Meet the first British female fashion designer

She survived the titanic and invented the catwalk show, now Lady Duff Gordon’s designs are going on show in a new exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 Objects

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By Frankie Graddon on

It has often been noted that the fashion industry is a man’s world – predominantly a white and middle-class man’s word at that (see Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Karl Lagerfeld etc). However, rewind one hundred years and it was actually dominated, in large, by women. One of whom was Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, the woman who is believed to be the first British female fashion designer.

During the late nineteenth century Paris was considered the epicentre of the fashion world. There, influential female designers such as Madame Paquin and the Callot Soeurs were elevating court dress making into a big money, trend setting business. Whilst over in England there were countless female dress makers, there was only one – Lucile – who became a known brand. 

Taking up dress making as a way of supporting her family after she divorced her first husband James Stuart Wallace, in 1893 Lucile opened her first shop “Maison Lucile” at 24 Old Burlington Street. With a wealthy clientele including royalty and theatre actresses, Lucile’s business expanded  to include shops in New York, Paris and Chicago, making her the first couture designer to achieve international acclaim. 

“At that time for a designer to have branches in three different countries was unheard of”, says exhibition curator Rosemary Harden “Lucile was the first named British designer who branded herself.” 

As well as pioneering the idea of the fashion designer as a brand, Lucile was the first designer to name her collections, now common practise among today’s design houses. She was also the first to stage “mannequin parades” – a precursor to modern catwalk shows. 

In 1912 she travelled to America with her second husband, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, on the Titanic. She was one of only 12 who were given a place in lifeboat No.1 – a boat which could have seated 40 people. She was later accused of bribing the lifeboat crew, however the accusations were concluded to be unfounded. 

Famed for her lingerie, blouses and evening wear, during her thirty-year career Lucile dressed members of the Ballets Russes and early film stars such as Mary Pickford. The white silk and bead-embroidered wedding dress worn by aristocrat Mabel Chappell in 1908 is included Fashion Museum Bath’s new exhibition, A History of Fashion in 100 Objects. 

White silk and bead-embroidered wedding dress by Lucile, Lady Gordon Duff. Worn by Mabel Chappell in 1908

The exhibition, which opens on Saturday March 19, celebrates 100 of the most important fashion moments in history. Rosemary Harden shares five more of her favourites.

1. Orange/yellow printed cotton gown, with pine cone or patka motif from 1800. 

This was one of the first examples of print being used to decorate clothing. Where weave and embrodery was expensive, print made decorative clothes accessible to the masses.


2. Green wool tailored jacket with black cord trim from 1906

The turn of the cenury was the beginning of tailoring for women. Previously it had only been used for riding, but it started to be worn in everyday life because it was easy to move in. Jackets such as this became the precursor to separates and business suits.

3. Sapphire blue and ivory silk satin Chinese-embroidered beach pyjamas from 1929

Beach style pyjamas like this became the first steps towards women wearing trousers. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were early adopters of trousers in the 1930s but it took until the late 1960s for them to become widely acceptable.

4. Cream slub halter-neck short length full-skirted evening dress by Christian Dior from 1954

Typically longth length, during the late 1940s and 50s there was a zeitgiest for short, sassy evening dresses. 


5. Pale green synthetic silk beaded dress with ‘crystal’ beads by Norman Hartnell, as worn by Elizabeth Taylor in 1958

This slender synthetic sheeth dress marks the moment that man-made fabrics were used to make clothes. This was a pivitol moment as it brought fashion to the masses, and introduced the future of clothing production.

Elizabeth Taylor wore the dress whilst aboard her third husband, Mike Todd's, private plane,  "The Liz". The neckline of the dress is still moulded to her shoulder line. 


Elizabeth Taylor wearing the Norman Hartnell Gown while visiting the ballet with her husband Michael Todd in 1958

A History of Fashion in 100 Objects is on at The Fashion Museum, Bath, opens from tomorrow until 1 January 2018


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