Of all the unlikely places to see six dresses from early twentieth century designer Lucile, Pigeon Forge is one of the most unlikeliest. But that’s where I did see them, in an exhibit at the Titanic attraction located there. (For those of you in the Midwest, there is also a Titanic in Branson, Missouri, and they too have an exhibit of Lucile dresses this summer.
Lucile opened her dressmaking business, Lucile, Ltd, in 1891. She was a leading designer of the first two decades of the twentieth century and, along with her business in London, opened branches in New York in 1910, Paris in 1911. and Chicago in 1915.
She was known for the lovely tea gowns she designed for her high society and celebrity clients. She herself was a member of this class, having married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon in 1900. Lady Duff Gordon was probably most associated with dancer Irene Castle, but she also designed for the stage, including “The Merry Widow” in 1907 (which started a trend for the “Merry Widow” hat) and for Ziegfeld’s Follies.
Lucile’s designs had a soft extravagance about them that, after the end of WWI, was out of step with the needs of modern women. Her London business restructured in 1918, and in 1922 she was no longer a part of the London branch of the business she had founded. Lady Duff Gordon continued working in the US and Paris, with the Paris branch not closing until 1933 . (Adapted from the biography I wrote for the Vintage Fashion Guild Label Resource)
In 1912, Lucile and Sir Duff Gordon were traveling to New York on the Titanic. They ended up with ten others on a lifeboat meant for forty persons, which caused a bit of animosity toward the designer, and they were even accused of bribing the crew members in the lifeboat to avoid plucking survivors from the water. They were called to testify at the official inquiry into the sinking, and were found to be innocent of the charges.
So with this strong connection between Lucile and the Titanic, it is easy to see why the attraction is displaying some of her designs. Most of them were loaned by Lucile collector Randy Bigham, and one is from the collection of the Fashion History Museum. Three of the dresses are in a re-created first class parlor room, and it is these dresses that are seen to their best advantage. The other three, as seen in my photo above, are in a little room behind glass. This made for tricky viewing.
No photos were allowed, so I’m having to rely on press photos from the attraction. Unfortunately, there is only the one photo of the three dresses above, and so you are just going to have to take my word on the details of each.
I’ll start with this most unlikely Lucile dress. Described as a late afternoon gown, the black velvet was a nice change from all the light blue and white of the other dresses.
This has to be the most “Lucile” dress ever, with the soft color, lace bodice, front bow, and short over-shirt. This frock really does tick all the Lucile design boxes.
Here is where I get into some deep photo regret. I loved this day dress so much, and the photo absolutely does not begin to show how special it is. First of all, the stripe that reads as white is actually blue. It is a stunning textile and you can’t even see how sweet the bodice is. The buttons are crochet covered balls, an often seen feature in Edwardian attire.
Fortunately, the other three dresses are better represented in the photographs.
This 1911 wedding dress is in the Fashion History Museum’s collection. It’s a real stunner, with layers of lace and net and gauze, all topped with pearls and beads and handcrafted flowers.
I’m grateful that the Titanic press photos included the close up shots of this dress as it does give you the best view of just how lovely all these dresses are.
That’s the train of this dress on the left. At the exhibit the mirror is set up so as to see the back of this gown, but it is so far away from the viewer that it has little effect. Still, how about that bow!
Lovely beading, more constructed flowers, and a pretty blue bow.
And here’s the rear view. The clothes are arranged to give a limited view of the backs of these three dresses.
This pretty thing was worn by Freida Heinrich in 1921. By that time Lucile was nearing the end of her association with the firm that bore her name.
Again, this dress was much more impressive in person. When viewing the dress, the lace looked to be gold, and Randy Bigham confirmed that the lace is gold even though the photo makes it look silver. No matter, because this dress sparkles.
In this back view you can see the layers and the embroidery a bit better.
In the very scanty exhibition notes, this dress was mis-attributed as belonging to the Fashion History Museum. It is actually in the collection of Randy Bryan Bigham. The mistake is most unfortunate as it makes me question all the visitor notes.
The blue dress on the far left is a reproduction and you can really tell by comparing it to the fabrics and laces of the originals.
Besides the dresses there was a Lucile hat, a perfume bottle and packaging, and best of all, a 1916 catalog of the adaptations Lucile designed for Sears, Roebuck. I’m pretty sure the catalog was a reproduction because it was out in the open and nobody yelled at me as I stood and looked through it. The designs for Sears were mainly day dresses and suits, and they were quite nice. They were expensive, though. One suit was $49.95, which the inflation calculator tells me would be around $510 in today’s dollar.
I really think that the Titanic people should have combined the Lucile artifacts from both locations so there would have been a better showing. With twelve dresses instead of just six, a fashion lover would feel more like she’d gotten her $29 worth. Yes, it costs $29 to tour the Faux-tanic, and though there are lots of other things to see and interactive stuff to play with, to me all that was secondary. Let’s be honest – this is an attraction, not a museum, though they have done a decent job presenting the artifacts on exhibit.
I think the big lesson here is that there is no comparison between looking at photos of garments and actually seeing them. In person, the special-ness of Lucile’s work is obvious. You can almost feel the richness of the fabrics, laces, and embroideries. None of this translates in even the best photos.
All photos are provided by the Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Please don’t use these photos on other sites, as they do not belong to me.
Update: I switched the dating of two dresses and have now fixed the error.
Randy Bigham has provided me with dating, fabrication, and labeling details which I have added as photo captions. Also from Randy:
“Two things that are just FYIs – Lady Duff Gordon was chief designer for Lucile until she left the house in Aug. 1922; there were issues with assistant designers turning out garments of which she did not approve but this mainly occurred in the last few months before her departure. Also, black was a favorite color with Lucile from early in her career and I speak of that in my book, Lucile – Her Life by Design.”