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Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, at the Titanic in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

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.

Afternoon dress, black velvet, green ribbon, metallic silk flowers. 1909-10  Lucile-London branch  (imported by Wanamaker’s, New York & Philadelphia)

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.

Summer afternoon dress, white organdy and batiste, blue and white pinstriped silk.  1915  Lucile-New York branch

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!

Evening dress, cream chiffon and satin, beads, silk flower appliques. Formerly owned by Darnell Collection. 1910-1912 (Probably 1911) Lucile-New York branch.

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.

Wedding gown, ivory silk tulle and satin, gold metallic lace, worn June 22, 1921 by Freida Heinrich on marriage to Robert Bollei.  1921  Lucile-New York branch

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.

Click to enlarge

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.”

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Exhibition: Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie at Biltmore Estate

For the past four years or so Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC has had a spring costume exhibition. And by costume, I mean movie and television costumes, not historical dress. This year’s exhibition featured the costumes from the 1997 film, Titanic.  I know the movie has a lot of fans, and if you are one, you really need to see this one. You have until May 13, 2018. And I’m showing here fewer than half of the costumes on view, so if this is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.

First I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the movie, which I’ve seen only once, way back in 1998. I didn’t hate it, but I’m not a fan of tragic endings. Also, I’m not as well-versed in pre-1915 fashion as I’d like to be, so feel free to disagree with any of my observations and opinions. And keep in mind that these are movie costumes, and as such have to portray more than just historical accuracy.

The exhibition started with the above suit, worn by Kate Winslet as Rose Dewitt Bukater as she boarded the Titanic. This is one of my favorites, and it seems to me to be one of the best as far as what a young rich woman would have actually worn in the situation. There is, in fact, a photograph of a very similar suit in a 1912 Les Modes fashion publication, which must have been designer Deborah L. Scott’s inspiration for this suit.

A quick note about accessories: some of the ones you’ll see in my photos are the ones used in the movie, like Rose’s parasol. The gloves, however are different, with the movie ones being short little gauntlets that turned back to reveal a purple lining. It’s a very charming detail, and shows just how much thought was put into the overall look.  Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, who was with me on this visit, thinks the hat is different as well.

Many of the clothes in the exhibition were the ones worn by Winslet, but you also get a good look at those worn by minor characters, including the men. That’s Captain Smith on the right, with the Countess of Rothes. Note the way the skirt drapes into that center piece. A couple of other dresses had the same treatment, which I thought was interesting. I did find a similar dress by Lucile (who was on the Titanic), though that center piece was not so prominent.

This dress was worn by Kathy Bates as Molly Brown (before she became unsinkable). In 1912 the trend was toward a slightly above the natural waist waistline, which is seen here, and in most of the dresses in the exhibition. I thought the skirt looked a bit full to be the height of fashion in 1912. At the time of the sinking, Brown was 44 years old, and photos of her after the sinking show her wearing a skirt with a similar silhouette. And according to photographs, she seemed to be partial to black.

This is another Molly Brown costume. Surely she didn’t wear black all the time, and I could not find if she was in mourning at the time. I think the fullish skirt looks odd.

More black, this time worn by, I think, an extra. I have a few questions. Was there really that much emphasis on the center front of the skirt? Wasn’t 1912 a bit early to be seeing so much black in women’s gowns? Shouldn’t this skirt be slimmer?

This costume was worn by Rosalind Ayers as Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile), so I guess it could be assumed that this is meant to be one of Lucile’s own creations. I did find a similar 1912 Lucile dress, but without the weird skirt detail, and without the train. And also without all the black.

Click to enlarge

All these dresses were worn by extras. According to interviews with  Deborah L. Scott, most of the costumes for the main actors were designed and made by her team, but many of the extras wore actual period clothing. They also sourced vintage fabrics and trims and incorporated them into the newly made costumes. These dresses could be made of old fabrics, as they sure looked right to me.

There were two outerwear pieces worn by Frances Fisher as Ruth Dewitt Bukater. One of the strengths of the exhibitions that have been at the Biltmore Estate is the setting. The clothes just looked so right in this Belle Epoque house with all its fanciness.

Others are not so fortunate, having been put in Plexiglas cages placed in the visitors center and the estate hotels. This cape seems to have been made with a combination of new and old materials. In the movie it is seen with the muff and hat seen in the previous photo.

But back to Rose. Again we are faced with quite a bit of black. This was a beautiful dress, though, and it’s no wonder Jack fell for Rose while she was wearing it.

If memory serves me correctly, this dress was worn by Rose in a dream, and was the white version of a black and red one she wore to a dance.

The one dress that was pretty much made just for effect was this one, the dress Rose wore when she and Jack went into the water. It was important for the dress to flow and float attractively.

The day we saw this exhibition was a warm and breezy one, and the staff had opened many of the windows. That allowed a nice breeze in some of the rooms, and gave movement to many of the costumes. This one was especially pretty with the motion. An unexpected result was that the shoes, which were just placed on the floor under the dresses were in full view. With these I could even see the (modern) label!

I know this photo is really bad, but it’s important that I show the context. The wind was blowing back the dress so that the shoes, which were meant to only peek out a tiny bit, were in full ugly view.

Something else that really surprises me about the Biltmore exhibitions is that they have always used the ugly plywood platforms you can see above. A little dark neutral paint would look a lot nicer. I mean, really! Plywood in a Belle Epoque mansion?

One of the great parts of the Biltmore Estate tour is that it includes the downstairs. For the exhibition they placed the clothes of the lower class passengers in a recreation of the dance party scene in the servants area.

This is I suppose, a dressing gown. It was worn by Rose, and a chair where she deposited it. I just can’t see this as a late Edwardian garment, though it does give a nod to the popularity of “Oriental” themes. And the robe itself looks cheap in reality. I am not a fan.

I really think Rose’s clothing should have been a bit lighter, though artists like Coles Phillips did portray young women in black in 1912.

Some of the costumes have been on display before, but I read that this is the largest Titanic costume show yet presented. Now that it has been organized, it might possibly be seen elsewhere in the future.

The lengths we go to in order to get the good photo.

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