From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Happy Friday, dear readers. Spring is finally here in my neck of the woods. It is time of renewal, flowers, and new books!
I am pleased to have a special guest with us today. Author Tessa Arlen has a new historical fiction novel arriving in July that immediately caught my eye, A Dress of Violet Taffeta. Arlen is a favorite author of mine. I have enjoyed her Lady Montfort mystery series, and recently adored her In Royal Service to the Queen.
I was curious to know more about her new novel and Tessa generously agreed to be interviewed. A Dress of Violet Taffeta is based on the life and career of Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, the famous La Belle Époque fashion designer known professionally as The House of Lucile. Here is our tete-a-tete revealing some fascinating details. Enjoy!
Welcome Tessa, can you share your inspiration for A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
I had come across Lucy Duff Gordon when I was researching background and history for my Lady Montfort mystery series set in Edwardian England. Lucy was mentioned in an oblique way usually in reference to her owning a lingerie shop or to her surviving the Titanic catastrophe in 1912.
Then, years ago on a visit to family in London, I popped into one of my favorite museums, the Victoria & Albert, and came across an exhibition of Lucy Duff Gordon’s stunning gowns—under her label Lucile Ltd.
On that drab February afternoon, I was transported back to the early 20th century and Edwardian polite society. To a time when rich women spent a fortune on their magnificent wardrobes and changed their outfits five times a day. Was I standing in Lady Manners’ Mayfair drawing room in 1905? I was spellbound by the intricate detail, superb workmanship and the vibrant shimmer of colors Lucy Duff Gordon used in her exquisite gowns, I wanted to know more about the woman who had created these lavish and captivating clothes. What I found out about Lucy’s life, her family, and how she started her business was as fascinating as her sumptuous creations and her story became A Dress of Violet Taffeta.
What is A Dress of Violet Taffeta about?
Abandoned by her spendthrift and alcoholic husband, Lucy has a five-year-old daughter to support and absolutely no idea how to earn her living. In desperation she turns to the only talent she has, her gift of blending contrasting colors. her eye for line, and her ability to sew. Little does she imagine her future’s success as she cuts the pattern of a gown—what she hopes is her first commission—on her dining room floor. In less than fifteen years Lucy becomes a highly successful haute couturier in London, New York, Paris, and Chicago. But there is always a price to pay for success, particularly if you are an ambitious woman born in the late 19th century.
What are Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon’s strengths and weaknesses?
As a businesswoman Lucy had a gift for public relations and showmanship. Her London, New York, and Paris salons were exquisitely furnished. She offered her clients tea as she introduced them to the novel idea of a fashion show: a parade of lovely young women wearing the season’s new Lucile models. Upstairs, in her Hanover Square salon, the Rose Room was furnished with a luxurious Louis XV four poster bed and strewn with another Lucile innovation: gauzy nightgowns and underclothes—such a daring leap from whalebone and layers of heavy Swiss cotton undergarments. An intuitive and a sympathetic listener, Lucy created gowns for each of her client’s individual personalities.
She called them “dresses of emotion.” She was unafraid, courageous, and deeply loyal to her clients, her friends, and those who worked for her. But there is no doubt that like many truly creative individuals she lived entirely in her own world, the world of Lucile, and no one with any sense would dream of interrupting her when she was with her muse.
What is the most compelling historical fact that you discovered while researching this era in history?
I had no idea that until 1923 husband and wife were considered as one person in the law and that person was represented by the husband. This meant a woman could not enter into a contract, open a bank account unless a responsible male from her family gave the bank written permission, or write a valid will without her husband’s consent. A husband also gained rights to his wife’s property, both real and personal. Until the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, it was impossible to obtain a divorce, no matter how bad the marriage or how cruel one’s husband. A couple could only be divorced by the passage of a private act through Parliament–a remedy available exclusively to the very wealthy. According to Feminism, Marriage and the Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895, about ten private acts for divorce were passed in Parliament each year. Lucy was only able to obtain her divorce, not because her husband was an adulterous alcoholic, but because he had abandoned her and her child.
What real-life social issues did women face during this time that you address in the story?
I particularly wanted to emphasize the long, hard hours that working women endured for subsistence wages. And since Lucile Ltd. employed a large number of women who were skilled dressmakers, this gave me a splendid opportunity to emphasize the plight of sweat shop workers. Lucy kept her employees for years because she paid well and provided good working conditions, but she was very unusual in this regard. During this opulent time, it was terrifyingly easy for working women to spiral-down into poverty, particularly if they were abandoned by their husbands and left with children to support. The rag-trade and domestic service employed 68% of working women who drudged night and day and still struggled to pay their rent, feed and clothe their children. In A Dress of Violet Taffeta there is a story within a story about the plight of working women at the time. There was no welfare state to look after those injured or sick and unable to work. The impoverished were dealt with harshly through the parish workhouse system by providing the minimum of food and prison-like shelter for hours of unpaid labor. The huge iniquities between the Edwardian upper class rich and the working poor is underscored in one of the characters in the book who was raised in the workhouse and became Lucile Ltd.’s manager.
The novel also reflects the iron-clad rules of class in Britain; the wide social divide between the middle-classes and the ruling class, and that ‘marrying-up’ did not necessarily mean that you were welcome into the class above you.
What is your favorite aspect of the story?
The relationships between the women characters. I loved describing the dynamic that existed between Lucy and her eccentric sister Elinor Glyn, who was in her day a famous novelist and who ended up writing movies for Hollywood. The two sisters both made their own way in their separate worlds. There is a loyalty, affection, and humor between them that emphasizes that they are siblings in a very real sense because they were often bossy and competitive with one another.
Thank you, Tessa, for sharing your insights into Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon’s life and your new novel, A Dress of Violet Taffeta. It is one of my most highly anticipated reads of the summer of 2022.
Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. and the author of historical fiction: In Royal Service to the Queen, and available July 5, 2022, A Dress of Violet Taffeta.
Tessa lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.
- A Dress of Violet Taffeta: A Novel, by Tessa Arlen
- Berkley (July 5, 2022)
- Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (352) pages
- ISBN: 978-0593436851
- Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover image courtesy of Berkley © 2022; text Laurel Ann Nattress & Tessa Arlen © 2022, austenprose.com.
Hello Dear Readers,
Have you read any of the Lady Montfort mysteries or other historical novels by Tessa Arlen?
If you enjoy mysteries or fiction with well-researched historical details, witty dialogue, engaging plots, and endearing characters, Austenprose highly recommends them.
Drop us a line below and share your thoughts on this interview and what you are currently reading. We would love to hear from you!
Laurel Ann Nattress, editor