It was sad, so sad. But not for one famous designer


I spent a good deal of my adult life learning more than I ever wanted to about the Titanic. Before writing books, I edited and acquired them for Madison Press Books, which among other titles produced Titanic: An Illustrated History – the volume James Cameron lugged around in the 1990s to show skeptical producers what his movie idea was going to look like on screen. (And it did.) 

One thing I learned early on:  absolutely everything on earth has a Titanic connection. Including fashion models.

Lucy Duff Gordon isn’t all that well known today, but 100 years ago she was probably the most famous fashion designer in the world. Opening her London atelier, Maison Lucile, at the turn of the 20th century, she had opened additional outlets in Paris and New York by 1912 – which was why she was aboard Titanic that fateful night.

Duff Gordon was famous for creating the tea dress, a diaphanous garment meant to be worn over loosened corset stays, but her lasting legacy is the fashion show.  At a time when other fashion houses showed off their dresses by having a shop girl pull them on and trudge around the salon, Duff Gordon staged events: invitation-only showings where the models entered via a stage and then strolled languidly through the salon while an orchestra played. The crowd in attendance included leading ladies of the theatre and fashionable members of the Royal family. The press and public ate the whole spectacle up.

Then there were her models. Duff Gordon had scouted far and wide to find her female ideal: beautiful girls, yes, but also young women who were tall (the biggest was 6 foot one) and heavy — the slightest tipped the scales at 154 pounds. She taught them to walk, sent them to her hairdresser and then renamed them: Gamela, Hebe, and (my favorite) Dinarzade, to name just three. The day after her first-ever fashion parade in London, stage door Johnnies thronged Maison Lucile, hoping to meet these mysterious beauties. There had been models before, but it was Duff Gordon who turned them into personalities.

Lucy and her husband Sir Cosmo were on one of the first boats to leave the Titanic after it hit the iceberg on Sunday April 15, 1912.  Indeed, they, together with Duff Gordon’s assistant, were almost the only passengers in the boat. Sir Cosmo’s reputation took a bit of a beating: for a man of his class to survive the sinking was a definite social faux pas. Interestingly, Lucy herself was spared a second time. In New York in 1915, she was booked to return to England, but cancelled her trip at the last minute because of illness – and so missed going down on the Lusitania.


My brush with Titanic glamour


In my days back at Madison – especially around the first release of James Cameron’s movie – we produced a huge number of Titanic-themed books. With the 100th anniversary of the sinking coming up on Sunday, one that has been pulled repeatedly off the shelves is Last Dinner on the Titanic, a cookbook that re-creates recipes and Edwardian table-setting tips from the ill-fated voyage.  The rest of the Madison crew and I even got to take part in a fancy dress-up dinner inspired by the book. My costume was white tie combined with a shawl and a napkin folded to look like a baby – my accessories carefully chosen to ensure a place in one of the lifeboats.

My then-boss High Brewster also donned white tie, completing the ensemble with an always-in-style canvas life jacket. The jacket came from the set of A Night to Remember, the original Titanic movie based on Walter Lord’s book.

Amid a flood of Titanic-related material (including one zombie-dominated volume) that’s been released for the centenary, I think Hugh’s RMS Titanic: Gilded Lives on a Fatal Voyage is a real standout. Hugh was long-time editorial director at Madison, which means he knows as much about the ship as anyone living, and like me has since gone on to write books rather than edit them. His approach, concentrating on the human stories of the people in first class and seeing the ship as a a metaphor for Edwardian life, is a fresh take on the epic tale – not excepting zombies.

The book’s available on-line and at your local bookseller. Meanwhile, Hugh discusses the tragedy and its lasting fascination in the on-line Wall Street Journal.