Notorious Facts About Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, The Original Queen of Couture

October 2, 2023 | J. Clarke

Notorious Facts About Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, The Original Queen of Couture

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking about the Titanic, but her connection to the sunken ship and her chaotic life surrounding it is as surprising as it is unforgettable.

1. She Had A Humble Start

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon was born to a civil engineer and his wife in London, England in . Not many details about her early life are public knowledge, but it is quite likely that she lived well, though not nearly as well as many English aristocrats of the day. At a very young age, an unexpected tragedy changed her life as she knew it.Lady Duff-Gordon is opening a branch of her dress concern Lucile, Ltd. - 1910Bettmann, Getty Images

2. She Lost Her Dad

When typhoid fever took her father’s life, her mother up and moved them to Canada, where she spent her formative years. Other than this loss, her childhood seemed fairly normal. Her mother remarried, and she grew up with a stepfather and stepsister. One childhood instance, though, became the first of a super eerie trend.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, arriving on RMS Campania - 1914Bettmann, Getty Images

3. She Shipwrecked

In 1875, Duff-Gordon and her sister, Elinor Glyn, traveled to England to visit family. On their way back to the United States, disaster struck. A strong storm overtook their ship. Ultimately, the storm ran it onto land and destroyed it. Somehow, both Duff-Gordon and her sister managed to survive. As it turns out, it wouldn’t be her only “ship” to fall to pieces.

Elinor Glyn - English novelist and scriptwriter.Bain News Service ,Wikimedia Commons

4. She Married Young

At the remarkably young age of 18, Duff-Gordon married one James Stuart Wallace, and eventually had one daughter with him. Another thing that was worth noting about their relationship? The fact that Wallace made a terrible life partner.Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon sketch - 1848George Frederic Watts, Wikimedia Commons

5. She Had Bad Taste

Though Wallace made a big enough first impression to convince Duff-Gordon to marry him, it wasn’t long before their union went from fairy tale to horror story. Allegedly, Wallace both drank too much and ran around with too many women. And when I say “ran,” he definitely did a lot more than run. Duff-Gordon’s response? The realization that two can play that game.

Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon By Henry W. Phillips -1851Henry W. Phillips, Wikimedia Commons

6. She Found Another Man

While her husband busied himself with extramarital affairs, Duff-Gordon decided to do just the same. She seemingly involved herself with multiple men during this marriage. Her most notable was a long entanglement with a well-known doctor, Sir Morell Mackenzie. Even so, her husband managed to one-up her in the cheating game.B&W Portrait of Morell Mackenzie wearing suit and looking at side.Walery, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Took Off

While she knew her husband pursued other women and she stepped out herself, his final move in their game still baffled her. Eventually he left her for a dancer, and forgot about her altogether. Abandoned and alone, she finally took things to court and divorced her husband in 1895. Things got worse before they got better.

Lady Duff Gordon is standing with closed eyes - 1900Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Left Her With Nothing

The details of Duff-Gordon’s divorce are not totally clear, but it didn’t leave her in a good spot. In fact, it left her without much of anything to her name financially. Destitute and still loaded with the responsibility of her daughter, she decided to go into the fashion business. The move marked the beginning of a successful but dramatic era.Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon wearing black dress and looking at side - 1920Hulton Archive, Getty Images

9. She Started From Scratch

Duff-Gordon basically had to start her life over again. Her business started in 1893 from her own house, where she created and sold dresses. She worked under the name “Lucille”. Her designs made such a splash that she moved her business to a building in 1894. Just a few years later, she moved to an even bigger space. What made her designs so special?

Beatrice Swanson wearing a dress designed by Lady Duff Gordon - 1920Alfred Cheney Johnston, Wikimedia Commons

10. She Kept It Spicy

Her designs pressed the boundaries of what many considered risqué during the time. In short, her designs showed some skin. In many cases, this meant a skirt slit or deep, alluring neckline. She also moved things along in the underwear department, making more revealing lingerie. The women loved it. So did the men—and one man in particular.

Lucile Dedication Costume Of Dead Rose Leaf Taffeta - 1915Unknown Artist, Wikimedia Commons

11. She Married For Good Business

In 1900, Duff-Gordon remarried, this time to Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon. It’s very possible she had real amorous feelings for him, but reports indicate she most likely considered this marriage a bit of a smart move. While she didn’t know the most about handling her money, her husband proved to do it well. And that wasn’t all he could offer.

Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon - 1896The Daily Sketch, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Made Her Look Good

Unlike her first husband, her second bore an actual title, increasing Duff-Gordon’s aristocratic status in England—which had another unexpected side effect. It moved her closer to people of power, and likely aided in the way her designs soon became a ridiculously hot commodity. While Sir Duff-Gordon proved to be an excellent choice, it didn’t completely give her what she wanted.

Cosmo Duff Gordon At Titanic Inquiry - 1912Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

13. But Not Good Enough

Although she’d essentially remarried well, her divorce left a permanent stain on her reputation. This likely carried more weight in her life in England, where divorce still remained extremely taboo. Still, her new pedigree looked better to the people who mattered. Fittingly, Duff-Gordon’s success went through the roof.Lady Duff Gordon is holding a flag and looking at front - 1900Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Hit It Big

Throughout the early 1900s, Duff-Gordon’s fashion business expanded at exponential rates. She opened branches in the world’s style centers at the time—New York, Paris, and Chicago. She lived it up with several homes and frequent stays at the most luxury hotels of the time. She also tried her hand at things that no one else in her world had even thought of.

Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon, portrait, seated - 1916Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Did It First

Fashion shows have been around so long that you likely never thought of who did it first. Interestingly enough, Duff-Gordon is one of the pioneers of the entire concept. At the time she called the event a “mannequin walk”. At these highly exclusive events, she displayed her designs live on models she taught herself. She kept things fresh in more ways than one.Model Wearing Costume Designed By Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon - 1919Flight, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Made Fashion Deep

Duff-Gordon took her fanciful fashions a step further by giving them more meaning than something to adorn the outside of the body. She ventured into the creation of dresses inspired by history and culture, and influenced by feelings. She called these “emotional gowns”. Seems simple, but at the time, it caused quite the stir.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon - British Dance dress - 1939Lucile, Wikimedia Commons

17. The Ladies Loved Her

By this point, many considered anything under the name “Lucille” the very most current and coveted in couture design. Her clientele boasted several huge celebrity names, to include Irene Castle, Billie Burke, and one Duchess of York that eventually became the illustrious Queen Mary. All this fame didn’t come by accident, though.

Photo of Billie Burke wearing black dress and looking at side - 1933MGM, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Put It In Writing

Seeing fashion ads in print isn’t uncommon in our modern day. But back in the early 1900s, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon was the first to start putting her designs in publications and writing accompanying articles for magazines like Good Housekeeping and Harper's Bazaar. She’d found a winning formula, and she took every opportunity to use it.

Lady Duff Gordon Styles Sketched By Marguerite Martyn, 1918Marguerite Martyn, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Loved The Limelight

Duff-Gordon realized something current social media influencers know well. The more people heard from her and saw her in print, the more they flocked to her brand. She regularly made statements to the press, often very informally, making her a certified celebrity of sorts. Still, all this buzz doesn’t hold a candle to one ill-fated sail.

Lady Duff Gordon wearing long black dress and hat is looking at front - 1900Bain News Service, Wikimedia Commons

20. She Took A Business Trip

In 1912, Duff-Gordon boarded the Titanic with her husband and maid. While the liner boasted major luxury for a ship, the first of its kind, the major purpose of the trip was business. She intended to take her new spring line over to the United States. You probably know where this is going, but the path it takes to get there is more than odd.

Titanic Belfast 1912Unknown Author, Picryl

21. She Made It Mysterious

For a reason that remains unexplained, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon and her husband boarded the ship with fake names—Mr & Mrs Morgan. Things went routinely at the beginning of the trip, but an iceberg loomed on the horizon. Duff-Gordon remembered the sound of the impact as a “funny, rumbling noise”. That’s where the situation began to deteriorate.Marshall Everett, Story of the Wreck of the Titanic people getting into lifeboatsUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

22. Things Got Crazy

Total panic and chaos ensued aboard the ship as it began to sink. After the whole affair, Duff-Gordon described the rush for the lifeboats, and even mentioned that one of the captains used a revolver to ward off men trying to escape first. Luckily for her, she made it onto a lifeboat—or maybe luck had nothing to do with it.

TitanicEverett Collection, Shutterstock

23. She Got Picky

Allegedly, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon got the opportunity to get on a lifeboat earlier than she actually did. As you’ve likely heard, it was “women and children first”. She missed these first few lifeboats, however, for a heartbreaking reason. She absolutely refused to leave without her husband, Cosmo Duff-Gordon. It’s romantic on one hand, and totally ridiculous and ill-timed on the other.Molly Brown factsUnknown Author ,Wikimedia Commons

24. She Got First Class Treatment

Her entire party of three boarded one of the last few lifeboats headed away from the wreckage—but there was a dark twist. Their escape boat could have held 40 people, but headed to safety with only 12. Other than the Duff-Gordons, the majority of those onboard were crew. A coincidence? You can be the judge of that.Lifeboat Carrying Titanic SurvivorsNARA, Wikimedia Commons

25. They Used Their Money

While headed to safety, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon reportedly made the following comment to her maid, “There goes your lovely nightgown”. Yeah, easy grounds for “cancellation” by today’s standards. The crew on board agreed, making a scene about her lack of sensitivity. Her husband responded by offering them about $500 each by today’s standards. That’s the Duff-Gordons’ story, anyway.

Screenshot: Lady Duff-Gordon and Cosmo Duff-Gordon are looking at each other - from Titanic (Mini Series 2012)Mid Atlantic Films, Titanic (Mini Series 2012)

26. They Might Have Lied

Shortly after the actual tragedy, a new spin on the Duff-Gordons’ escape to safety came to light. Some reported that Sir Duff-Gordon actually bribed the crew to leave without letting anyone else on the boat, to ensure it wouldn’t be too full and could get his wife and maid to safety. It started as a rumor, but it soon grew legs and took off in a sprint.Screenshot: Lady Duff-Gordon and Cosmo Duff-Gordon are looking at side- from Titanic (1997)Twentieth Century Fox, Titanic (1997)

27. They Looked Bad

News of these rumors spread across the waters to the United States, where gossip reporters continued to run with the story of the Duff-Gordons’ supposed bribe. Things escalated so much that authorities ultimately requested an official court hearing to determine what took place. As expected, it turned into quite a spectacle.Screenshot: Lady Duff-Gordon and Cosmo Duff-Gordon are looking at side- from Titanic (Mini Series 2012)Mid Atlantic Films, Titanic (Mini Series 2012)

28. She Was The Talk Of The Town

If television existed then like it does now, all channels might have been tuned in to the Duff-Gordons’ court hearing. Allegedly, socialite women flooded the court to view the fallout of the supposed scandal. The court made both husband and wife describe what went down the night the ship sank. Things went okay—well, for one of them, at least.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon is holding a cage In The Garden.Khang17092004, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

29. She Got Away

Reports claim that, while both faced the court’s questioning, the authorities pressed Sir Duff-Gordon much harder. To her credit, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon claimed she didn’t remember much about the whole event. She insisted she spent most of the time managing seasickness. While she got away with her convenient “memory loss,” authorities forced Sir Duff-Gordon to fess up.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon is looking at side  - 1851Henry Wyndham Phillips, Wikimedia Commons

30. He Stuck To His Story

Sir Duff-Gordon admitted to giving money, but claimed he gave the money to help the crew. Some reports state he went so far as to claim he gave them money for new clothes. Seems like an odd time for that kind of gift, if you ask me. Technically, the rumors remained unvalidated in the eyes of the court, but that didn’t make it go away.

Screenshot: Lady Duff-Gordon and Cosmo Duff-Gordon are looking at side- from Titanic (Mini Series 2012)Mid Atlantic Films, Titanic (Mini Series 2012)

31. He Never Got Over It

Most of the blame fell to her husband, even though the authorities declared them both innocent. Considering the fact that we’re still talking about it, the rumors never really went away. Duff-Gordon even said her husband remained “brokenhearted” over the theories about his behavior. She, on the other hand, continued to have unusual luck.Screenshot: Cosmo Duff-Gordon are looking at side with upset face - from Titanic (Mini Series 2012)Mid Atlantic Films, Titanic (Mini Series 2012)

32. She Almost Sank (Again)

In general, happening to miss boarding a ship that ended up sinking might not be notable. But considering the fact that Duff-Gordon already survived two shipwrecks in her life, it’s worth mentioning she narrowly missed boarding the Lusitania on its tragically final voyage due to a sickness. She did not, however, miss the career disaster to come.Lusitania Leaving NY Harbor On Last Voyage - 1915Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

33. The Relationship Shriveled

Sometime around that lucky escape, distance grew between Duff-Gordon and her husband. It’s not hard to imagine that her life of high fashion business kept her busy. However, she proved to be way too busy for him, as reports state they rarely lived together at all, and remained mostly separate until his passing. Perhaps she had better things to think about?Lady Duff Gordon wearing white jacket and hat,looking at side - 1917Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

34. She Did Her Own Thing

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon didn’t subscribe to the societal expectations of women of her day. She accomplished many things in the business world, but not without facing the challenges of being a woman in business. Her husband likely faced some trouble with this, although it appears he supported her for the most part. Not like he had any better options.Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon - 1916Arnold Genthe, Wikimedia Commons

35. Her Name Was Famous

By 1917, Duff-Gordon’s brand was just as famous (if not more so) than her actual dresses. Companies used her name to sell all kinds of fare, including perfume and shoes. This required licensing on her part, and likely placed her in the position to benefit greatly with these sales. However, this practice led to a landmark case.

Evening dress Lucile label - 1915/16Lucile, Wikimedia Commons

36. She Made A Deal (Kind Of)

Back in 1915, Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon came to an agreement with a well-known advertising agent named Otis F Wood. Per their discussion, Wood committed to licensing out the use of Duff-Gordon’s brand name to other companies and to give her 50% of the profit made. Seemed solid—until Duff-Gordon came up with an idea and took things into her own hands.

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon - portrait 1916Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

37. She Sold Herself

Shortly after this deal, Duff-Gordon made another agreement with Sears. She gave them permission to use her brand, and secured all the profit for herself. Wood felt shafted, and took the situation straight to the court. Duff-Gordon’s defense claimed their agreement didn’t legally require him to actually sell her licenses, and thus no real contract was made. She lost, until she didn't.

Mr. Sears - President Of Sears Roebuck At His Desk - 1906Richard from USA, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Got Lucky Again

Soon after, the courts appealed the decision, and rule went in Duff-Gordon’s favor. The case ultimately came down to the question of what was said and not said. This went on to set a precedent for other contract law, and people still study the case today. That situation, however, was just about the spot her luck finally ran out.

Screenshot: Lady Duff-Gordon is looking at side in the dark - from Titanic (Mini Series 2012)Mid Atlantic Films, Titanic (Mini Series 2012)

39. Her Plans Tanked

Her deal with Sears turned out to fail completely. She typically designed specially made, expensive garments. The deal with Sears, however, intended to create something more affordable to women everywhere, something more practical for the day to day. It makes complete sense now, but didn’t go well then. The bad luck continued.

Sears Roebuck Store Syracuse New York - 1941Collier John, Picryl

40. She Couldn’t Handle Her Money

Duff-Gordon’s skill with fashion and even publicity propelled her to success and fame, but disaster was on the horizon. Eventually, her inability to manage her own finances caught up with her. She grew accustomed to living lavishly. Even though she reportedly made what equates to millions in the early 1900s, she found herself bankrupt by the 1920s. It was the beginning of the end.

Lady Duff Gordon is looking down - 1915Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Fell Off

Just a few years after her landmark court case, Duff-Gordon faced the shifting needs of her market by trying to restructure her business. This is typical, considering the many years she'd been in business up to this point. The manner in which she attempted to restructure isn’t clear, but what is clear is that all things weren’t as they seemed.

Lady Duff Gordon for Sears Catalog - 1918Sacheverelle , Flickr

42. It Was Too Much Too Handle

Back in the early 1900s, when Duff-Gordon’s business boomed, it appeared the work became more than she could actually do all on her own. Like others in her business, she hired help of all kinds. This included the employment of artists to assist with her designs. As it turned out, however, they did a bit more than simply assisting.Dama Sykes wearing a dress designed by Lady Duff Gordon - 1920Alfred Cheney Johnston, Wikimedia Commons

43. She Didn’t Do It All

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon employed several artists under her brand, and had them sketch up their own designs inspired by her “Lucille Look”. This doesn’t seem that unusual, but things got dicey when it came to publication and credit. Multiple of these sketches actually made it to press, but signed with Duff-Gordon’s own signature. That wasn’t all.Actress Marcella Swanson wearing a dress designed by Lady Duff Gordon - 1920Alfred Cheney Johnston, Wikimedia Commons

44. She Couldn’t Draw

Allegedly, Duff-Gordon actually didn’t have that much artistic talent. Her own sketches didn’t look very professional, even though they did display an astounding understanding of color. Thusly, while many sketches survive under her name, the level in skill among them is noticeably different. Perhaps it isn’t as bad as it sounds.Hat, British, by Lucile - 1914/20Lucile, Wikimedia Commons

45. They Missed The Mark

It’s quite possible there was no precedent for the correct way to run this type of business, considering the fact that Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon was essentially the first of her kind. Furthermore, the artists themselves allegedly admitted to customers sometimes preferring Duff-Gordon’s actual designs to their interpretations. Still, it wasn’t a good look.Lady Duff-Gordon for Sears Catalog - 1918Sacheverelle, Flickr

46. She Told All

Eventually, amidst all the talk about the originality of her work (or lack thereof), Duff-Gordon made a stunning declaration. She admitted that she didn’t design many of the dresses attributed to her name. Later on, she further explained that had been the case for several years. Unfortunately, the truth did not, in fact, set her free. Instead, it did quite the opposite.Gladys Schultz in The Only Girl wearing an afternoon costume by Lucile - 1915Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

47. She Lost Her Empire

Amidst this confession, Duff-Gordon’s fashion empire began to crumble. She completely stopped designing by 1922, but attempted to open a new fashion company. It’s not clear who designed the new fashions for her attempt at take two, but it didn’t matter. This venture failed, starting another, less fortunate trend into her later years.

Evening dress, designed from Lucile - 1912VAwebteam, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Made Do

Duff-Gordon did her best to revive her fashion success with a few boutiques, but to no avail. She ultimately resorted to the place she started—making dresses at her home for private clients. Her brand name did a bit more work, but nothing compared to the heights she reached in her prime. She made one last dash for the spotlight.

Irene Castle Treman wearing a black short-sleeved satin dress by Lucile (Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon) - 1921Adolf de Meyer, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Gave Her Confessions

In 1932, Duff-Gordon released a memoir entitled Discretions and Indiscretions. She lost her financial success, but she clearly still carried some weight in the world, as her memoir became a bestseller. She never again lived the lavish life she once did, but she didn’t quite end her life completely destitute either. The end did come though, and not quietly.Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon seated, facing right with lapdogs - 1916Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

50. It Ended On A Low Note

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon lost her husband to natural causes in 1931, long after they stopped living together. She passed exactly four years later, due to a mix of complications from both cancer and a bout of pneumonia. While her life ended then, her existence as a character of interest continues—particularly in retellings of the story of the Titanic.The grave of Cosmo Duff-Gordon - 2016Jack1956, Wikimedia Commons

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