Lucy Duff Gordon (1863-1935)

Born: Lucy Christiana Sutherland; also known as Mrs James Wallace, Lady Duff Gordon

Sector: Retail (Apparel)

On 27th July 1904, the great and the good of London society crowded into a large, grey-walled Georgian room in Hanover Square, with an empty platform at one end.  As they perched in rows, clutching their programmes, music played, lights flashed and six stunning girls appeared.  They twirled, strutted and swayed their unsmiling way across the stage and down the aisle, modelling gowns with fanciful names like ‘Spring’s Delirium’ and ‘Pleasure’s Thrall’. There was no two-hour wait for the show to start and the models weighed on average eleven stone but otherwise this stage-managed fashion parade sounds remarkably familiar.  Watching over this radical event was its creator, 41-year old Lucy Duff Gordon. Seven years later her business, Maison Lucile, would become the first international house of couture.

Lucy Duff Gordon, founder of the fashion house 'Lucile'
Lucy Christiana (‘Lucile’) (née Sutherland), Lady Duff Gordon
by Bassano Ltd; bromide print, 1904
NPG x85153
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Lucy had a disrupted childhood. Her father died before she was two and her Canadian-born mother took Lucy and her baby sister, Elinor, back to live with her parents. When Lucy was nine she remarried and the family eventually relocated to Jersey.  Lucy had a terrible relationship with her step-father and escaped from the island as often as possible while still a teenager.  Loosely chaperoned, she took delight in flirting, making and breaking engagements, She was on the rebound from one of these romances when, aged 21, she met and accepted a proposal from James Wallace, a good-looking wine merchant in his early 40s with a terrible reputation. Her family was horrified but, stubborn and headstrong, qualities that would show up in some of her best and worst choices, Lucy stood firm and on 15th September 1884, they married. 

By 1885 she had a baby daughter, Esme, and a husband who was frequently drunk and unfaithful. Soon she was having an affair herself.  When her step-father died in 1889, Lucy’s mother and sister re-located to London and took a house in an unfashionable part of Mayfair.  Lucy and James moved in but their marriage continued to disintegrate and in April 1892, James left her, showing a predictable lack of originality by running off with a chorus girl.

Decision time
Lucy was 29 and suddenly needed to support herself and her seven-year old daughter. She had always loved making clothes, practising on her dolls as a child and dress-making was the obvious option. But fashion in London in the 1890s was no game. With new department stores on one side, London branches of the trend-setting Parisian houses like Worth and Paquin on the other and in between over 2,000 dress makers copying the Paris fashions and adapting them to British tastes, it was a competitive business and one Lucy was looking to break into with no formal training.

That said, there was plenty of demand.  Whether born of established land-owners or married to industrial arrivistes, women moving in the highest circles needed a huge wardrobe.  They changed their clothes for each meal and to go riding, to church or on afternoon visits.  Court dress was required for Queen Victoria’s afternoon drawing rooms while evenings brought outings to the theatre, a dinner or a party.   Henley, Royal Ascot, Cowes and the opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition all meant a new dress.  A ‘Saturday to Monday’ stay in the country filled a trunkful of clothes.

Weddings were also big business for dress-makers and an immediate opportunity presented itself close to home. In April 1892, as Lucy’s marriage imploded, Elinor said ‘I do’ to Clayton Glyn, a wealthy and well-connected landowner.  Lucy designed Elinor’s wedding dress and the bridesmaids’ outfits as well as her trousseau.  When Elinor moved down to Essex with her husband, her flaming red hair and stylish wardrobe sparked the interest of her neighbour Frances (‘Daisy’), Countess of Warwick, a rich, smart society hostess and lover of the Princes of Wales.   She and her half -sister, Lady Angela St-Clair Erskine, became early and influential customers of Lucy’s, paying ‘only’ £8 for one of her dresses, equivalent to c. £1,000 now or eight weeks’ worth of wages for a new secretary then.

In April 1893, Lucy filed for divorce, incurring further financial cost and affecting her social standing.  The same year, ‘Mrs James Wallace’ was formally registered as a Court dressmaker at 25 Davies Street and by December business was good enough for her to open up Maison Lucile at 24, Old Burlington Street.   Lucy’s big break came in January 1894 at the high society wedding of the brewing heiress, the Hon Nellie Bass, where two of the guests wore her dresses.  The fashion arbiters took note and by June, The Queen noted that Maison Lucile was ‘one of the smartest houses in London..largely patronised by women who are past mistresses in the art of dress’.

Looking at her clothes now, it is not immediately clear quite how special they were. What is obvious is her use of colour and her exacting attention to detail. Her gowns are adorned with intricate detailing – buttons, lace, ribbon, tiny silk rosebuds and delicate bows – in shades that complemented or contrasted with the dress.  What is lost in a sketch or on a static model is how her clothes looked when they moved, with the layers of fabrics and colours combining to magical effect. And impossible to understand is what a delight they were to wear. She made the boning and corsetry lighter, later removing them altogether, and put splits into otherwise-restrictive skirts. Finally, she was risqué, with low necklines and a passion for lingerie, openly displaying flimsy lacy undergarments in peach, cream and rose in her salon. By embracing the erotic, Lucy tapped into a rich vein of fin de siècle decadence and by caring about how clothes felt to be worn, not just how they looked, she created a brand to which clients stayed loyal for over 25 years.

Fashion and performance
As she built her fashion business, Lucy planted one foot firmly in the world of theatre.  Her approach made her ideally suited for costume design and her ambition made her open to any work that generated publicity. Her practice of reading the plays so she could fit dress to character was seen as unusual at the time but it bore fruit.  In 1895, her costumes for a high-profile amateur production starring her sister received twice as much attention as the performances. In 1897 Lucy scored her first major West End commission, designing racy costumes for all the leading ladies in Charles Wyndham’s production of the society intrigue, The Liars. Wyndham didn’t want the characters to say too many outrageous lines so he let Lucy’s costumes do the talking and they caused a sensation.   

She moved her growing business to a more prestigious location, 17 Hanover Square, and made dresses for guests attending the coronation of the ill-fated Czar Nicholas II in St Petersburg and celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  Margot Asquith, a lover of both fashion and spending, became a client.  The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 brought a social shake up and more business opportunity.  Afternoon drawing rooms gave way to more glamorous evening courts and the new King set a punishing pace for his courtiers (and their wardrobes) with a full evening schedule and a hectic summer season. It was a period of parties and fun, of spangled chiffon and ostrich feather-boas.  Lucy was able to enjoy more of these occasions herself.  Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, a landowner and a noted fencer and a year older than Lucy was finally brave enough to propose to a divorcée after his mother died, giving Lucy a title and new social status.

The expiry of her lease in 1902 necessitated a move and eventually a new site came free nearby at 23 Hanover Square.  Her new salon was one of the best planned spaces in London, with a dedicated ‘Rose Room’ for her lingerie, complete with a luxuriously-draped day bed. She was acutely aware that a better buying experience meant more sales and turned clothes shopping into a social activity, with comfortable chairs and tables where women could drink tea, play cards and chat.  The longer her clients lingered, the more they spent.

As her revenues grew, so did her costs. Aside from materials and rent, her overheads included an ever-expanding team of dressmakers, fitters and sales staff.  Wealthy customers were not necessarily speedy payers and women expected help from their dressmakers in managing their different financial situations.  Those with an unlimited clothing budget but no other source of funds requested over-stated invoices and then sought a cash refund on the difference; those with far more scrutiny of their spending asked for under-stated invoices and then paid the difference in secret.  Lucy’s patchy education left her ill-equipped to manage the financial side of any business, let alone one with these sorts of complications. By 1903 the business had significant debts and had to be restructured.  It was sold to a company, Lucile Ltd, with Lucy, Cosmo and an accountant, Osgood Miles, as the three directors. Lucy was paid a salary by the company for her design work and received a stream of income from the business profits. Based on later events this set up still did not provide Lucy with adequate financial support and / or she simply ignored any advice she was given. But for now things were back on track.

It was around now that Lucy came up with her revolutionary idea of a fashion parade.  

A Mannequin Parade in the garden of Maison Lucile in 1913.

Charles Worth already used live models but they only showed clothes to other women and wore black high-necked, long-sleeved body suits under their outfits so no bare skin was on display. Lucy banished these undergarments – nothing was going to detract attention from her ‘Studies in the Expression of Personality in Curves and Colours’ – created a complete staged performance with music, lights and a programme and threw her salon doors open to men.  Twenty years before the first model agency was established, she found tall, striking young women, taught them how to walk and show off the clothes and invented stage names for them like Gamela and Dinarzade.  For several of them, it was a fast route to fame and fortune.  Maison Lucile’s parades were a huge draw, with invitations highly sought-after and the big Parisian houses quickly followed suit.

Going international
Lucy’s client list grew, encompassing European royalty and the Queen of the West End, Lily Elsie, designing the costumes she wore in the first act in her break-through performance as Sonia in ‘The Merry Widow’.   (The costumes for Act II were designed by Percy Anderson, who three years earlier had become an investor in Ada Nettleship‘s business.)

Lily Elsie as Sonia in 'The Merry Widow', in a costume designed by Lucy Duff Gordon.
Lily Elsie as Sonia in ‘The Merry Widow’
by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd
bromide postcard print, 1907, NPG x135274
© National Portrait Gallery, London

By December 1909 the London business was selling around 100 dresses a week and Lucy decided New York was ripe for the taking.  Two months later, she showed 120 new dresses at a farewell ceremony in London and set sail on the Lusitania, models in tow.  Vogue saluted the ‘High Priestess of Fashion’ in a two-page splash but questioned whether the Americans would go for her clothes. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ and soon there was even a short story in the Ladies Home Journal about a woman longing for a Lucile dress.  Up until now Elinor had been the writer in the family, famed for her scandalous 1907 book, Three Weeks, but now it was Lucy picking up the pen as William Hearst recruited her as a fashion columnist, another industry first.

With New York conquered, Paris was next.  Lucy sounded out friends across the Channel about setting up business there and they thought she was over-reaching, throwing ‘a douche of cold water over my enthusiasm.’  She was undeterred.  Her three-day launch event in late May 1911, complete with a live orchestra and an endless supply of tea, was a smash and she set another new trend by matching hats, shoes and even lingerie to the gown.

Label from an item of clothing made by Maison Lucile's Paris business.

Within six months she had doubled her team and promoted the young man she had hired the previous year in London as a sketch artist, Edward Molyneux, to assistant designer in Paris.  With collections being made and sold in London, Paris and New York, the first international couture house had arrived.

Skirting disaster
Amidst all the hoopla, new business risks also emerged. Weeks before her Paris launch, Lucy found herself in a New York court, accused of tax fraud for under-valuing merchandise arriving from London.  The blame was placed on her New York managers and she escaped with a hefty fine but when in March 1912 she received a cable telling her that another business issue there needed her immediate attention, she responded.  She, Cosmo and her assistant, Laura Francatelli, booked cabins on the White Star’s newest liner and on the 10th April at Cherbourg they boarded the RMS Titanic.   

On the night of the 14th April, as the wrecked ship started its descent into the icy Atlantic waters, the three of them ended up in Lifeboat 1.  It could have taken 40 people but was dropped into the sea with only nine other occupants (seven crew and two other male passengers). When the small group finally reached the nearest ship to respond to the distress signals, the RMS Carpathia, Cosmo wrote a £5 cheque for each of the seven crew.

By the time the Carpathia arrived in New York two days later, the American ‘yellow’ press was bursting with gossip about Lifeboat 1, now ‘the Money Boat’: passengers had bought their way to safety; Lucy cared more for her assistant losing her dressing gown than for 1,500 people losing their lives; and the cheque, which Lucy and Cosmo said was so crew members could replace their lost kit was actually a bribe to sail towards the Carpathia rather than stay to look for floundering and drowning passengers.  

A Board of Trade wreck enquiry was instigated in London in late May.  Some time was spent exploring the accusations against the couple, who both gave evidence. Although the bribery accusation was unproven, the judge criticised Cosmo for failing to make any effort to look for survivors in the water. Devastated by accusations of cowardice in the press, he largely retreated from public life.   Lucy dealt with her ‘utter sorrow’ by burying herself in her work. 

By 1913 Lucy was spending more time in Paris. She was now writing for Hearst’s Harpers Bazaar and her columns paint a vivid picture of a city moving into the Jazz Age, with cubist and abstract paintings at the Salon d’Automne (‘hideous daubs of horror… galleries and galleries of nightmares’) and a craze for tango filling the parks with sultry stares and flicking legs.  While Paul Poiret was hosting extravagant parties for Picasso and Gertrude Stein on his houseboat, ‘Le Nomad’, Lucy based herself near the Villa Trianon and hung out with Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan.   But in August 1914, the music stopped as the war was finally declared after a summer of speculation. Lucy handed her salon to the French government, left Paris and headed to New York with Cosmo.  

Six months later, Cosmo was back in London on his own, fed up with Lucy’s growing attachment to a young Russian man.  They would not live together again.  ‘I have been no good as a wife and mother’ she wrote to her daughter later that year. Esme was now Viscountess Tiverton and Lucy was a grand-mother twice over but while she continued to give Esme financial support, her business took most of her attention.  She bagged another high-publicity client, Irene Castle, dancer, stage star and style icon.  She opened a new store in Chicago and on top of turning out two collections a year there and in New York also began designing for the Ziegfeld Follies. Florenz Ziegfeld’s wife, Billie Burke, (probably best known now as Glinda in ‘The Wizard of Oz) was a silent film star and soon Lucy’s dresses were also appearing on the silver screen.

While on the surface the story was one of huge success, Lucy’s personal spending continued unchecked and she now was without Cosmo’s financial advice. In need of funds, she sold Otis Wood, an advertising agent, the exclusive right to use her name for endorsements and licensing deals, agreeing to split the revenues and profits.  She then went off and made a deal of her own to create a ready-to-wear line for Sears Roebuck’s catalogue business, foreshadowing the couture and high street partnerships so familiar today. ‘I am getting dead sick of working for the ‘few’ rich people with their personal fads… I am going to work for the millions’, she wrote to Esme.  While the deal might have been commercially savvy, Lucy’s decision to keep all the profits was legally questionable. In December 1917 Wood sued her for breach of contract.   The case went all the way to the New York Court of Appeal, where Lucy lost, but the legal issues it raised are still discussed by lawyers nearly a century later.

The final collapse
As the war came an end, the financial problems piled up.  In June 1918, a wholesale costuming business took a 50% stake in Lucile Ltd and subsequent cost-cutting threatened the brand’s reputation.  In Europe, too, Maison Lucile was rapidly losing ground to the competition.  The availability and cost of material, reduction in disposable income, huge cutbacks in the size of household staff and greater social freedoms were all changing the way women dressed but Lucy was too far away to pick up on the shifting trends.  The wide pannier skirts she sent to the Paris shows in spring 1917 were at least a year out of date.  In autumn 1918, while Parisian designers slashed their hem-lines and streamlined their designs and Coco Chanel took over an entire building on rue Cambon, Lucy sent her models out in day wear with ankle-length skirts and even trains.  

When she finally arrived back in London in the winter of 1918, narrowly escaping the Spanish flu that was raging along the eastern seaboard, she made a crucial error of judgement.  Edward Molyneux had survived the war and was back at Maison Lucile with on-trend designs but she refused to use them and fired him in the summer of 1919.  He immediately set up under his own name and his modern sleek shapes quickly made him feted as a ‘coming star in the Paris firmament’.

If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you might have caught a reference to Lucile in Series 3, episode 3, as the designer of Edith’s wedding dress for her non-marriage to Sir Anthony Strallan. This episode was set in 1920, when Lucy still had some cachet, but her star was waning.

Theatre / evening cape, made in Paris c.1920

In June 1921, the Chicago business folded. The following August Lucy, now 58, was fired and on 27th October 1922, she was declared personally bankrupt.   The first business to start was the last to close when the London operation stopped trading in 1924.

Lucy was nothing if not resilient: just two days after being declared bankrupt, she laid out her plans for the future in a double-page spread in the Sunday Post and soon was writing for the Sketch. In March 1923, she was one of the first guests on the BBC’s new Woman’s Hour programme. But her design inspiration had dried up and that same year she was successfully sued by a young Norman Hartnell when she repeatedly passed off his designs in her column as her own. All her attempts to start over in fashion, whether designing and making clothes at home or setting up another shop, failed but she continued working, shoring up her dwindling income by touring the country as a fashion agony aunt, endorsing brands and writing her memoirs.  Lucy died on 17th April 1935 at the age of 73 from breast cancer, with her sister and her grandson at her side.

Now the woman once mentioned in the same breath as Worth, Lanvin and Poiret has a much lower profile. Even the V&A, which owns her archive, barely references her in its fashion galleries. Lucy undoubtedly made mistakes, failing to build a team around her that could compensate for her weaknesses and destroying her talent pipeline. She also never designed an obviously ground-breaking look like Coco Chanel or Paul Poiret (whose career, incidentally, also ended in bankruptcy at around the same time as hers). But Lucy deserves much more recognition for the way she married fashion and performance, which contributed to the longevity of her career and resulted in enduring change in the way clothes are sold and marketed.

More dresses from Maison Lucile can be seen on line here in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum

Sources include:

The Queen, 02/06/1894; The Queen 2/6/1894; ‘The Madness of Clothes’ by Marie Corelli in The Bystander 27/07/1904; Vogue 1910; Women’s Wear Daily 23/8/1910; Vogue 15/6/1911; Women’s Wear Daily 31/5/1911; The Tatler, 31/7/1912;Women’s Wear Daily 24/3/1917; Women’s Wear Daily 4/6/1918; Women’s Wear Daily 19/9/1919; Women’s Wear Daily 06/06/1921; Pall Mall Gazette 14/2/1923; Staffordshire Advertiser 5/4/1924; The Times 25/09/35

‘Discretions and Indiscretions’ by Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (1932); ‘Romantic Adventure’ by Elinor Glyn (1942); ‘Memories and Base Details’ by Lady Angela Forbes (1922); ‘To Tell My Story’ by Irene Vanbrugh (1948); ‘Castles in the Air’ by Irene Castle (1958); ‘The Glass of Fashion’ by Cecil Beaton (1954)

‘The It Girls’ by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher (1996); ‘Lucile Ltd: London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s-1930s’ by Valerie D Mendes and Amy de la Haye (2009); ‘Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes’ by Joel H Kaplan and Sheila Stowell (1994) P.39-50; Designing Lucile Ltd: Couture and the Modern Interior 1900-1920s’ by Samantha Erin Safer in Performance, Fashion and the Modern Interior ed. Fiona Fisher et al (2011); Introduction to ‘Symposium: The Enduring Legacy of Wood v Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon’ by James J Fishman (2008) Pace Law Review Vol 28 No 2

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