By Jiin Kim
Lucile in 1919, photographed by Arnold Genthe
Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff-Gordon (née Sutherland) (13 June 1863 – 20 April 1935) was a leading fashion designer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, best known as “Lucile”, her professional name. Lucile, the first British-based designer to achieve international acclaim, was a widely acknowledged innovator in couture styles as well as in fashion industry public relations.
Evening dress, Spring 1913, Lucile (1863–1935)
Apart from originating the “mannequin parade”, a precursor to the modern fashion show, and training the first professional models, she launched liberating slit skirts and low necklines, popularized less restrictive corsets and promoted alluring and pared-down lingerie.Opening branches of her London house, Lucile Ltd, in Paris, New York City, and Chicago, her business became the first global couture brand, dressing a trend-setting clientele of royalty, nobility and stage and film personalities. Duff-Gordon is also remembered as a survivor of the sinking of 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 wrote the opinion for New York’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals.
George St garden, mannequin parade, 1913
In 1912, Duff-Gordon travelled to America on business in connection with the New York branch of Lucile Ltd. She and her husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, booked first class passage on the ocean liner RMS Titanic under the names “Mr. and Mrs. Morgan”, a possible explanation being that they hoped to avoid publicity on landing in New York. Lucile’s secretary, Laura Mabel Francatelli, nicknamed “Franks”, accompanied the couple. On 14 April, at 11:40 pm the Titanic struck an iceberg and began to sink. During the evacuation, the Duff-Gordons and Francatelli escaped in Lifeboat 1. Although the boat was designed to hold 40 people, it was lowered with only 12 (seven of them male crew).
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.
Some time after the ship sank, while afloat in boat 1, Lucile reportedly commented to her secretary, “There is your beautiful nightdress gone.” A fireman, annoyed by her comment, replied that while the couple could replace their property, he and the other crew members had lost everything in the sinking. Cosmo Duff-Gordon then offered each of the men £5 to aid them until they received new assignments. While on the RMS Carpathia, the Cunard liner that rescued Titanic’s survivors, Cosmo Duff-Gordon presented the men from boat 1 with cheques drawn on his bank in London (Coutts). This action later spawned gossip that the Duff-Gordons bribed the crew in their boat not to return to save swimmers out of fear it would be swamped.
These rumours were fuelled by the tabloid press in the United States and, eventually, in the United Kingdom. On 17 May, Cosmo Duff-Gordon testified in London at the hearings of the British Board of Trade inquiry into the disaster. On 20 May, Lucile took the stand. Their testimony attracted the largest crowds during the inquiry.
Cosmo Duff-Gordon faced tough criticism during cross-examination while his wife 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 on the night of the sinking and could not recall specific conversations. Lawyers did not seem to have pressed her very hard. Lucile noted that for the rest of her husband’s life he was broken-hearted over the negative coverage by the “yellow press” during his cross-examination at the inquiry. The final report by the inquiry determined that the Duff-Gordons did not deter the crew from any attempt at rescue.
The Titanic episode is one of the most tangible aspects of Lucile’s life, thanks partly to motion pictures. The films, however, portrayed her without great attention to accuracy: in cameo by Harriette Johns in A Night to Remember (1958), produced by William MacQuitty, and again by Rosalind Ayres in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic. In the latter film, the role of Lucile’s husband Cosmo was portrayed by the actress’ own husband, Martin Jarvis. In the 2012 British miniseries Titanic, Lucile was played by Sylvestra Le Touzel.
Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon (Lucile) New York, 1916
A faded grey silk kimono with typical Fortuny style black cord edging, for some time thought to have been worn by Lucile as she escaped the Titanic, is now understood to have belonged to her daughter Esme, Countess of Halsbury. The distinctive print on that garment, designed by Mariano Fortuny, dates the item to post World War One. Fortuny suffered from failing sales following business problems in 1915, when his business assets were seized. The company reopened with a new name later that year, and following further changes, opened a new factory in 1919 with more commercial designs using new patented techniques. Letters written by Lucile reveal the features of two bathrobes she wore off the Titanic. One was pink, one purple, and both were chosen “for warmth.” One was a partially made garment she described as grabbing in a rush from the Paris branch of her salon. She also described wearing a pair of pink Yantorny slippers, a blue head wrap and a squirrel coat and her ‘motor hat’. An apron said to have been worn by Lucile’s secretary, Laura Francatelli, can be seen at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, and her life-jacket was sold, along with correspondence about her experiences in the disaster, at Christie’s, London, in 2007.
Lucile had another close call three years after surviving the Titanic when she booked passage aboard the RMS Lusitania on its last voyage. It was reported in the press that she cancelled her trip due to illness. The Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo on 7 May 1915.
Afternoon gown light organza, 1917, Lady Duff-Gordon
Lily Elsie (a) (left) & Lady Diana Manners The Great Love (1918), Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon
Lucy Duff-Gordon’s connection to her design empire began to disintegrate following a restructuring of Lucile, Ltd in 1918–19. An acrimonious battle emerged in the press, culminating in Duff Gordon’s public acknowledgment that since Spring 1921 many Lucile dresses had not been designed by her. By September 1922 she had ceased designing for the company, which gradually diminished in success after her departure. Meanwhile, its founder (who continued to be known as Lucile) worked from private premises designing personally for individual clients. She was briefly associated with the firm of Reville, Ltd., maintained a ready-to-wear shop of her own and lent her name to a wholesale operation in America.
Daily Sketch, London, 4th January 1919
Lucile also continued as a fashion columnist and critic after her design career ended, contributing to London’s Daily Sketch and Daily Express (1922-1930), and she penned 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. The date of her death, 20 April, was the fourth anniversary of her husband’s death.