Wednesday 25 May 2016

Fashion. Titanic. Scandal ... My Local Connection

I recently read and reviewed the book "The Dressmaker" by Kate Alcott.  A principal character in the book was Lady Lucile Duff Gordon.  I knew that the character in the book was based on a real person, an early 20th century fashion designer and fashion innovator.

 She was a trendsetter; introducing the first runway fashion show with live models, designing a line of "ready-to-wear" designer clothes for women and designing fashion/costumes for Broadway plays.

Unfortunately, despite her enormous contribution to the early days of the fashion industry what Lucile is most known for is being on the Titanic's first and only voyage and her allegedly deplorable, (dare I say it?) inhumane behavior as the ship went down.

What I did not know, and learned through happenstance watching a local news broadcast, was that Lady Duff Gordon had a local connection to my little part of the world.  I was puttering around in the kitchen getting supper things cleared from the table when her name being announced caught my attention.  So I immediately began listening a little more closely.  I learned that Lady Duff Gordon had lived part of her, somewhat notorious, life in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.  And ... the Guelph Civic Museum happened to be having an exhibit featuring her that was going on right now.  Well ... I knew I had to visit the exhibit.  After all, there is no such thing as coincidence, right?  So this past Victoria Day weekend I spent a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon exploring the Guelph Civic Museum - a lovely building that I not visited before - and learning just a little bit more about this woman with the local connection.

The exhibit was staged on two floors of the museum, the first floor dedicated to her early years in Guelph and the "Titanic Incident" and the third floor dedicated to actual samples of her dresses and fashion innovations.

She is partly responsible to getting women out of corsets and fashioning more
comfortable lingerie.  Sounds like the Victoria Secret of her time.  There is still a line of lingerie marketed under the "Lucile, Established 1890" label today.


Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born on July 13, 1863 to Douglas Sutherland, a Toronto civil engineer and his wife Elinor Saunders, an Anglo-French-Canadian.

As I was wandering the exhibit I overheard two other patrons, rather elderly ladies, discussing the picture of the house were Lucile was raised ... commenting that the house is still standing albeit sans wrap around porch.  All right ... YES! ... I WAS eavesdropping.

Lucile began sewing early in her life.  There probably wasn't much else to do in Guelph in the late 1800's?   At the age of seven she began making dresses for her dolls with materials from cases of cast off clothes and fabrics which were sent yearly from relatives in France.  She soon moved on to making dresses for herself and her sister, future novelist Elinor Glyn.

Lucile married for the first time in 1884, when she wed James Stuart Wallace.  Alas, despite having a child together, daughter Esme, the marriage was not a happy one.  Wallace was a alcoholic and was involved in several not so discreet love affairs.  Lucile consoled herself in love affairs of her own and in 1890 they separated and Lucile began divorce proceedings.  In 1900 she married Cosmo Duff Gordon, a wealthy Scottish landowner and sportsman.


After her divorce from Wallace Lucile had supported herself and her daughter by working as a dressmaker.  Before long she had opened Maison Lucile, in the fashionable west end of London.  From all accounts Sir Cosmo supported Lucile's venture's into the fashion industry and invested in her business.  In 1910 she opened her first "fashion house" in New York City.  It was an almost instant success and it wasn't long before she moved to a larger venue.

Lucile made a name for herself on Broadway as well, designing many fashionable costumes for the stage and for the new phenom - the silver screen.  One of her frequent and loyal customers was Ontario born movie legend Mary Pickford.

Lucille Limited can rightly be called the first international leading house of couture as in addition to her New York house, she opened a house in Paris in 1911 and in Chicago in 1915.  She was legitimately international with couture houses in three countries. 

Despite her success, the "French fashion world was scornful" and she often found herself the subject of cartoonists because of her innovative and the, hitherto unheard of,  idea of using "live mannequins" to model her clothes.

Lady Duff Gordon would enlist pretty shop girls working for her, dress them in her designer clothes and parade them around the room as "live mannequins" while patrons enjoyed tea and treats.  Although the practice was scoffed at and ridiculed at the time, we all know how that turned out ... can we say Milan, Paris, New York and Toronto Fashion Weeks!



With her success as a fashion designer and her husband being a Baronet, money seemed to be no object for the Duff Gordons.  Needing to travel to America they booked first class passage on maiden voyage of the ill-fated Titanic.  For some unknown reason they booked their passage under the names Mr. and Mrs. Morgan.  Of course we all know that the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink.  As passengers were being evacuated Lucile, Cosmo and Lucile's secretary Laura Francatelli were placed in Lifeboat 1, the fourth lifeboat to be launched approximately one hour after the ship struck the iceberg.  The lifeboat was a "cutter" designed for the emergency use of the Titanic crew so had less seats than the other lifeboats.  Despite it's smaller size (pictured below) it still had a maximum capacity of 40 people and was launched with only 12 persons aboard.  Despite the infamous call for "women and children first" Lifeboat 1 carried 10 male passengers (seven of whom were crew members).

Lifeboat 1 was dubbed "the money boat" because of it's not near capacity cargo and rumors that Lord Duff Gordon had bribed the seamen on board to
keep rowing and not allow any of the multitude of people in the water to climb into the lifeboat.  Taking a page from Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" guide, Lady Duff Gordon even commented to her secretary that it was too bad that she had now lost her "beautiful nightdress". 

A general inquiry was held into the sinking of the Titanic and fueled by pressure from the tabloid press in both the United States and England a special inquiry was held into the circumstances surrounding the launch of Lifeboat 1.  The appearance of Lord and Lady Duff Gordon, the only passengers called to testify at any of the Titanic inquiries, resulted in the largest crowd of spectators.  Lord and Lady Duff Gordon were never formally charged in any wrong doing but the court did admonish that "occupants of Lifeboat 1 should have made a more concerted effort to rescue survivors from the water".


Lucile Duff Gordon really had no luck when it came to traveling by sea and it could even be said that she had somewhat of a charmed life when it came to boat and ship disasters ...

When her mother remarried she and her sister moved to the Isle of Jersey with their mother and her new husband, David Kennedy.  In 1875 following a visit to relatives in England, Lucy and her sister Elinor survived a shipwreck when their ship ran aground in a gale force storm.

Lucile escaped with her life when the Titanic hit an iceberg.

In 1915 Lucile had booked passage on the RMS Lusitania.  It was reported that due to illness she cancelled her trip at the last minute.  On that voyage, where Lady Duff Gordon should have been aboard,
the Lusitania was hit by a German torpedo and sank.

I guess three times is the charm. 


A few years back I went to an exhibit of "Story Quilts" entitled "From Oma to Oma" which left me with a bit of a fascination of how people can make quilts to reflect a story as clearly as any written on a page.  There was one such quilt, crafted by fabric artist John Willard, hanging as part of this exhibit entitled "A Night to Remember".  It was a beautifully crafted piece of art and looking like the caps of waves were the names of all the passengers and crew members that sailed on the Titanic on that fateful voyage.  I was able to locate the names of Lucile and Cosmo Duff Gordon and Lucile's secretary, Laura Francatelli (admittedly with a little prompting from an arrow on the descriptive picture posted along side the quilt) as well as the name of another rather well known survivor, the "unsinkable" Molly Brown (which I found all on my own - thank you).

And since this after all a "book" blog I had to include the following which were displayed among the object in glass cabinets filled with the smaller sized mementos of Lucile's life and accomplishments.  Two first edition books concerning Lucile and her family.  Lucile herself wrote two autobiographies, the American first edition of the first autobiography was on display.

Lucile's sister, Elinor Glyn, was a rather well known author.  She was a journalist, screen writer and author who was quite notorious in her own life, causing scandal on both sides of the ocean.  It is widely accepted that Ms. Glyn was this first to coin the phrase "It Girl" in her novel "The Man and the Moment" which throughout the 1920's was a common term referring to "sex appeal".

Her book "Letters to Caroline" was also included and it features an original sketch by Lucille on the front flyleaf.

A rather sad sidebar to this exhibit is based on another "local connection".  Thomson Beattie was born in Fergus, Ontario which is 20 Km north of Guelph.  Thomson and two friends were traveling on a winter vacation when one of his friends became sick and had to return home.  Tired of traveling themselves Thomson and his other friend, lifelong companion Thomas McCaffry, decided to make their way home as well booking passage on the Titanic.  Thomas wrote his mother before leaving "we are changing ships and coming home in a new, unsinkable, boat".

Beattie and his companions did make it on to one of the last available lifeboats, a collapsible, but died of exposure waiting for rescue.  A month after the Titanic went down, from the deck of the liner Oceanic, a lifeboat was seen bobbing in the water.  The three bodies in the raft were sewn into canvas bags and buried at sea.  Thomson Beattie was still wearing the evening clothes he had worn on the Titanic that last night.

In a coincidence odd enough to give you goose flesh ... Thomson Beattie was buried at sea on his mother's birthday at almost the exact spot were where she had been born 82 years earlier ... in the Atlantic ocean on a ship bound for Canada.

He is remembered with a stone on the family grave site in Fergus, Ontario.

So very many things I learned today because of one name in a book!

Thanks for reading.

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