Lady Duff Gordon as "lady of the manor"


Mar 20, 2007
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Perhaps I ought to wait for Randy to tackle the question of Lucile's celebrity, pre-'Titanic'. But, in an idle moment, I can't resist having a crack myself.

I think that MANY people would in fact have read the wardrobe credits for the theatrical productions dressed by Lucile. During the 1890s, the West End and Broadway played host to some of the greatest celebrities of the day - the likes of Lillie Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry and Cecile Sorel. These women were perhaps the nearest equivalents to the movie goddesses of the 1930s and were equally as celebrated for their beauty, chic and tempestuous love-lives as they were for their acting abilities. I've already touched on this subject in my recent posts concerning Leontine Aubart and the 'grande horizontales' of the Belle Epoque. Just as millions of women between the wars copied the clothes of Garbo, Crawford, Dietrich and Shearer, so too did many women take inspiration from the costumes worn by Langtry, Terry and their contemporaries. I'm not saying that the live theatre of the 1890s and 1900s reached as wide an audience as the Hollywood spectaculars of forty years later. But I would argue that the costumes displayed in smash-hits like 'The Degenerates', 'The Liar' and (of course) 'The Merry Widow' had an immense impact on contemporary fashion. Women in the audience would have had their opera glasses firmly trained on the outfits of the leading ladies and no doubt made mental notes of anything particularly stylish or striking, to be relayed to their dressmakers at their next meeting. Or else, they consulted their programmes, saw Lucile credited and made the trip to Hanover Square the very next day.

It is also worth remembering that theatre-going was very much a 'Society' activity during this period, as much as attendance at Ascot or Covent Garden. The ladies in the better seats would have been the same as those who patronised the great fashion houses of the day. In a very real sense, dressing a leading lady was, for the likes of Worth and Lucile, the best publicity imaginable.

I'd further add that, throughout the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, there was no equivalent to Topshop, Zara or Primark. The concept of 'throw-away' fashion did not exist. Unless you were very wealthy, you bought the best-quality clothing you could afford and wore it year in, year out until it fell to bits. Obviously, the advent of cheaper department stores and the home sewing-machine changed things greatly, bringing 'fashion' into the lives of the masses. And vanity has always been vanity - even women from the poorest backgrounds did what they could to be a la mode. Read 'Larkrise to Candleford' by Flora Thompson. She describes in affectionate detail the struggles of English agricultural labourers in the 1880s to introduce a dash of Parisian glamour into their wardrobes, padding their backsides with rags to make bustles and curling their hair in imitation of the 'Alexandra' fringe. Nevertheless, only women of the elite could really afford to up-date their clothes on a regular basis. In fact, with little else for them to do, a visit to their dressmaker was a useful way to fill up a bit of time. In opulent and monied societies (such as those of Edwardian London, Belle Epoque Paris and Gilded Age New York), magnificent gowns were a sign of status and an assertion of social prestige. Futhermore, dresses were changed four or five times a day - Edward VII, like Napoleon before him, was known to frown on any woman at his court who wore the same outfit twice in his presence. So any woman who hoped to become a 'Society' leader required a vast array of finery.

Which is all a very round-about and convoluted way of saying that Lucile would not have NEEDED to launch advertising campaigns in the manner of Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren. The masses could not have afforded to patronise her anyway. Word of mouth was a very effective means of building a client-base and within the tiny, tightly-knit group known as 'Society' this would have been by far the best way to reach the top of the tree.

Of course, Lucy was a mistress at the art of generating publicity for herself. Her mannequin shows and her 'Gowns of Emotion' couldn't help but gain the notice of the contemporary press and thus a vast audience on both sides of the Atlantic. But it is also vital to bear in mind the very different social conditions prevailing around the turn-of-the-century when considering the concept of fashion and celebrity (or, in this case, the celebrity of the fashion designers themselves).

As for the Devonshire House Ball...I imagine that many people gathered to watch the guests arrive, marvelling at their wonderful costumes. This was in fact a favourite summer recreation of the working-classes in London, right up until the Second World War. Each night throughout the Season, the pavements of Mayfair and Belgravia would have been thronged with little groups of shabby young girls, watching tiara-ed and white-tied party-goers arrive at balls and 'crushes'. Nor was their interest necessarily ill-natured or offensive. As Consuelo Marlborough - still dressed as 'a lady of the court of Louis XV' - walked home through Green Park in the early hours of the morning following the Devonshire House Ball, she was both embarrassed and pleased to receive the compliments and blessings of the down-and-outs gathered on the grass.
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
Well that was surely as good as a posting by Randy Bingham, It would be hard to tell the difference with such a lot of colourful information. I love the idea of Consuela Venderbilt doing the walk of shame. You see some things are the same whatever the era, who hasn't crawled home drunk in the early hours, dishevelled, after a long night out, i know I have....many times!!! Is this mentioned in her Autobiography? I don't think people did necessarily know which designers they were copying, as it never says in magazines. i do expect there was a certain snobbery about being 'in the know'. I think Lucile said herself that she didn't need to advertise in london, somewhere. i would have thought that credits in popular stage productions were just as good though. I think she says she did have a publicist so it is very confusing. What i do know is that the Duches of Devonshire's Ball must have influenced other aristocrats, especially the ones that didn't get an invitation!!!
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Lucile was exceptionally well-known pre-Titanic —— she was minutely covered in the press on both sides of the pond, not just as a designer, but also as a pundit and critic, weighing in on nearly every subject you could think of. She was interviewed and photographed constantly in widely syndicated reports pre-1912. And, yes, she did launch unprecedented publicity campaigns, particularly in the USA. Her 1907 visit to New York (three years before she even opened her salon in Manhattan) was a big news event, covered by most major dailies, even by small town papers. Her public relations savvy, matched only by Poiret (and often surpassing his prowess) is one of the many pioneering aspects of her career. Lucile didn’t depend on advertising in theatre programmes —— her publicity was almost 100 percent editorial, whether through columns, interviews or other articles. If you can’t find them, you aren’t really looking, because they are everywhere for the researcher to see, especially these days with so many online news archives around. Lucile’s media coverage was way impressive, from as early as 1904, and after she became William Randolph Hearst’s fashion correspondent in 1909-10 —— in which her full page illustrated columns were syndicated in dozens of big city newspapers across the country and in Europe —— she was a household name to millions of women. She didn’t need the Titanic to make her famous. Unfortunately it did make her notorious. I have often thought that had Lucile not had a popular public image already, the controversy of the alleged bribery might have ruined her. But she had an established reputation and so in the end, although severely criticized in some segments of the press, she came through it fairly unscathed. Posthumously she has been treated much worse. Rumors and lies make for interesting reading, and there’s no convincing people who would rather rely on sensational stories than true facts, which are often not as entertaining.
 
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sashka pozzetti

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WWhich magazines should we be looking at pre 1909. I can't find many named references to Lucile before she goes to New York, just reviews of things she has done that do not name her. Where should I be looking? This would be so helpful as I would like to know how celebrated she was before she went on the ship.
 
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sashka pozzetti

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I forgot to say, i know that Lucile wrote for various magazines, but I cant find Harpers Bazaar on-line anywhere, or other magazines. Do you know what the links are. Thanks!
 
Mar 20, 2000
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I was referring to newspapers, not magazines. But Lucile was most definitely featured in the British ladies’ mags — The Queen, Ladies Tailor, etc., as well as the general news pictorials of the day, like The Sketch, the Sphere, the Bystander, the Illustrated London News, the Tatler, etc. All these had women’s interest pages and/or special features supplements that ran fashion items regularly.

The archives of Harper’s Bazaar aren’t online. I believe Women’s Wear Daily’s past issues (back to 1910) are available online but the publication charges a pretty expensive subscription for accessing them.

You can find Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Theatre Magazine and the various movie fan magazines in libraries. Her designs were featured in all of them. Also Good Housekeeping of all places carried her articles, which shows how mainstream her appeal was in the US. French mags like Femina, L’Art et la Mode and Les Modes also featured Lucile from the time of her Paris opening in 1911.
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
I know of most of these titles, and have looked in some. I might have to get my glasses on, as I am having loads of trouble finding Lucile mentioned very much at all before 1909. The descriptions I read don't really describe any of the actual designers at this date. There is one very early illustration in the FIT catalogue, but I haven't seen that paper. I thought Lucile fell out with The Queen, so I hadn't tried that one, I will now. :)
 
Mar 20, 2007
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I was interested to learn that only six weeks after the disaster (and only one week after giving testimony at the British 'Titanic' Inquiry), Cosmo and Lucy were on the high seas again. According to the London 'Times', they departed from Dover on the Duke of Westminster's yacht, 'Grianaig', at the end of May. Although their destination - if any - isn't supplied, I imagine that the invitation to join the ducal party was extended as a means of removing them from the storm of controversy which had so recently been raging about their heads.
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
Unfortunately for the Duff Gordons they weren't on the Grianaig, the Times had just got the wrong information, and had to withdraw the story :)

I wonder why it was called the Grianaig?
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
It is interesting to think that when this one line comment appeared in the social pages, it was deemed necessary by someone to get it removed.

Just shows that it doesn't matter how pompous the nickname of the newspapers are, they are still unreliable sources of information. :)
 
Mar 20, 2000
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Cosmo Duff Gordon was friends with the Duke of Westminster (this is confirmed in sources other than the Times) and of course the duchess was a client of Lucile's. They were both supporters of the DGs during the fallout from the Titanic hearings, and because of that, I suspect Cosmo and Lucile might well have been on the duke's yacht after all. However, Sashka is correct that the news item was retracted.

I think, whether or not they were aboard, it simply was not wise to publicize what could like merry-making during such a time of grief.
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
I don't think the Duke of Westminster would have allowed something to be printed uncorrected in the Times that he knew wasn't true. Being found out as a liar would have been social suicide. :)
 
Mar 20, 2000
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There isn't much the Edwardians didn't lie about. However glamorous, it was a time of dissimulation and hypocrisy. As far as being made out a liar - the Duff Gordons famously fudged at the British Inquiry. Saving face was the game. Cosmo didn't succeed too well but Lucile managed to live it down, at least during her lifetime. It's been a different story posthumously; with so much concentration on the Titanic, it's inevitable that the scandal would be revived.
 
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sashka pozzetti

Guest
I would agree that the Edwardians were no strangers to lying, being economical with the truth, and hypocrisy. Nothing much has changed has it? I do think however that advertising a lie in a national paper would be unthinkable, but then again some people are so deluded that they don't think it matters, or that anyone else is intelligent enough to notice.
 

Krisvf14

Member
Jul 18, 2015
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Hello, Randy. This is Lady Kristen Fanning, a relative of the Duff Gordons and many other Titanic passengers. I've been doing genealogy for 7 years and I got an email from a woman, who claimed that she might be a granddaughter of Cosmo and her grandmother, Williamina Jane Middleton. She thinks that it's possible that Cosmo impregnated Williamina because in 1911, she gave birth to a girl, Isobel Rose Middleton. This woman who emailed me is Isobel's daughter. I can't find any contact information to cousin Andrew (8th baronet) and I already contacted cousin Camilla, the great granddaughter of Lucy and James Stuart Wallace. Do you know of anything about the "affair" and Cosmo's illegitimate daughter, Isobel?
 

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