Thursday, April 30, 2009


Renowned fashion designer ‘Lucile’ Lucy Duff Gordon placed herself as one of the very first personages of England during the turn of the twentieth century. Principle couture rival of Paul Poiret, her talents ran further than being known merely as a dressmaker. Lucile is as much referred to as an artist for her unique sense of style, cut, and color, which we will further explore. Lucile is widely known for her landmark contributions of staging the first catwalks and training the first runway models. Her ideals have heavily cultivated and shaped the world of fashion. She is credited as the first haute couture designer to implement diversity in the fashion field. Lucile laid the foundation for both public relations and the social element of glamour. Her most epic designs can be seen through the late Edwardian era and through the First World War.


Lucile with model

Maison Lucile

Born as Lucy Sutherland on June 13th, 1863, she spent her childhood in both Canada and the Channel Islands. She became married to James Wallace in 1884. They had a child together, though Wallace’s drinking led their marriage into a separation by 1890. In 1893, their marriage was officially ended by divorce, a rarity of the time. Because of this divorce, Lucy found herself nearly penniless. She began a dressmaking business from her home before renting a shop and workspace in London in 1894.

Breaking Into Fashion

Merry Widow hat on the London Stage, 1908
Actress Lily Elsie wearing Lucile in 'The Pictorial', 1911

Afternoon dress, 1916

Lucile’s dress shop, known as ‘Maison Lucile’, became an instant success. As her notability continued to spread, Lucille began designing costumes for stage use. Hats used in these stage designs were reproduced and instantly sold out in various department stores. With a willingness to admit that she lacked knowledge in financial matter, Lucille enlisted the help of successful businessman Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. This partnership with Duff-Gordon later turned into a successful marriage between the two. With a successful business regimen, Lucile became the first haute couture designers to embrace ready-to-wear retail along with mail-order markets. With her new marriage at hand, Lucile became famously known as Lady Duff Gordon. She and her husband then founded Lucile Ltd, her new company which would allow her designs all around the world.

Signature Styles

Lucile evening gown, 1917

Lucile hostess gown, 1917

Ivory Chiffon gown, flesh pink silk, 1917Fashion spread of a Lucile Wedding gown, Vogue, July 15, 1918

Corset lingerie, 1918

Lounging pajamas, silk and metallic lace, 1919

Hallmark designs of Lucile’s can be found throughout her billowy sleeve designs, scalloped hemlines, sashes and ribbons. The most coveted of Lucile’s designs were found through her subtle blend of color. She once stated that she ‘loosed upon a startled London’ by removing stiff bone-bodices with the replacements of chiffons and draperies, reminiscent to those of ancient Greece. Lucile opened up the ‘Rose Room’, which contained silk lingerie and exotic perfumes. Furthermore, she implanted lower neck lines, slit skirts, and color-coordinated accessories, all of which are reflected in today’s styles. She is even known for coining the term ‘chic’, as it was used to not only describe her styles, but her own personal image.


1912 silk velvet evening dress, long slit skirt
Lucile gown worn by Alice Joyce in ‘The Prey’ 1920

During her early creations at Maison Lucile, her ‘personality dresses’ had made quite an impact throughout wealthy clients. Each of these dresses was given its own name, drawing inspiration from the theater, literature, popular culture, and even from the psychological reflection of her clients. Lucile is credited with restoring both grace and freedom once the Victorian Era had ended. As mentioned through her signature styles, Lucile was drawn towards the representations in Greek styles, especially those of freedom and independence. Fame seemed to be another source of inspiration for Lucile. No other couturier of the time was more photographed or quoted than her. She dressed the most famous silent film and stage stars of the time, using her sociological approach on these women which allowed her designs to remain far more relevant than other designers.


Lady Duff Gordon
Lucile & Co.

Though teaming with the ever-successful Sears-Roebuck, Lucile Ltd. began to crumble by the year of 1919. Legal disputes caused her prominent catalog to disappear. At this time, Lucile was 56 years of age and not in the mind frame of recreating her entire industry. Poor business deals with wholesale manufacturers further contributed to the company’s downfall. Lucile’s expectations of high quality fabric and handmade methods continued did not correlate with newly executions of cheaper production methods. Nevertheless, Lucile continued to design on a personal scale for individual clients. In 1932, she published Discretions and Indiscretions, an autobiography about her life and the end of her business. She then passed away on April 20th, 1935 in London after battling both breast cancer and pneumonia. Lucile holds the true definition of fashion in every light of the word. Lucile’s great-great granddaughter, Camilla Blois, carries on her work through ‘Lucile and Co.’, a lingerie company she founded herself, inspired by the legendary works of Lucile Duff Gordon.


Due to her fearless choices and movements, Lady Duff caused the Edwardian era emerged with a greater sense of freedom and ideology. Up until this point, women had no choice but to follow trends and styles. Once Lucile entered the fashion world, she played with limitless boundaries while creating pieces that spoke directly to the individuals. She paved the way not only for designers, but for public relations as a whole through her implemented runway shows and use of models. Lucille Duff Gordon was a true pioneer of fashion, one that guided an era and scoped new ideals and practices throughout her career.


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Ross, Janet. Three Generations Of Englishwomen V2. Hessinger Publishing, LLC, June 2, 2008.

Ashelford, Jane. The Art of Dress : Clothes and Society. National Trust Enterprises Ltd, January 1, 1996

Bigham, Randy B. "Madame Lucile: A Life in Style." 2003. .

Fishman, James J. “I Love Lucy.” 2005.