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Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon
photographed by Arnold Genthe
Lucy Christiana Sutherland
13 June 1863
London, England, UK
|Died||20 April 1935 (aged 71)|
Putney, London, England, UK
Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff-Gordon (née Sutherland; 13 June 1863 – 20 April 1935) was a leading British fashion designer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who worked under the professional name Lucile.
The first British-based designer to achieve international acclaim, Lucy Duff-Gordon was a widely acknowledged innovator in couture styles as well as in fashion industry public relations. In addition to originating the "mannequin parade", a precursor to the modern fashion show, and training the first professional models, she launched liberating slit skirts and low necklines, popularized less restrictive corsets, and promoted alluring and pared-down lingerie.
Opening branches of her London house, Lucile Ltd, in Chicago, New York City, and Paris, her business became the first global couture brand, dressing a trend-setting clientele of royalty, nobility, and stage and film personalities. Duff-Gordon is also remembered as a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, and as the losing party in the precedent-setting 1917 contract law case of Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, in which Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo wrote the opinion for New York's highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, upholding a contract between Duff-Gordon and her advertising agent that assigned the agent the sole right to market her name. It was the first case of its kind, clothes labeled and sold at a lowered cost in a cheaper market under an expensive "brand name".
The daughter of civil engineer Douglas Sutherland (1838–1865) and his Anglo-French-Canadian wife Elinor Saunders (1841–1937), Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born in London, England, and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, after her father's death from typhoid fever. When her mother remarried in 1871 to the bachelor David Kennedy (d. 1889), Lucy moved with them and her sister, the future novelist Elinor Glyn, to Saint Helier on the Isle of Jersey. Lucy acquired her love of fashion through dressing her collection of dolls, by studying gowns worn by women in family paintings, and by later making clothes for herself and Elinor. Returning to Jersey, after a visit to relatives in England in 1875, Lucy and Elinor survived the wreck of their ship when it ran aground in a gale.
In 1884, Lucy married for the first time, to James Stuart Wallace, with whom she had a child, Esme (1885–1973; later wife of the 2nd Earl of Halsbury and mother of Anthony, 3rd Earl of Halsbury). Wallace was an alcoholic and regularly unfaithful, and Lucy sought consolation in love affairs, including a long relationship with the famous surgeon Sir Morell Mackenzie. The Wallaces separated circa 1890, and Lucy started divorce proceedings in 1893. In 1900, Lucy Sutherland Wallace married a Scottish baronet, landowner and sportsman Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon.
In order to support herself and her daughter after the end of her first marriage, Lucy Duff-Gordon began working as a dressmaker from home. In 1893, she opened Maison Lucile at 24 Old Burlington St., in the heart of the fashionable West End of London, having worked for a year previously from her mother's flat at 25 Davies Street. In 1897, Lucy Duff-Gordon opened a larger shop at 17 Hanover Square, Westminster, before a further move (c. 1903–04) to 14 George Street, Oxford. In 1903, the business was incorporated as "Lucile Ltd" and the following year moved to 23 Hanover Square, where it operated for the next 20 years. Duff Gordon was eventually bankrupted after she revealed in the American press that she was not designing much of the clothing that was attributed to her name. She spent her later years selling imported clothing and smaller collections in a succession of unsuccessful small 'boutiques'.
Lucile Ltd served a wealthy clientele including aristocracy, royalty, and theatre stars. The business expanded, with salons opening in New York City in 1910, Paris in 1911, and Chicago in 1915, making it the first leading couture house with full-scale branches in three countries.
Lucile was most famous for its lingerie, tea gowns, and evening wear. Its luxuriously layered and draped garments in soft fabrics of blended pastel colors, often accentuated with sprays of hand-made silk flowers, became its hallmark. However, Lucile also offered simple, smart tailored suits and daywear. The dress illustrated at right typifies the classically draped style often found in Lucile designs. Lucy Duff-Gordon originally designed it in Paris, for Lucile Ltd's spring 1913 collection, and later specially adapted it for London socialite Heather Firbank and other well-known clients, including actress Kitty Gordon and dancer Lydia Kyasht of the Ballets Russes. The example illustrated was worn by Miss Firbank and is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Lucy Duff-Gordon is also widely credited with training the first professional fashion models (called mannequins) as well as staging the first runway or "catwalk" style shows. These affairs were theatrically inspired, invitation-only, tea-time presentations, complete with a stage, curtains, mood-setting lighting, music from a string band, souvenir gifts, and programmes.
Another innovation in the presentation of her collections was what she called her "emotional gowns". These dresses were given descriptive names, influenced by literature, history, popular culture and her interest in the psychology and personality of her clients.
Some well-known clients, whose clothing influenced many when it appeared in early films, on stage, and in the press, included: Irene Castle, Lily Elsie, Gertie Millar, Gaby Deslys, Billie Burke, and Mary Pickford. Lucile costumed numerous theatrical productions, including the London première of Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow (1907), the Ziegfeld Follies revues on Broadway (1915–21), and the D. W. Griffith silent movie Way Down East (1920). Lucile creations were also frequently featured in Pathé and Gaumont newsreels of the 1910s and 20s, and Lucy Duff-Gordon appeared in her own weekly spot in the British newsreel "Around the Town" (c. 1919–21).
Early Lucile Ltd sketches, archived at the Victoria and Albert Museum, provide evidence that in 1904 the salon employed at least one sketch artist to record Lucy Duff-Gordon's designs for in-house use. As demands grew on her time, especially in the United States during World War I, she was aided by sketch artists Robert Kalloch, Roger Bealle, Gilbert Clarke, Howard Greer, Shirley Barker, Travis Banton, and Edward Molyneux, who created ideas based on the "Lucile look". In her memoir, Lucy Duff-Gordon credited her corps of assistants for their contributions to the success of the New York branch of Lucile Ltd. Many of these assistants' drawings were published in the press and signed "Lucile", though occasionally the signature of the artist, such as Molyneux, appeared. It was general practice for couture houses to use professional artists to execute drawings of designs as they were being created, as well as of the artist's own ideas for each season's output and for individual clients. These drawings were overseen by Lucy Duff-Gordon, who often critiqued them, adding notes, instructions, dates, and sometimes her own signature or initials, indicating she approved the design.
Like many couturiers, Lucy Duff-Gordon designed principally on the human form. Her surviving personal sketchbooks indicate her limited technical ability as a sketch artist, but a skill at recording colour. Surviving Lucile Ltd sketches reveal numerous artists of varying talent levels, and these are often mis-attributed to herself. Howard Greer admitted in his autobiography that the sketches he and his colleagues executed were often confused interpretations of the Lucile style that did not match their employer's vision. Moreover, he claimed customers were not always pleased by the actual dresses created from the sketches he and the other assistants submitted.
Unprecedented for a leading couturière, Lucy Duff-Gordon promoted her collections journalistically. In addition to a weekly syndicated fashion page for the Hearst newspaper syndicate (1910–22), she wrote monthly columns for Harper's Bazaar and Good Housekeeping (1912–22). A Hearst writer ghost wrote the newspaper page after 1918, but the designer herself penned the Good Housekeeping and Harper's Bazaar features throughout their duration, although the responsibility of producing a regular piece proved difficult, and she missed several deadlines. Lucile fashions also appeared regularly in Vogue, Femina, Les Modes, L'art et la Mode, and other leading fashion magazines (1910–22). Along with Hearst publications, Lucile contributed to Vanity Fair, Dress, The Illustrated London News, The London Magazine, Pearson's Magazine, and Munsey's.
In addition to her career as a couturière, costumier, journalist, and pundit, Lucy Duff-Gordon took significant advantage of opportunities for commercial endorsement, lending her name to advertising for brassieres, perfume, shoes, and other luxury apparel and beauty items. Among the most adventurous of her licensing ventures were a two-season, lower-priced, mail-order fashion line for Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1916–17), which promoted her clothing in special de luxe catalogues, and a contract to design interiors for limousines and town cars for the Chalmers Motor Co., later Chrysler Corporation (1917).
In 1912, Lucy Duff-Gordon traveled to America on business in connection with the New York branch of Lucile Ltd. She and her husband, Sir Cosmo, booked first class passage on the ocean liner RMS Titanic under the alias "Mr. and Mrs. Morgan", a possible explanation being that they hoped to avoid publicity on landing in New York. Her secretary, Laura Mabel Francatelli, nicknamed "Franks", accompanied the couple.
On 14 April, at 11:40 pm the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink. During the evacuation, the Duff-Gordons and Francatelli escaped in Lifeboat No. 1. Although the boat was designed to hold 40 people, it was lowered with only 12 people aboard, seven of them male crew members.
Some time after the Titanic sank, while afloat in Lifeboat No. 1, Lucy Duff-Gordon reportedly commented to her secretary, "There is your beautiful nightdress gone." A fireman, annoyed by her comment, replied that while the couple could replace their property, he and the other crew members had lost everything in the sinking. Sir Cosmo then offered each of the men £5 (equivalent to £486 in 2018) to aid them until they received new assignments. While on the RMS Carpathia, the Cunard liner that rescued Titanic's survivors, Sir Cosmo presented the men from Lifeboat No. 1 with checks drawn on his bank, Coutts. This action later spawned gossip that the Duff-Gordons had bribed their lifeboat's crew not to return to save swimmers out of fear the vessel would be swamped.
These rumors were fueled by the tabloid press in the United States and, eventually, in the United Kingdom. On May 17, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon testified at the London hearings of the British Board of Trade inquiry into the disaster. On May 20, Lady Duff-Gordon took the stand. The couple's testimony attracted the largest crowds during the inquiry.
While Sir Cosmo faced tough criticism during cross-examination, his wife had it slightly easier. Dressed in black, with a large, veiled hat, she told the court she remembered little about what happened in the lifeboat on the night of the sinking, due to seasickness, and she could not recall specific conversations. Lawyers did not seem to have pressed her very hard. Lucy Duff-Gordon noted that for the rest of her husband's life he was brokenhearted over the negative coverage by the "yellow press", during his cross-examination at the inquiry. The final report by the inquiry determined that the Duff-Gordons did not deter the crew from any attempt at rescue through bribery or any other method of coercion.
In 2012 a box of documents and letters concerning the Titanic sinking belonging to the Duff-Gordons was rediscovered at the London office of Veale Wasbrough Vizards, the legal firm that merged with Tweedies, which had represented the couple. Among the papers was an inventory of the possessions Lucy Duff Gordon had lost, the total value listed as £3,208 3s 6d. One letter detailed what she wore when leaving the ship: two dressing gowns "for warmth", a muff, and her "motor hat". (A faded grey silk kimono with typical Fortuny-style black cord edging, for some time thought to have been worn by her that night, is now understood to have belonged to her daughter Esme, Countess of Halsbury, as its distinctive print dates the item to post World War I.) An apron said to have been worn by Francatelli can be seen at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, and her life-jacket was sold, along with correspondence about her experiences in the disaster, at Christie's auction house, London, in 2007.
The Titanic episode is one of the most prominent aspects of Lucy Duff-Gordon's life, thanks partly to motion pictures. The films, however, portrayed her without great attention to accuracy. She has been portrayed by Harriette Johns in A Night to Remember (1958); by Rosalind Ayres in James Cameron's epic Titanic (1997); and by Sylvestra Le Touzel in the British miniseries Titanic (2012). She is also a key character in the novel The Dressmaker, by Kate Alcott, which portrays both the sinking of the Titanic and the negative publicity that followed for the Duff-Gordons.
Lucy Duff-Gordon had another close call three years after surviving the Titanic, when she booked passage aboard the final voyage of the RMS Lusitania. It was reported in the press that she cancelled her trip due to illness. The Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo on 7 May 1915.
In 1917, Lucy Duff-Gordon lost the New York Court of Appeals case of Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, in which Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo established precedent in the realm of contract law when he held the designer to a contract that assigned the sole right to market her professional name to her advertising agent, Otis F. Wood, despite the fact that the contract lacked explicit consideration for her promise. Cardozo noted that, "A promise may be lacking, and yet the whole writing may be 'instinct with an obligation'" and, if so, "there is a contract." 222 N.Y. 88, 118 N.E. 214 (1917).
Cardozo famously opened the opinion with the following description of the designer:
The defendant styles herself "a creator of fashions." Her favor helps a sale. Manufacturers of dresses, millinery, and like articles are glad to pay for a certificate of her approval. The things which she designs, fabrics, parasols, and what not, have a new value in the public mind when issued in her name.
Although the term "creator of fashions" was part of the tagline in 'Lucile's' columns for the Hearst papers, some observers have claimed that Cardozo's tone revealed a certain disdain for her position in the world of fashion. Others accept that he was merely echoing language used by the defendant in her own submissions to the court as well as in her publicity.
Lucy Duff-Gordon's connection to her design empire began to disintegrate following a restructuring of Lucile, Ltd in 1918–19. An acrimonious battle emerged in the press, culminating in her public acknowledgement that many Lucile dresses were not designed by her. Lucy Duff-Gordon's autobiography acknowledges that this had been the case since at least 1911.
By September 1922, she had ceased designing for the company, which effectively closed. A completely new 'Lucile' was formed, using the same premises in Paris, and different designs, but it gradually failed. Meanwhile, its founder (who continued to be known as 'Lucile') worked from private premises designing personally for individual clients. She was briefly associated with the firm of Reville, Ltd., maintained a ready-to-wear shop of her own and lent her name to a wholesale operation in America.
Lucy Duff-Gordon also continued as a fashion columnist and critic after her design career ended, contributing to London's Daily Sketch and Daily Express (1922–1930), and she penned her best-selling autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions (1932).
Lady Duff-Gordon died of breast cancer, complicated by pneumonia, in a Putney, London nursing home in 1935, aged 71. The date of her death, 20 April, was the fourth anniversary of her husband's death.
In addition to her mark on culture, history, and the law, there has been a resurgence of interest in her work as a designer. She originated the fashion component of her sister Elinor Glyn's 'It girl' concept.
A number of international museum exhibitions have featured Lucile garments in recent years, such as:
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