and Windsor Palace.

As the designer of the Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and her coronation gown in 1953, the negative press put the company’s royal warrant at risk.

Now, papers set to be sold by Ewbank’s auction house in November reveal Sir Norman’s personal denial of the claim, alongside a document from George Mitchison, the general manager of Hartnell’s firm, stating that the journalist responsible for the story, Peter Baker, had “hounded” him at his office and made a number of threatening phone calls in relation to the allegation.

“This would have been an extremely shocking claim at the time,” auctioneer Andrew Ewbank said in a statement shared with The Independent.

“To make such a claim about any royal wedding would have caused huge distress and embarrassment, but after the scandal and fallout of the Townsend affair that had kept Princess Margaret in the headlines for much of the early to mid -1950s, this would have been seen as a particularly vicious attack and one that would undoubtedly have put Hartnell’s business and royal warrants at considerable risk.”

The Townsend affair saw Princess Margaret being forced to choose between royal duty and love. The young princess was forbidden to marry royal equerry Peter Townshend, because he was divorced. The government at the time, then led by divorcee Prime Minister Anthony Eden, threatened to strip the princess of all her royal privileges and income should she proceed with the marriage.

Sir Norman’s private papers reveal that his company had indeed sought a quote for insurance, but that this was “in accordance with the usual practice obtaining on such occasions”, rather than any reservations about the princess.

The collection of papers also include scrapbooks and drawings featuring previously unseen designs from the 1960s and 70s by Sir Norman.

Many of the watercolour drawings are of designs for Princess Anne and include an A-line dress in lemon with a matching coat and a turquoise and white evening gown.

Other items include international press cuttings, fabric swatches, designs for race meetings and formal evening events, and pages of handwritten notes.

The collection has been in private hands since a subsequent owner of the company gave them as a gift, after other designs by Sir Norman went on display in Kensington Palace as part of the Royal Style in the Making exhibition.

“These were the inspirational creations of one of the leading lights of fashion design at the time and it is easy to see why they captured the imagination of society women,” says Susan Orringe, Ewbanks vintage fashion specialist.

“To see them looking as fresh today as they would have looked 50 years ago is a thrill, and I expect them to create quite a stir when they appear in our Vintage Fashion & Textiles sale on 11 November.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in