Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon

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This article is about the 20th century fashion designer, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon. You may be looking for the mid-19th century author, Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon.

Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon ( June 13, 1863 – April 20, 1935) was a leading fashion designer in the late C19th and first decades of the C20th. She is often referred to as "Lucile," the name she gave her London couture house, she opened branches in Paris, New York City and Chicago, dressing high society, the stage and early silent cinema.

Lucy Duff Gordon was a survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 and is still referred to 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 favour of her advertising agent.


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

Daughter of civil engineer Douglas Sutherland and Elinor Saunders, Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born in London, England and was raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Lucy’s younger sister was romantic novelist and screenwriter Elinor Glyn. In 1884, Lucy married James Stuart Wallace with whom she had a child, Esme. The couple divorced six years later in 1890. That year, in order to support herself and her child, Lucy began working from home, and by 1894 had opened Maison Lucile in Old Burlington St, London. In 1896, a larger shop was opened at 17 Hanover Square, and by 1900, she was trading as Lucile Ltd at 23 Hanover Square. In 1900 Lucile married Scottish landowner and sportsman Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. Lucile Ltd had a prestigious clientelle including aristocracy, royalty, and theatre stars.Her business expanded with branches opening in New York City, Paris and Chicago in 1910, 1911 and 1915 respectively.

Lucile was well known for her lingerie, 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. She created theatrical invitation-only, tea-time fashion shows, complete with a stage, curtains, mood-setting limelight, music from a string band, souvenir gifts and programmes. Her dresses were given descriptive names, inspired by literature, popular culture, and Lucile's interest in the psychology, and personality of her clients.

Lucile was known for layered, draped garments in romantic fabrics, and sophisiticated colours, often accentuated with sprays of hand-made flowers. However, Lucile was also known for simple, smart tailoring in suits and daywear.

Influential 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 many thaetrical productions including the London premiere 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).

Lady Duff Gordon also wrote a 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, Lady Duff Gordon also took significant advantage of commercial endorsements, lending her name to advertising for shoes, brassieres, perfume and other luxury apparel and beauty items. Among the most innovative 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 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 forty 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.

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. 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 favour 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

Lady Duff Gordon's connection with her own design empire began to disintegrate following a re-structure in 1919, and by 1922 she had ceased designing for the company. Lucile Ltd continued after her departure with less success, whilst Lady Duff Gordon continued working from private premises designing personally for individual clients.

Lucile herself continued as a fashion columnist and critic after her designing career at Lucile 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).


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 published 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 currently displays a Lucile suit (2006)) The first exhibition devoted exclusively to her work was the Fashion Institute of Technology's "Designing the It Girl: Lucile and Her Style" (2005). . A small display of Lucile designs can currently be seen at the Titanic Museum at Branson, Mo.(2006)

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