Jean Harding reminisces on her time as a dressmaker for the Queen
The designer Norman Hartnell is synonymous with royal glamour with the late Queen Elizabeth II and fellow royals among his clients. As the nation remembers our late Queen, grandmother Jean, 72, who is currently being cared for on the ward at Saint Francis Hospice, reveals her incredible story of being a dressmaker for the late Queen while she worked as a dressmaker at Norman Hartnell’s workshop in Mayfair, London from 1964 to 1974 and she has some surprising revelations to share.
When I was at school, they decided that we needed to stop our needlework class and do more maths and English. I didn’t want that as I wanted to learn to sew properly.
My dad rang up the dressmaker’s fashion house Norman Hartnell and asked if I could have an appointment to see him. I was 15 years old when I left school on a Friday and started to work on a Monday morning.
It was so exciting at the time and I loved it because you never stopped learning but you were paid such little money. After my three-year apprenticeship in dressmaking, I was qualified and I became a hand. This meant you were full on with everything and you had a junior under you learning.
I was very aware that we were making dresses for the late Queen. Norman Hartnell held two fashion shows a year. A spring/Summer collection and an autumn/winter collection. The designers at Norman Hartnell used to design about 30 dresses for each collection and we would make 30 for the models to show off two times a day for all the clients coming in. They would sit and have a look at all the dresses and would pick out what they would like made especially for them.
The late Queen had her dresses designed especially for her so nobody else could have them. As well as her own private collection, a special date would be arranged at the end of the year so she could come in and watch the fashion show herself and if she liked any of dresses, she would buy the actual dress that was worn by the model for half price.
People used to say she only wore something once, believe me that isn’t true. She used to send dresses back time and time again to have them readjusted with a new neckline or a different sleeve or a different panel to make it slightly different.
I never actually met the late Queen. My boss used to go to Buckingham Palace all the time to fit her dresses. She would then bring them back to the work room and tell us the next step that was needed to do to alter and readjust the dress.
The Queen would have at least three fittings as there always was with couture. Every single thing, apart from the seams themselves, was done by hand. We sat for days and days sewing so the seams did not fray. We loved doing it but it make you so tired because it was so repetitive.
I remember one time I was ironing a velvet dress the late Queen was due to wear for a Remembrance Sunday Service. I was holding it on a hanger with one hand and ironing inside when the iron went straight through the dress. It was due to go to the palace in half an hour and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had to tell my boss and she contacted the palace to say the late Queen wouldn’t be able to have the dress and she would need to arrange something else to wear.
I cried when I heard the news that the Queen had died. I feel so sorry for Charles and Anne and all the family as after all is said and done, it is their mum and they still have to be in the limelight. It is so sad for them.
Some fashion house somewhere must be rushing to do so may outfits. They may well have had something prepared already.
I stopped working for Norman Hartnell in 1974 after my son was born. But when he was six weeks old and we were in a routine, I thought, I cannot sit here doing nothing and let my apprenticeship go to waste. So, I started working from home and have been doing alterations ever since. I still have people coming to me for 40 odd years.
You don’t often see the dresses the Queen wears as she always wears a coat over the top. I went to Buckingham Palace with my husband when the Queen celebrated her 70th birthday and there was a display of 70 dresses on mannequins in all different colours around the hall.
There was a plaque that said the designer and when I saw one that said Norman Hartnell, I took a quick peek inside the dress to read the label and knew it was one of the dresses I had made.
It is different when you are working on the dresses on a table in a workshop to seeing them inside the palace. It was an amazing feeling.
I made a copy of one of the Queen’s dresses for my mum in fuchsia pink and she wore it to my brother’s wedding. I also made a copy of the dress for me in navy which I wore to a wedding.
My mum passed away in 1999 and when I was clearing out her cupboard, I gave the dress away to charity so someone is walking around with the replica of a dress that the Queen wore for the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969.