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Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon
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Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon (June 13, 1863April 20, 1935) was a leading fashion designer in the early 20th century, and the chief rival to Paris' avant garde couturier Paul Poiret. Celebrated as "Lucile," the name under which she ran her London couture house, she opened branches in Paris, New York City and Chicago, dressing high society, the stage and early silent cinema.

Despite her fame during the Edwardian era as a top dress designer and tastemaker, Lucy Duff Gordon is best remembered today 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 decided against her in favor of her advertising agent.

Career

Lucile in 1919, photographed by Arnold Genthe
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Lucile in 1919, photographed by Arnold Genthe

The daughter of civil engineer Douglas Sutherland and the former Elinor Saunders, Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born in London, England and was raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Lucile’s younger sister was romance novelist and screenwriter Elinor Glyn. In 1884, Lucile married James Stuart Wallace with whom she had a child; the couple divorced six years later in 1890. That year, in order to support herself and her child, Lucile opened the couture house Maison Lucile in London, between Bond and Regent Streets. The popularity of Lucile's dresses quickly spread and, in 1896, a larger shop was opened at 17 Hanover Square. In 1900 Lucile married Scottish landowner and sportsman Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, and with a clientele including Margot Asquith and the Duchess of York, her business expanded with branches opening in New York City, Paris and Chicago in 1910, 1911 and 1915 respectively.[1]

Lucile, the first British-based couturiere to achieve an international reputation, was most sought-after for her provocative lingerie creations and equally romantic tea-gowns and evening wear. She is credited with training the first professional fashion models (1896) and staging the first runway or "catwalk" style shows (1904). She was also noted for the excessively high prices of her gown designs and the theatrical nature of her invitation-only, tea-time fashion shows, complete with mood-setting limelight, music from a string band, souvenir gifts and programmes in which dresses were listed by poetic, and often risqué, names.

Fashion show in the New York salon of Lucile Ltd, Autumn 1916
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Fashion show in the New York salon of Lucile Ltd, Autumn 1916

The signature "Lucile look" for evening wear was characterized by pastel, sheer fabrics and decorative accents such as sprays of silk flowers, producing a blended effect of girlish innocence and sexy sophistication. By contrast, her approach to street wear was practical, prefering simple, smart tailoring in suits and frocks. But the seductive lingerie and clinging tea-gowns that she had based her reputation on continued to be the style with which Lucile was most identified, even into the 1920s.

Lucile lingerie, Spring 1920
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Lucile lingerie, Spring 1920

Although she dressed European royals and American socialites, Lucile's most important clients were trendsetting theatrical and film stars like Irene Castle, Lily Elsie, Gertie Millar, Gaby Deslys, Billie Burke and Mary Pickford. Likewise, her most inspired work was in the performing arts. Among other major productions, she costumed the London premiier of Franz Lehár's operetta The Merry Widow (1907), the Ziegfeld Follies revues on Broadway (1915 - 1921) and the D.W. Griffith silent movie Way Down East (1920). Her fashions were also frequently featured in Pathé and Gaumont newsreels of the 1910s and 20s, and she appeared in her own weekly spot in the British newsreel "Around the Town" (c.1917 - 1919).

Lucile's impact on style through the popular media was unprecedented. In addition to writing a widely syndicated fashion page for the Hearst newspaper syndicate (1910 - 1922), she authored columns for Harper's Bazaar and Good Housekeeping magazines (1912 - 1922).

In addition to her prolific work as a couturiere, costumier, journalist and pundit, Lucile made a fortune in commercial endorsements, lending her name to advertising for shoes, brassieres, perfume and other luxury apparel and beauty items. She also issued a limited series of dress patterns, sewing kits and needlecraft booklets. Among the most extensive of her satellite ventures were a two-season deal to design a lower-priced, mail-order fashion line for Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1916-17), which promoted her clothing in special de luxe catalogs, and a contract to design interiors for limousines and town cars for the Chalmers Motor Co, later Chrysler Corporation (1917).

RMS Titanic

In 1912, Lucile was called to New York on business, and she and her husband, along with Lucile’s secretary Laura Mabel Francatelli, booked first-class passage on the ocean liner RMS Titanic under the names Mr. and Mrs. Morgan. On April 14, at 11:40 PM the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink. While the lifeboats were being lowered the Duff Gordons and Lucile's secretary were able to get into lifeboat 1. The lifeboat was built to hold seventy people, but was lowered with just twelve.

Some time after the ship sank, Lucile reportedly said to her secretary, "There is your beautiful nightdress gone." A crewman, annoyed by Lucile's remark, replied that the couple could replace their property, while he and the other crew members in the boat had lost everything. Other sailors began complaining about their belongings until Cosmo Duff Gordon offered each of them £5 to help them get back on track after they were rescued, but also as a means of keeping peace in the boat. Afterwards, rumors that the Duff-Gordons had bribed the crew not to return to the wreck site to rescue people in the water threatened their reputations.

Cosmo Duff Gordon, Mabel Francatelli and Lucile leaving the Titanic Inquiry, May 20, 1912
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Cosmo Duff Gordon, Mabel Francatelli and Lucile leaving the Titanic Inquiry, May 20, 1912

The rumors, fueled by the press, made the Duff Gordons virtual "stars" of the disaster. On May 17, Cosmo Duff Gordon testified at the hearings of the British Board of Trade Inquiry into the disaster, and on May 20 Lucile took the stand. The days the Duff Gordons testified attracted the largest crowds during the entire inquiry as members of British high society showed up to hear their testimony. While Cosmo faced tough criticism during cross-examination, Lucile 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 and could not recall any conversations. Attorneys, perhaps influenced by her mourning costume, did not press her very hard. The final report by the inquiry determined that the Duff Gordons did not deter the crew from any attempt at rescue.[2] The Titanic episode in Lucile's life is perhaps the most tangible, thanks partly to motion pictures; she was portrayed in cameo by Harriette Johns in A Night to Remember (1958), produced by William MacQuitty, and again by Rosalind Ayres in James Cameron's Titanic (1997).

Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon

In 1917, Lucile lost the New York Court of Appeals case of Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, in which Judge Cardozo made new law when he held Lucile to a contract that assigned the sole right to market her name to her advertising agent, Otis F. Wood. Cardozo famously opened the opinion with the following description of Lucile:

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 her columns for the Hearst papers, some observers have claimed that Cardozo's tone revealed a certain disdain for Lucile's 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.

Later life

Lucile's fashion influence reached its peak during and just after World War I. Her business, "Lucile, Ltd," continued to thrive as one of the largest, most important fashion houses in the world before suffering reverses and finally declaring bankruptcy in 1922.

Lucile herself continued as a fashion columnist and critic after her designing career ended, and she wrote her best-selling autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions in 1932. She died of breast cancer, complicated by pneumonia, in a Putney, London nursing home in 1935 at the age of 71 (on the anniversary of her husband's death).

Legacy

Lucile's former assistant, Howard Greer, published his memories of his years working with her in the book Designing Male (1950). A dual biography of Lucile and her sister Elinor Glyn, called The 'It' Girls, by Meredith Etherington-Smith, was released in 1986. A number of international museum exhibitions have featured Lucile costumes over the last 20 years, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Cubism and Fashion" (1999), the Museum of the City of New York's "Fashion on Stage" (1999) and the Victoria and Albert Museum's "Black in Fashion" (2000). (The V&A also has two Lucile dresses on permanent display) The first exhibition devoted exclusively to her work was the Fashion Institute of Technology's "Designing the It Girl: Lucile and Her Style" (2005). The first full-scale biography of Lucile, planned as a lavish pictorial treatment of her career, is being prepared by United States journalist Randy Bryan Bigham. The first permanent display of Lucile designs in America was installed as part of the opening exhibition of the Titanic Museum at Branson, Mo.(2006), co-curated by Bigham and British textile artist Lewis Orchard, owner of the most extensive private collection of Lucile costumes.