Most people nowadays are not familiar with Lady Duff Gordon, aka Lucile, the British based dressmaker and designer who revolutionized fashion in the Edwardian age. I just finished the autobiography of her fascinating life which prompted this post about her . Written in 1932 it details her childhood, her disastrous first marriage to James Stuart Wallace, her second to Scottish baronet Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and her rise as an international fashion celebrity. Her revelations on her relationships with kings and queens, aristocrats, famous bohemians and stars of stage and screen, along with an account of her scandal filled Titanic rescue, would certainly make for an exciting Masterpiece Theater period drama. Never mind how dreamy the costumes would be!
Born Lucy Christiana Sutherland, she was considered a head strong, untraditional girl. Married at 18 years old to a philandering alcoholic, they divorced after five years. She was left penniless with a daughter to raise on her own. After moving in with her mother she decided she would use her dressmaking skills to make a living for herself and her daughter, Esme.
Even though she was from a middle class background, it was still looked down upon to work in a trade. But what other people thought never bothered Lucy. Quite a determined young woman, she set about planning her little business. She eventually got an order from a society woman who needed a dress for a special party. Lucy’s design for her was inspired by one worn on stage by actress Letty Lind. The dress was an instant hit which resulted in more orders. That was the beginning of what would become the world renowned fashion brand “Lucile.”
Lucy had specific ideas about how Edwardian women should dress, which was very different from the laced up heavier garments of the Victorian era. She envisioned light, floaty dresses unrestricted by corsets and other cumbersome undergarments. Her tea gown designs actually raised a lot of eyebrows, at first, considered too risque by many women.
From her book
“I was the first dressmaker to bring joy and romance into clothes, I
was a pioneer. I loosed upon a startled London, a
London of flannel underclothes, woolen stockings
and voluminous petticoats, a cascade of chiffons, of
draperies as lovely as those of Ancient Greece”
Another of Lucy’s controversial fashion firsts included a line of lingerie to wear beneath her tea gowns.
“So I started making underclothes as delicate as
cobwebs and as beautifully tinted as flowers, and half the
women in London flocked to see them, though they had
not the courage to buy them at first”
But Lucy had an uncanny knack of convincing women to try her “racy” new designs. And once they did, they clamored for more.
“I don’t think that I spread a cult of “immoral dressing”,
a charge which some of the old dowagers accused me
of, but I did get rid of a lot of false modesty.”
She also believed in designing clothes to capture a woman’s unique essence. Before she would design for them, she would often dine with or spend a few days at the homes of clients in order to study their traits. Her “personality dresses” became the hallmark of her brand.
“I was the first to show women how they
ought to wear their dresses. I taught them to let their
clothes express their own personality. I would never
design a dress for any woman until I had studied her
type, and more often than not I had to find for her an
entirely different way of dressing and of doing her hair.”
Some more of Lucy’s fashion firsts included designing dresses with lower necklines instead of the uncomfortable high boned collars that were popular at the the time, colored wigs that matched the outfit of the wearer and the first person to hire live models to show off her designs. Her “mannequin parades” were the precursor to the runway shows of today. Her mannequins became famous and traveled with her, the supermodels of their time.
She had shops in London, New York, Chicago and even Paris, where no one thought an English designer would ever be accepted. But, even there, she made a name for herself in the Paris fashion world.
Her clientele consisted of royalty, movie actresses, Ziegfeld Follies showgirls and famous dancers, including Lilly Langtry, Lily Elsie, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, the Dolly Sisters, Irene Castle, Isadora Duncan, Sara Bernhardt, Queen Mary and the Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain.
The hat Lucy Duff Gordon designed for Lily Elsie sparked a fashion craze for “Merry Widow” hats.
Rose Dolores originally modeled for Lady Duff Gordon. When in New York she came to the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife Billie Burke who made her one of the biggest stars of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Being as it was written in 1932, it was really interesting to read Lucy Duff Gordon’s thoughts on the changes in fashion that came about when Edwardian ways of dressing made way for the era of the “flapper girl.” It got me wondering what she might think of some of the fashion trends of today. She’d probably be horrified!
“But I do not think that dressing will ever again play the part in social life that it played twenty or thirty years ago. It is regarded as of infinitely less importance nowadays. The cult of beauty has increased and the present generation of girls are far more soignee and far better groomed than their mothers were, but they think less of clothes than their predecessors did.
Very few women would bother now to change their dresses five or six times a day, yet every Edwardian, with any claims to being well-dressed, did so as a matter of course. Nobody minds now being seen in the same dress time after time, yet twenty years ago to have worn the same dress at three functions in a season caused comment.”
Lady Duff Gordon’s memoir is definitely a must read. A tale of a woman who bucked established norms , because at the time it was unheard of for women to start their own businesses. Yet through sheer will and a great eye for design, she prevailed.
Her autobiography was originally titled Discretions and Indiscretions. Original copies are hard to come by and sell for several hundred dollars. But you can find the complete text on the Internet Archive. Also, it was re-released in 2012 and re-titled A Woman of Temperament. You can buy the paperback on Amazon for $16.88.
Till next time…..
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