A Dress of Violet Taffeta

Written by Tessa Arlen
Review by Trish MacEnulty

This absorbing and beautifully written novel tells the story of one of the most iconic fashion designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Lucile, also known as Lady Duff Gordon. However, when the story begins in 1893, she is the unknown Lucy Wallace, an abandoned woman on the brink of ruin. Left by her sexually abusive husband with a daughter and a mother to support, Lucy turns to her one true talent, designing beautiful dresses. Her first design is a major success, but she has no experience in business. Enter Celia Franklin, an orphan from Northumberland, who becomes her devoted right hand. Strong women abound in Lucy’s story, including her sister, Elinor Glyn, a novelist, and their mother, Mrs. Kennedy, an inveterate snob.

Reading this book is like sinking into a pile of silk. One could wallow in the descriptions of Lucy’s designs and the finished products—sleeves that are “off the shoulder in cut layers that flutter a little,” “embroidered daisies perhaps with a dark silver bead center,” and a “glorious deep ocean blue for the underskirt, with this steel embroidered chiffon floating.” Even if there were no plot to speak of, the inner workings of such a creative mind might be enough to satisfy fashion-loving readers. Yet there is a story here. With her business going full throttle, Lucy meets Cosmo Duff Gordon, the first man strong enough to love her and still allow her the freedom to pursue her art. When they take a trip to America aboard the ill-fated Titanic, however, the disaster doesn’t end with the sinking of the great ship. This chapter in their lives reveals a shocking episode in history and showcases the fortitude of an extraordinary woman.