Lady Duff-Gordon: Titanic Survivor, Fashion Designer, Vaudevillian

220px-LadyDuffGordon-1919

Today is the birthday of Lady Duff-Gordon (Lucy Christiana Sutherland, 1863-1935).The fact that she put together an act for vaudeville is probably one of the least important details of her remarkable life.

After the breakup of her first marriage, Lucy (as she was generally known) set up as a dressmaker and designer in the mid 1890s, first operating out of a West End shop she called Maison Lucile, later known as Lucile, Ltd. In 1900 she married Scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, and her clientele, already impressive, began to embrace the nobility and stars of stage and screen. Her famous clients included Irene Castle, Billie Burke, Mary Pickford, and Gaby Deslys. She had a weekly fashion column in the syndicated Hearst newspapers. Outside of the fashion world, she and her husband are best known today for having been among the more notable survivors of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

In addition to her many contributions to fashion design (which this commentator can’t begin to speak to), Lucy is credited with training the first professional fashion models (then called mannequins) and pioneering the innovation of the fashion show catwalk. And this is what brought her to big time vaudeville. In 1917 and 1918 she toured the Keith circuit with a one act playlet called Flaurette’s Dream at Peronne, ostensibly a war drama with a charitable purpose (to raise money to help rebuild France in the wake of WWI), but also a clever excuse for a Lucile, Ltd. fashion parade. The act made a hit with audiences; it was held over at the Palace for a week! Lady Duff-Gordon also costumed several editions of the Ziegfeld Follies, and the 1920 D.W. Griffith film Way Down East. 

To find out about  the history of vaudeville and those who presented acts there like Lady Duff-Gordonconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.

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