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.