Born in London in 1862 as Lucy Christina Sutherland, Lucile detested her first name and intimate friends knew her as Christina from an early age. In 1884 when she married, Christina went by Mrs. James Wallace. In 1900, she became known as Lady Duff Gordon upon her second marriage to Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. By 1904, with the heightened popularity of her company, the names Lucile and Lady Duff Gordon became interchangeable.
Lucile got her start in the fashion world in the 1890s when she and her mother set up shop as dressmakers. By the time of her second marriage, Lucile was dressing London’s grandest ladies. In 1909 she opened a New York branch and in 1911 a salon in Paris. The company was founded on Lucile’s unique signature style, one that sought to make clothes that beautified women. Lucile believed dressmaking was a form of art and was in control of the whole creative process; from designing the initial concept to producing the garment itself. She was also a self-proclaimed perfectionist who obsessed over every detail of the custom-made garments. Throughout her fashion career, which spanned four decades, Lucile had the forethought to amass and preserve her working drawings, prints and photographs. For fashion historians this is very important because we now have access to these items through museum collections at the Museum of London and the V&A.
Lucile died in London in 1935, three years after she published her autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions (1932). (UnfortunatelyDiscretions and Indiscretions is difficult to find for purchase.) While she was a tough and forward-thinking businesswoman, Lucile designed romantic and theatrical garments for grand ladies of her time.
Lucile has been featured in numerous fashion and dress exhibitions. At the Museum of London in 2005, Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman and Caroline Evans curated the exhibition “London Look: fashion from the street to the catwalk,” which featured various Lucile garments. An accompanying exhibition catalogue was published in conjunction with the exhibition. In 2009 Amy de la Haye and Valerie D. Mendes published “Lucile Ltd. London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s-1930s,” a lovely book describing the history and career of Lucile. As of 2006 a garment by Lucile featured prominently in the V&A Fashion Gallery, but since they have recently reopened I am not sure if any Lucile garments are on display. When I am in London this summer I will be sure to check - I cannot imagine Lucile would not be present somewhere in the chronological history of fashion.
I would definitely recommend picking up both of these books if you are interested in learning more about Lucile. In the historical fiction novel by Kate Alcott entitled “The Dressmaker,” Lucile features prominently in the story. I have not had the chance to read this novel yet but I plan on picking it up for the future!
For further reading: “Who’s Who in Fashion” by Anne Stegemeyer and “Lucile Ltd. London, Paris, New York and Chicago 1890s-1930s” by Valerie D. Mendes and Amy de la Haye
(Images via V&A and Museum of London)