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The Dressmaker Hardcover – February 21, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Most Famous Designer You’ve Never Heard Of
An Essay by Author Kate Alcott

Let me introduce you to the most famous designer you’ve never heard of—a fiery red-head named Lucile Duff Gordon, who in the early years of the twentieth century was the one of the top names in the fashion world. Lucile was famous for her diaphanous, floating fabrics in soft colors that freed women from the corsets of the nineteenth century. Her clothes were worn by royalty, high society women and glamorous movie stars alike.

But Lucile, herself, was a very tough lady.

When I first “met” Lady Duff Gordon in the course of researching The Dressmaker, I thought she was one of the most imperious and unlikeable women I had come upon in years. I wondered: do I really want to write about her? Is she too much of an obnoxious type?

Nobody was allowed to stand in her way to success. The people who worked for her were indeed terrified half the time. “Madame” was mercurial and prone to fire anyone who did not do her bidding instantly. Rules and propriety were for other people. She thought nothing, so it is reported, of spitting her gum (which she chewed often and with relish) out of a window at her New York loft, ignoring the possibility that it might land on a passerby (which it did once, prompting an angry woman with gum in her hair to storm the loft and demand an apology. She didn’t get it.)

I decided to leave that vignette out. My readers would hate Madame before the story got going.

And yet the longer I thought about Lucile, the more I saw her as one of the more amazingly determined women of her time. (Maybe on a par with Elinor Glyn, her sister, who, in order to stay attractive in Hollywood, was daring enough to have one of the very first face lifts ever.) Lucile reigned supreme in the designing world at a time when few women had the savvy to propel a business to success.

How ironic then that the most indelible image of her doesn’t stem from the fact that she was the most famous dress designer in the world, but from the fact that—as a passenger on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic, escaping in a boat that held only twelve people—she refused to allow the crew members to row back and save others. In addition, her husband offered money to those crew members. As a bribe or simply a thank you?

Lucile’s boat was not the only one that didn’t go back, of course, but she made a plum target for the newspapers of the time. Nobody will ever know for sure what happened in Lifeboat One, but Lucile never quite escaped the shadow of the ensuing scandal. There were still some good years ahead – but her business began to weaken, made even more vulnerable when she lost a major legal battle involving a contract dispute.

Her one piece of irrefutable good luck? Three years after the Titanic went down, Lucile made a last minute cancellation for her reservation on a ship due to become as notorious as the Titanic – the Lusitania. The ship was destroyed by a German torpedo and sank in 1915. Twelve hundred people died.

Lucile died years later in 1935 at the age of 71, already forgotten, in an English nursing home. Her business went bankrupt in 1921.

But, oh, the clothes! I pored over pictures of them: ethereal Edwardian gowns hinting at female sensuality; bolder costumes for her Hollywood clients. They were magical, the kind of clothes I used to imagine wearing as a child when I wrapped myself in curtain remnants from my father’s textile factory, pretending to be a princess.

A few years ago, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hoping to see one of her gowns on display. I was disappointed to find that all they were showing was a dreary olive-drab, no-nonsense suit that Lucile designed for women during World War I. I stared at it, looking for some hint of the creativity of the woman I hoped to capture for my book, wondering what splendid examples might be locked away in the vaults of the museum. I wanted to see the billowy sleeves and scalloped hemlines; the layers of floating chiffon, mixing colors of blue and gold, silver and green. I wanted to see the laces, airy as a spider web, the satin ribbons – all of it.

Lucile would be furious that her best work wasn’t being shown. I could easily imagine her stomping out of the place, ranting and raving as underlings scurried about to correct what she would see as massive injustice. But for all of her tantrums and scenes, she was a complicated and immensely talented woman. Yes, the designer you never heard of.

And yes, I decided, I did want to write about her.

From Booklist

Alcott’s debut brims with engrossing storytelling, marred by occasionally clunky writing. Tess Collins is an ambitious young woman who dreams of stepping out of her 1912 class restrictions and becoming more than a maid. She wants the world to know her talent as a dressmaker. Her fate is forever altered when she encounters the mercurial, imperious designer, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon and becomes that lady’s personal assistant on the ocean liner Titanic. The actual sinking of the great ship is treated briefly (which may disappoint some Titanic buffs). Tess is willing to do almost anything to realize her designing dreams, even if it means bowing to the increasingly irrational, grandiose whims of her overprivileged employer. As Tess’ personal dramas unfold, the ugly aftermath of the ocean tragedy and the roles passengers and crew members played are revealed by the disturbing official investigation, which Alcott takes almost verbatim from the transcripts of the U.S. Senate hearings. For fans of Sarah Jio, Susanna Kearsley, and immigrant tales. --Julie Trevelyan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st Printing edition (February 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385535589
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385535588
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (785 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #625,593 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

82 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Harold Wolf TOP 50 REVIEWER on November 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Tess, of "The Dressmaker" is to the Titanic tragedy, what Winslet and DiCaprio of the film was. The human side of history. Kate Alcott's story is riveting. Hard...nay, impossible to set aside. The opening chapter weaves a gaze inside the glitzy new ship, gold deck A, & steerage. Chap two's accounts of bedlam & bustle that took place during the fast sinking are only the foundation. Then readers are taken on a voyage of the inner emotional depths of survivors.

Guilt, loss, elation, panic, love, shame, and so many other emotions were stitched into the lives of those who could not quickly put the sinking into their past. While trying to move on in life on the streets of NYC, a handful of individuals are given an in-depth presentation to the reader. Who will be held responsible? What made them react in the ways they did? What secrets are they hiding, hoping they will never resurface? Who's lying? Why did Lifeboat One hold only a dozen of its 50-60 capacity? Surviving is an emotional journey for several. Who cheated death? At what cost? And for Tess, it becomes a struggle to begin life anew, as well as face a future what has a potential of romance.

Those readers who love a good personal look at huge historic events will love this story, as I did. It's certainly deals with a lot of the immediate aftermath of the sinking, especially as it involves those connected to the Congressional investigation into the tragedy. The author uses documentation of real testimony to enlighten readers to some little known specifics. Enough drama for a sequel blockbuster film. Enough romance and dressmaking story to hem interest for women. Enough newspaper rag and political fallout to gather & satisfy men. History is sewn within every chapter. Even suffragettes will drool.

The Dressmaker measures up! Expect more from this author soon.

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63 of 74 people found the following review helpful By bookworm1858 VINE VOICE on March 4, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I was wary going in to this book because I saw some negative reviews. While I try to stay away from reviews so that I can have an unbiased mind (and hopefully no spoilers), I am not always successful. Happily I loved most of the story, in particular the events that drew from the actual historical record. What I didn't like though was the romance, which was lackluster and rubbed against my personal biases in a bad way. But let's start with the good.

The hook for this book is that it is about the Titanic, its sinking, its survivors, and a trial investigating the disaster-perfect for fans of the film and those wanting to honor the centennial of the sinking. It's a great way to get readers started on the book and to reveal a new angle with the trials afterward. I was not familiar with them and I bet most people are familiar with the film and not so much with anything.

The primary focus is maid Tess who flees her awful position and manages to win a place with Lady Lucile Duff Gordon on the Titanic. Lucile is a dressmaker and as Tess is an aspiring seamstress, it seems ideal. Until the fatal iceberg when Lucile and her husband Cosmo seem to have acted with extreme cowardice and an eager US senator's trials test everyone. Newspaperwoman Pinky Wade's superb reporting on the scandal and a love triangle for Tess complete the plot lines.

I had complicated feelings about most of the characters, alternately loving and loathing them (merely pages apart). Lucile is selfish, capricious, and manipulating but also fearful of protecting her hard-earned position and capable of generosity at times. Tess has big dreams but sometimes a fearful personality that might slow her ascent. The other characters are also complicated, revealing their many facets.
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63 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Girl Friday Reader VINE VOICE on November 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've long been interested in the Titanic sinking as well as the early couture industry, so The Dressmaker appeared to combine these two into a compelling story. Unfortunately, the book missed the mark entirely with its shaky grasp on history, the shallow and dull characters, and a plodding story bogged down with an equally shallow "romance". I'm no Titanic purist who feels no fictional characters should ever be inserted into the tragedy, but not only did I have trouble believing in the fictional characters, but the real life characters (Lady Duff Gordon, et al) rang false as well. And though the book does promise a different spin on the Titanic, the brief section spent aboard the ship and during the sinking was so lightly drawn, it could have been tossed from the text and the story begun with the Carpathia arriving in New York.

The main fault lies with the unpolished writing. I found it difficult to believe this manuscript had passed through the hands of not only an editor, but the author's, multiple times before it reached this stage of publication. The book was filled with historical inaccuracies (early on, there is a mention of Elinor Glyn's involvement with the motion picture industry in Hollywood--not only was Hollywood as we know it in its infancy in 1912, but Glyn did not move there until 1920), and the characters were inconsistent with the time period and their conflict. The most tedious portion of the book--the majority of it--was the love triangle set up for Tess. Another review mentions this turned the book into a romance novel, but as a longtime reader of the genre, I can say that even the most mundane romance novels feature better characters and believable romance than in this book, and the best historical romance writers skillfully balance history with the romance.
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