Edited by Lester Brathwaite on
This year marks the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, but even one hundred years later there’s still an air of mystery, intrigue and scandale wrapped around it. Beginning this week, 180 pieces of Titanic memorabilia will go up for auction, among them a kimono that purportedly belonged to Lady Duff Gordon, known professionally as the fashion designer Lucile.
Lucy Christiana Sutherland (1863-1935) was the first English designer to gain international fame and was an innovative couturier in her own right, liberating women with low necklines, slit skirts, less-restrictive corsets and sensual lingerie. Having created costumes for the London stage, she built her own stage in her studio, trained models in style and deportment and voilà the first fashion shows were born.
Lucy began making clothes to support herself and her daughter after divorcing her first husband, alcoholic lech James Stuart Wallace, in 1890. She opened her first shop, Maison Lucile, in 1894 in London, followed by a larger shop in 1897. In 1900 she married Scottish landownder Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, then three years later she incorporated the business as Lucile Ltd and set up her flagship at 23 Hanover Sq. She expanded to New York in 1910 and Paris in 1911.
The Duff-Gordons boarded the Titanic to oversee business in the New York branch of Lucile Ltd, but catastrophe inevitably struck. However, Lady Duff remained surprisingly unflustered once the barge hit the iceberg, after which she unlocked her and her husband’s security box, took out the jewels, and got meticulously dressed:
“I took off my nightgown which was underneath my padded dressing gown, put on my chemise and my thick silk drawers and my woollen drawers. Then I put on a warm silk vest with long sleeves. I deliberately thought I would not put my corsets on in case that if I got into the water I should not be able to swim, and put back my warm dressing gown and on top of that…my warm purple dressing gown, and then I put on my little warm motor hat.”
Edith Rosenbaum, a reporter for WWD and fellow Titanic survivor, reported on April 19, 1912, that Lady Duff Gordon had managed to turn it out in time as she “made her escape in a very charming lavender bath robe, very beautifully embroidered, together with a very pretty blue veil. She told me my clothes had been her admiration all the way over on the boat, and we exchanged compliments about our costumes and ‘swapped’ style information closely after getting on the Carpathia.”
Glad to know that even in the middle of one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era, fashion was still a priority.
The Duff-Gordons, were later criticized for taking Lifeboat 1 with only 12 people (most of which were crew) though it could hold 40 — Cosmo in particular was accused of bribing the lifeboat crew not to pick up any swimmers. They both testified in court that May but were found innocent of trying to deter any rescue attempts. Cosmo, however, would forever be haunted by the allegations.
Lady Duff apparently made her escape in the grey silk robe, which is expected to go for between $80,000 and $100,000 through Amherst, NH-based RR Auctions. However, two of Duff Gordon’s family members are disputing the authenticity of the article. Lady Clare Lindsay and her sister Lady Caroline Blois — who is now at the helm of the Lucile label — insisted that the robe belonged to their grandmother Esme, Countess of Halsbury.
A historian at the Museum of Costume verified that the kimono is not a Lucile creation, while another textile expert claims that the pattern was one used by Spanish designer Fortuny after World War I, placing the kimono several years after the sinking of the Titanic. The sisters claim they are not interested in the robe’s monetary value, but solely its authenticity.
“I would hate for someone to buy something thinking it is one thing only to find out that it didn’t turn out to be that at all,” Lady Clare Lindsay said, adding, “Sadly, it is not in our possession. And it’s so incredibly difficult to do anything legally in the U.S. from the U.K. But we’re not even considering. It’s out of our hands now sadly. They have been given the right information. It’s up to them.”