Lucile in 1919, photographed
by Arnold Genthe
Lucy Duff Gordon was a survivor, with her husband and secretary, of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. She 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 favor of her advertising agent.
Read Lady Duff Gordon's eyewitness account of the sinking of the Titanic, free from Mount Royal College, Alberta.
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, in the heart of the fashionable West End of 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 (called mannequins) (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 lighting, 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 sophisticated colours, often accentuated with sprays of hand-made flowers. However, Lucile was also known for simple, smart tailoring in suits and daywear.
Some well-known 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), and 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).
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 1997 blockbuster Titanic, in which the actress's husband Martin Jarvis portrays Lucy's husband Cosmo.
Lady Lucile was also due to be onboard the RMS Lusitania on its last voyage. She was not however as she cancelled her trip due to illness. RMS Lusitania was destroyed by a German torpedo on May 7th 1915.