Thursday, July 7, 2022

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon – Haute Couturiere and Entrepreneur

by Tessa Arlen

In 1893 a thirty-year-old woman wakes up one morning to discover that her alcoholic and spendthrift husband has run off—again, this time with a pantomime dancer. There is no money in the bank and even if there were women in 1893 rarely had their own bank accounts, or access to their husband’s. The rent on her fashionable house, just off Berkley Square, is due next month, but she has no idea who their landlord is: that was again something husbands and fathers took care of.

Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (nee Wallace)

Lucy Wallace is a hair away from destitution: a single mother with a five year old daughter and only an aging mother and a temperamental sister, Elinor, to turn to. Lucy’s worst dilemma is that she has not been educated to earn a living. Of course, she can read and write, and her embroidery and needlework are enviably fine, but beyond becoming a governess or a paid companion she has nothing to offer the world that will result in a salary large enough to keep them. She is a perfect example of a woman from the genteel class of 19th century Britain.

The dressmakers of London

But Lucy has the beginning of a plan to earn money…it is a brave one and luckily she is not worldly enough to realize that the competition to design and make dresses is desperate in London. Thousands of modistes and milliners open and close shops all over the city every day.

In that moment she decides that she must divorce her husband—she can only obtain a divorce for desertion. Cruelty, incompatibility or stealing their wives’ money are not grounds for divorce in 1893. When women married their property and children belonged to the husband. Lucy is not so naïve that she does not knows that the social stigma will cost more than her solicitor’s fees. She won’t let herself think about the friends who will cut her, or point her out with pity as “That woman . . .” But divorce is the final hurdle to her freedom and however distasteful and frightening the divorce court is, she has no choice—if her husband returns he will drink away any money she has managed to make.

She lies in bed and calculates how far she can stretch the frugal sum she has put by from her dress allowance and her pin money. She can just about keep going until her business venture, if she dares to call it that, takes off.

Seamstresses at work in an atelier 1910

She must not let fear paralyze her. She throws back the bedclothes and gets out of bed: the first thing she must do is give her servants notice. As she says goodbye to women who have cooked, cleaned and cared for her for ten years, she cannot bring herself to fire the sixteen-year-old scullery maid, a workhouse orphan taken on only two weeks earlier. There is something about the girl that appeals to Lucy, and she is not so desparate that she must turn a young girl out on the street to starve? They are in the same boat!

Her mother is appalled about the divorce, but even more horrified that Lucy is thinking of going into ‘trade’. Her sister, married to a rich man, is determined that Lucy will make a go of a dressmaking business: after all Lucy’s doll’s clothes, made from scraps of silk and lace, were the envy of their childhood playmates! Elinor reassures her sister that success will be hers: Lucy has a flair for color, and eye for line and style—and anyway she has no choice but to succeed. Elinor has rich friends, and surely the more sophisticated of them won’t bat an eyelash about an unsavory divorce. Elinor promises that her rich husband will vouch for her credit.

The embellished skirt of a Lucile dress 1906

Gradually Lucy Wallace builds her clientele. It is slow going but she begins to succeed. Rich and titled women flock to her tiny little house and sip tea in her cramped drawing room as they wait for fittings for morning, afternoon, and evening dresses. They all agree that Lucy Wallace’s gowns are superbly original and for what is more than half the price of a Paris model! And there are no dreadful Channel crossings to be made, or the irritation of dealing with the patronizing attitude of the great fashion salons on the Rue de la Paix. Charles Frederick Worth is such a dreadful old snob, and it is impossible to get an appointment with Jacques Doucet these days.

The great fashion houses of Rue de la Paix, Paris

Lucy is helped by her scullery maid, the young orphan from the workhouse with a quick mind, deft hands and an aptitude for organization and arithmetic. Together the two women work long hours, taking on seamstresses, embroiders, and tailors as business grows.

There are set-backs: many of them. Cash flow is a nightmare, and Lucy has no skill as a businesswoman: the aristocracy are terrifyingly offhand about paying their bills on time, or in some cases ever. Silk merchants will not extend credit to single women; skilled workwomen are expensive and Lucy refuses to take advantage of cheap piecework labor (women making parts of a garment in their homes for starvation wages).

Piecework from home involved the whole family--for starvation wages

The dining room is her atelier; the drawing room full to overflowing with clients waiting for a fitting in the morning room; the three attic rooms house seamstresses. They moved to upmarket Hanover Square and to the luxury of space enough for fitting rooms galore!

The fashions change rapidly and to become a top designer Lucy can’t simply copy Paris models, she must be innovative, original and create her own look. Lucy’s label “Lucile” becomes known for its informality, its joie de vivre and its vibrant colors. She is fresh, daring and discovers that she has a flair for publicity.

Detail of one of Lucile's dresses

Lucy’s clients are ladies of fashion from a new generation: they are young society hostesses; stage actresses; women of title and means—even their husband’s mistresses patronize Lucy’s salon.  Lady Brook the Countess of Warwick, the Prince of Wales’s new mistress never pays for a single gown, but she reigns supreme in the sophisticated Marlborough Set where no woman would dream of wearing the same dress twice to a grand occasion. Mrs. Cynthia Asquith, the Prime Minister’s wife, brings her avant garde literary friends to be dressed by Lucy; The famous Westend stage actress Ellen Terry insists her costumes are designed by Lucy, and even Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena of Battenberg the Queen of Spain sends her maid over to make an appointment to consult with Lucy when her majesty is in London.

Bodice detail of a dress Lucy named "Happiness"

Lucy’s natural ability to listen to what her clients want and her tact to advise on what would actually suit them are among her greatest gifts. She creates what she calls Dresses of Emotion, each designed for its individual wearer. She gives her favorite gowns names: Passion Flower’s First Kiss; The Sigh of Lips Unsatisfied, and A Dream of Endless Summer. She also develops a talent for publicity! 

Lucile Ltd. is one of the first fashion houses in London to introduce their new season’s models in a live mannequin show.

As a new century dawns Lucy is ready to prise women out of hard, unforgiving whalebone corsetry and into softer more alluring and female lines—her silky lingerie is displayed in the Rose Room of her new Hanover Square salon, on a bed once slept in by Louis XIV mistress the Marquise de Montespan.

Lucile was the first fashion house in London to introduce the new season's models in a live mannequin parade

When Lucy marries Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, society is willing to accept that Lucy has reached the pinnacle of success. She may not be presented at court because she is a divorcee, and worst of all in trade, but she can, and does, open a fashion house in New York, Chicago and with unashamed audacity in Paris.

Truly, could life be more perfect? Lucy Duff Gordon has become one of the most sought after haute couturières of the early 1900s, but as history has taught us: change is constant. On one bitterly cold night in April 1912 a catastrophe of such magnitude occurs and changes the course of Lucy Duff Gordon’s life forever. And once again she must rise above social ostracization and public humiliation to find a way out of this dilemma to save not only her business, but her marriage.


Tessa Arlen writes historical fiction when she is not toiling away in her garden. She is the author of the Edwardian mystery series: Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson; the Woman of World War II mystery series. Poppy Redfern. And two standalone historical novels: In Royal Service to the Queen and A Dress of Violet Taffeta.