Lady Duff-Gordon, under the nom-de-plume of "Lucile", was the leading fashion and costume designer of her time. A respected columnist and critic, she also became the first British-based designer to achieve an international reputation for her fashionable creations, especially those worn by the leading ladies of the Edwardian theatre.
Lady Duff-Gordon (a title that would come to her later in life) was born Lucy Christiana Sutherland in London on 13th June, 1863. She was the daughter of Douglas Sutherland and his wife, Elinor (nee Saunders). Along with her younger sister, Elinor Glyn (who earned fame as a romantic novelist and screenwriter) much of her childhood was spent in Ontario, Canada, where her father worked as an engineer.
Christiana (the name by which she was always known to her intimate acquaintances) first married at the age of eighteen to James Stuart Wallace, who was then the secretary of the Turf Club. Although the marriage produced a child, Esme, it was not a happy one, and Christiana was left virtually penniless when it ended in divorce six years later. In order to support herself, she began working from home as a dressmaker. From making every stitch of her early creations herself she advanced to taking in a woman to help her, working from a proper work-room set up in her private home. Her business grew quickly and, within the space of a few years, in 1894, she was able to take on more staff and open her first shop in Old Burlington Street, close to the London theatre district.
For her business dealings she chose to go by the name of 'Maison Lucile', a name which she would go on to make equally famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Her great popularity stemmed from the uniqueness of her designs, of which no two dresses were ever the same, and which were each cartefully crafted to suit the individual personality of the proposed wearer. By 1897, such was the demand for her creations amongst the leading London socialites that larger premises were required, and these were secured at 17 Hanover Square. A few years later she moved on again to an even larger building on the opposite corner of the square at number 23.
Shortly after her arrival in Hanover Square Christiana took on scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon as a business partner to look after the company's finances. That partnership would soon expand into domestic matters and in 1900 the couple were married. By then the firm, now trading as 'Lucile Ltd.', had become one of the great couture houses of London, with clientele ranging from leading stage stars to the aristocracy and even royalty. Lady Duff-Gordon was a prolific innovator, and introduced such fashionable items as less restrictive corsets, low necklines, and the slit skirt, all of which she paraded at her popular tea-time fashion shows, complete with mini-stage, footlights, and orchestral accompaniment. She costumed many theatrical productions and amongst her well-known clients, whose clothing influenced many when it appeared on stage and in early films, included: Lily Elsie, Gertie Millar, Gaby Deslys, Billie Burke and Mary Pickford.
Surviving the Titanic
In 1910 the Duff-Gordons opened a branch of Lucile Ltd. in New York, and it was in connection with the American arm of their business that the couple booked aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic two years later in April 1912. They booked aboard the ship as Mr. and Mrs. Morgan in two first-class cabins, whilst Lady Duff-Gordon's maid, Laura Mabel Francatelli, occupied a further cabin below decks.
Lady Duff-Gordon was asleep in her bed when the ship struck the iceberg that caused it to sink. She abandoned her cabin wearing a lavender bath-robe over her night attire, and along with her husband and Miss Francatelli, escaped from the sinking vessel in lifeboat #1. In the same boat, which was launched with only twelve persons from its designated capacity of forty, was wealthy American industrialist C.B. Henry Stengal of Newark, New Jersey, and Edith L. Rosenbaum, a reporter for "Women's Wear Daily," the leading newspaper for the fashion industry. The boat pulled clear of the sinking vessel and rowed toward a green light that was seen in the distance. It was the second boat to be taken aboard the rescue vessel 'Carpathia'.
The Duff-Gordons were the only passengers summoned to the subsequent Board of Trade Inquiry into the sinking of the ship, where they came under some criticism for their actions in the boat. Two of Titanic's stokers, seamen Dilley and Henricksen, who had crewed the lifeboat, gave evidence that as they rowed away from the stricken vessel they had wished to return to pick up people in the water, their boat being less than half full, but had been prevented from doing so by the Duff-Gordon's. According to their testimony, Lady Duff-Gordon had objected to the boat returning to pick up drowning passengers and Sir Cosmo had backed up her objections saying that it was dangerous and adding "Row away; I am a man of money." Aboard the Carpathia, each of the crewmen aboard the lifeboat were rewarded with a five pound note.
The Duff-Gordons vehemently denied the allegations. Sir Cosmo testified that his wife was too sea-sick to have made any objection to the boat returning and that he himself was too pre-occupied with taking care of her to have heard any such suggestion being made. When he was asked to explain the story that he had given each member of the life-boat crew a five-pound note he replied that one of the sailors told him that they had lost their kits in the wreck and he had presented them the money in order to replace them. The Duff-Gordons were subsequently cleared by the inquiry of any wrondoing, whilst the crewmen were severly censured for not returning to pick up more passengers.
Incredibly, Lady Duff Gordon only narrowly avoided a further maritime disaster some three years later, when only a last minute illness prevented her from taking up a berth on the equally famous and fateful last voyage of the RMS Lusitania (sunk by a German submarine).
Lucile was a bit hit in America in the years just before and during World War I, opening a fourth branch of her fashion house in Chicago in 1915 and diversifying into the ready-to-wear market by producing an extensive mail-order line for Sears and Roebuck. She also became a highly respected fashion writer, authoring a long-running syndicated fashion page for the Hearst group of newspapers as well as frequent contributions to other publications, and even appeared in her own regular newsreel spot.
Decline of an Empire
By 1920, however, her star had begun to wane. First she lost a ruinous court case to her American advertising agent, Otis F. Wood, over the right to market her name. Other legal problems followed which, allied to a series of poor financial decisions, rocked her business empire to its foundations. Consequently, she was obliged to scale down her operations, retiring from Lucile Ltd and the world of haute couture to run a retail boutique in London and supply ready-made designs for Queen Mary's dressmakers, Reville Ltd. She remained active, however, as a fashion writer and later as a radio pundit, as well as lecturing at art schools, chairing fashion shows and opening trade exhibits. In 1932 she published her autobiography "Discretions and Indiscretions" which went on to be a best-seller.
Lady Duff Gordon spent her retirement in straitened circumstances in a small house in Hampstead, London. She died of breast cancer on April 20th, 1935 (aged 71), at a London nursing home. She is buried with her husband at Brookwood Cemetery.
Following are a selection of articles from Lady Duff-Gordon's syndicated column.
(Colorado Springs Gazette [USA] - 13th February, 1910)
Gowns I have Designed for Famous Women
I have made so many hudreds of gowns for famous society women and beautiful women, for English duchesses and American beauties, and they have suited their wearers so perfectly that it is difficult for me to pick out any of them as more interesting than the others.
Nevertheless there are some gowns which gave me special pleasure, on account of the beauty of their wearers and their suitability to that character, although they were probably not more artistic than hundreds of others I have designed.
There was the gorgeous gold gown I made for the Duchess of Sutherland, a glorious specimen of golden-haired womanhood. That gown will always live in my memory, a vsion of tich harmonious loveliness.
The Duchess is such a superb creature. Gold seems to express her personality to perfection, and so I made her a rare gold gown. It was one of my greatest acheivements. I loved that gown, in fact I love all the gowns I send forth - they are really a part of me. When I see a person I have certain emotions, and these emotions I express in clothes. So this golden gown of the Duchess of Sutherland was the product of golden emotions.
First there came a flesh-coloured robe, very clinging and very close, revealing the figure delightfully. This was of charmeuse satin and covered the whole figure and was cut decollete. Over this, still close and clinging was a slip of gold tulle, sheer and beautiful and very golden, and this had little gold spangles all over it, and the flesh-coloured satin showed through it bewilderingly.
Then swathed about the figure, leaving one side exposed in my pet way, was a trained drapery of cloth of gold, dull and rich and smouldering with beauty. This was heavily and superbly embroidered in a different shade of gold, vine leaves and grapes crowding about its edge. It was lined with peach-pink satin. Where the drapery was caught together on one hip was a superb old ornament of gold and rhinestones, with long tassels hanging from it.
It suited the Duchess to perfection, for she has a golden voice and wonderful gold lights in her hair and in her skin. She was glorious in it.
Then there have been some charmingly dainty gowns that I have made for Lady Marjorie Manners, who is as exquisite a beauty as the world of society holds. She is like a picture always, a complete feast for the eye, no matter what she wears, for she is extraordinarily teperamentak. She Is all soul, all feeling, and it is enchanting to create clothes for her. She gives me such a wealth of possibilities to work with that whenever she comes to me and asks for one gown I at once have ideas enough for a dozen just from looking at her, and then it is really cruel not to be able to make all that her beauty calls for.
She is a dainty creature, full of the essence of youth. She will always be like a beautiful child, though she is not childish, for she has an intellect of amazing brilliancy and vividness. She she has always a sweet ingenue look and atmosphere. She represents in her personality youth in its most perfected form.
And so I made her charming little gowns, not anything gorgeous or startling or regal, but just sweet and artistic and youthful. I have never yet made her a train, save in her court gown when whe was presented, but always a short skirt clearing the ground.
One of her dearest little gowns was for evening wear. It was made out of palest blue charmeuse satin, very scant and skimpy, with the blue satin skirt edged with lace. Then over this was a slip of white chiffon well decorated with emplacements of lace, and over this again was the finest frock of white tulle embroidered in white bugles of opaque crystal. It had a little short Empire bodice and a girdle of blue ribbon tied in a chou at one side. It had a low, round decolletage of little short, skimpy sleeves, and all around the decolletage were set little circular wreaths or tiny pink roses and forget-me-knots. One of these was also on each sleeve. Lady Marjorie delights in these wreaths of delicate flowers.
I made another adorable frock for Lady Marjorie Manners that exactly suited her. It was a dainty mysterious sort of thing of silver-spangled tulle over white chiffon, and again over white satin, and there was a deep band of a wonderful leaf-green chiffon on the white chiffon under-frock, whith glinted and gleamed through the white spangled tulle in a way that was exquisitely beautiful.
About the bottom of the gown were delicate lace flounces and wreaths and festoons of little pink roses, all made by hand by my workers. The upper part of the corsage was all of flesh pink tulle with the silver tulle over it. Little wreaths of pink roses were festooned about the gauzy apologies for sleeves, while only little straps of silver tracery crossed the shoulders.
To add the last touch a scarf of pink tulle was worn fastened to each sleeve, and this edged closely all round with bits of perfect roses and the ends were finished with long silver tassels. To give a note of contrast a band of pale soft baby blue velvet was worn in the hair.
I have no more keenly artistic patron than the Duchess of Rutland, the mother of Lady Marjorie Manners. She is an artist in reality, and she has an artist's soul. She was the Marchioness of Granby, you know, and has long been noted for her very brilliant portrait drawings.
Whenever she comes to me for a gown I always am inspired with all manner of beautiful ideas, and the gowns I make for her are entirely different from those that I make for other people.
One very interesting dress that I made for her was a house gown of quaintly old-fashioned looking blue and pink striped silk. I made it witha rather straight looking skirt, trimmed about the bottom with a box pleating about six inches deep, and then I arranged a sort of old-fashioned looking drapery of the back and sides that was almost like an old-fashioned overskirt. This I bordered with a frilled band, having a rosette of pink ribbon and white lace frills caught near the bottom.
The short-waisted corsage hade the sleeves and entire upper part made dotted net, arranged in a sort of frilled picture effect, with revers and a quaint little collar edged with pink ribbon. The belt was of black satin, with a big beautiful buckle of delicate gold filigree in front.
A gown that was a huge success was that which I made for Miss Violet Vanbrugh, the actress to wear in the leading part of "A Woman in the Case." She was to portray a woman of ambiguous character, and Miss Vanbrugh said it was the first time that she had ever interpreted such a part. She came to me in doubt and said that her only hope of success lay in the sort of gowns that I would make for her.
"I shall succeed of fall according to the success of your gown," she said. She read me the play and I immediately designed for her the gown which seemed to me to exactly personify the character in question. Had I never made any other successful gown in my life that would have established my status as a dressmaker of thought.
To begin with, I made an entire clinging slip of flesh-coloured charmeuse satin revealing the figure quite plainly in its lines. Over this was another clinging drape of flesh-coloured tulle embroidered in silver bugles. Then swathed about the figure was a mass of bright yellow, very glistening satin. It realy looked wicked. This was caught at one side by a silver ornament, and about the hips was tightly tied a tulle scarf, half of green and half of blue, spattered in silver spangles, with silver fringe on both ends. Over the shoulders was a pale green gauze scarf spangled in gold, with gold and silver fringe.
Miss Vanbrugh wore a red wig, and wound about her coiffure was a wide bandeau of blue velvet with silver over it. At one side a diamond heart held a fine black osprey that sprang straight out from the head.
When the curtain rose everyone could see the character of the person portrayed even before Miss Vanbrugh began to speak or act. I have Miss Vanbrugh's letters of gratitude syaing that the gown helped to make her success.
Now there is something about Lady Beerbohm Tree, the brilliant actress and wife of the famous actor-manager, who has just been knighted, which calls for straight lines. A gown that I made for her was of pale blue linen, just a charming simple summer frock. Blue is intellectual, you know, and Lady Tree is very, very intellectual, more so than any woman I know, and so the gown suited perfectly.
It had a straight skirt, rather short and perfectly plain. Over this was an overdress with a short-waisted effect and a simple belt of the linen, with a queer hand-made ornament fastening it at one side, the ornament being crocheted of coarse thread in blue and white.
Down the front was a pilose frill of white linen, with delicate hand embroidery, and crossing over this in clusters were crocheted frog-like pieces with crocheted buttons. There was a white linen collar about the throat, with a sweet little embroidered frill about it, and little turnover cuffs to match. It was really a "love of a gown."
A creation of which I am extremely proud was made for the lovely Crown Princess of Sweden. You know, she was one of our English princesses - like Princess Margaret of Connaught - and a strikingly handsome girl who wears her clothes well and understands the art of dress, a thing that cannot be said of every royal lady. She is very much like her charming sister, the Princess Patricia of Connaught.
This particular gown is only one of dozens I have made for the Crown Princess, but I speak of it particularly because it stands out in my memory as a peculiarly appropriate and beautiful creation. It was particularly suited to the artistic atmosphere of Sweden, which was a cause of great satisfaction to the Princess, and it also displayed the Princess's personality to perfection. It was like a gown that a daughter of Viking might have worn; some daughter of the snows long ago. It was frosty and pure and glittering like ice. It was also white. white, white, but yet quite different from any white gown you ever saw. The main part of it was of white velvet - was there ever a more beautiful fabric? and it was trimmed with white fur and covered with silver embroidery and silver and crystal bugles, with a lot of white tulle like white mist.
The under robe was first of all of thin, soft clinging white satin, and over this was a robe of white tulle, most beautifully embroidered in shining delicate silver traceries, with enrichments in silver and crystal bugles massed over the whole front till it looked like a wonderful frost-covered window pane. Over this tulle robe was the long-trained robe of white velvet, in turn enriched with silver embroidery about the edge to the depth of a foot or more and bordered all around with white fox fur, not ermine - that seems to belong to Russia and other lands. This fox fur, in its exquisite fluffy purity, belongs properly to Sweden, that land of snow and ancient romance.
Where the robe fastened about the corsage there were massings of silver, forming a sort of medieval corselet, and any and just at one side was a bow of pale baby blue tulle, to lend the one note of colour, and that a pure cool note, with nothing of the south about it. Nor did I give the Princess of the snows a flesh-coloured underslip, as I love to do to other women that do not belong to the far north.
If I were to tell about all the beautiful gowns that I have made for the Countess of Warwick it would take all of this newspaper, for Lady Warwick no longer goes to Paris for her gowns, but lets me make her beautiful wardorbes every season.
There was one dreamy, mystic sort of a creation I made for her, extraordinarily simple, but beautifule beyond words. It was made to wear at home at Warwick Castle when she was not receiving formal guests; not a tea gown, but a lovely, simple home frock. I shall never forget the picture the Countess made in it. It was simplicity itself. In fact I have never made a simpler thing. It was all soft mauves and twilight tints, and floated about her in a cloud of beauty, flowing as she walked with that rare grace of hers.
The chief material used was an old dim mauve or lavender toned chiffon, yards and yards and yards of it just floating about her figure. It was made up over a foundation slip of grayish mauve satin, soft as chiffon, and there were long, floating angel sleeves of chiffon that fell away from her beautiful arms and about the throat, cut in a low V, and a frilled fichu of rare old tare, like cobwebs. The girdle, rather high up, was of old mauve silk, swathed about the waist and at one side was a big rose of pinkish chiffon.
Then on her head the Countess wore a soft little turban-like cap, a cap-like turban if you like, and this cap of the most wonderful shade of old bluish green, like the tints of grass in Boucher's paintings. This was all of chiffon, and a soft band of the chiffon passed under her chin and caught to the material on the other side, just like a big soft rose of pink chiffon with massive leaves. It was a masterpiece.
(The Salt Lake Tribune [USA] - 13th October, 1912)
Billie Burke's New Clothes
By LADY DUFF GORDON ("Lucile")
One of the most charming actresses for whom I have furnished wardrobes is Miss Billie Burke, the little cosmopolitan who looks well in fashions of any clime, or time.
Miss Burke has the chic most desired by Parisiennes and all well dressed women. She has Titian hair, blue eyes and fair, rosy skin that lend themselves to nearly any color. She is, indeed, a most satisfactory little person to dress, knowing as she does what she wants, and being amiability and gratitude themselves when she gets them.
It was a pleasure to supply her with the smart costumes she wears in her latest success "The 'Mind the Paint' Girl." Her entrance gown, the girlish afternoon costume which she has been wearing while she posed for her latest portrait is one of the most attractive of her robes. Its lines are of the straight, shoulder to hem sort that give added girlishness to a girlish figure, and subtract years from a matronly, one.
Miss Burke makes her entrance upon the stage in her new play in this gown of straight lines and girlishness and the audience notes in pleased mood that it is of "allover lace" of simple, conventional pattern. It conforms to the mode by giving a flounced effect in lines without added breadth to the figure. The flounce is scant and set, upon another, each being about eighteen inches deep and no fuller than the skirt where it is gathered upon the hips, While, two and a half yards wide, it is so soft and clings so closely to the figure that the skirt seems scarcely wider than the hobble of the past two seasons.
It is made over a slip of the same frostlike whiteness. A charming little white satin peasant bonnet, adorned with a garland of rosebuds, completes the costume.
When she returns to her home, after the birthday dinner given on the stage in her honor, she wears over her white evening gown of chiffon and crystal embroidery a cloak of white chiffon lined with the same material and bordered with satin and fringe. The neck, front, and large flowing sleeves of the evening cloak are bordered with satin fringe. Cross rows of the fringe are arranged in geometric design across the skirt of the coat, meeting the border of satin in front. The gown and cloak give excellent hints to the young girl for her afternoon and evening attire this Autumn.
Keeping in mind the fact that this is to be largely a white and pink season Miss Burke's costumes are in those colors. The gowns are of white and the garniture almost wholly of pink. This is true even to the negligee which she wears in the morning, white chiffon over a foundation of pale pink, like the inner part of a shell or the softly tinted heart of a blush rose.
Though so early in the new Autumn season certain notes have been definitely sounded and certain lines drawn as to the modes that will prevail.
The directoire influence is, perhaps, the dominant one, while the Louis XV inspiration is also still evidenced in the much modified pannier skirt draperies, though nowadays (and nights) the said draperies are only permitted to suggest, in the most subtle and therefore most becoming way, those puffs about the hips that once distorted the most graceful figure.
Sometimes it is true you will see - and there is just the chance that you yourself will be induced to wear an evening dress whose tunic folds of net will be of quite billowy fullness, but this because they are also quite transparent. The slender and straight outline of the figure and the underskirt will never be lost sight of for a moment.
By the way, too, some of these diaphanous panniers are being made with long, fur-bordered slits at either side which have something of the quaint effect of huge and unexpected pockets.
And then we are destined to see more - much more, in fact - of the pleated skirt which came to us singly and somewhat nervously in the late Spring and early Autumn, but is now arriving boldly - and in positive and pretty battalions! When well-made, these skirts can be very attractive, but real and special skill is demanded for their making if they are to give the new freedom of movement and, withal, retain the old narrow silhouette.
As to our waist line it is undoubtedly to move down a little and possibly also to decrease in circumference by an inch or so - if, that is, we are to accept the guidance of an impressive number of the new models, where the waist is encircled and accentuated by deep belts and closely swathed sashes. But also, and because fashion is so wise now, that she manages to be all things to all women, there are many rather high-waisted and other almost waistless gowns, while certain of the more extreme evening models are designed to be worn without any corsets at all.
I note too - and deplore - a tendency in some quarters to restrict our prized and pretty, neck-freedom by the bondage of high-folded collar-bands and cravats, but still I have sufficient confidence in the all conquering and charming low collar, to believe that no such attempts will be able to diminish the number, and the enthusiasm, of its wearers.
Very, long sleeves (glove fitting from the exceedingly low shoulder line to the wrist or the knuckles) are to be a feature of Autumn gowns.