Sunday, May 28, 2023

A Dress of Violet Taffeta

A Dress of Violet Taffeta / Tessa Arlen
NY: Berkley, c2022.
335 p.

This novel is based on the life of Lady Duff Gordon, otherwise known as British fashion designer Lucille. I've always been interested in this figure, the sister of sensational writer Elinor Glyn, as they have a Canadian connection. Their mother was Canadian, and they both spent some childhood years living in Guelph with their maternal grandparents after their father died. When their mother remarried, they returned to England. 

In any case, this book focuses on Lucy at the moment that her first marriage is breaking down. Her husband James Wallace was a drunk and a philanderer, and he walked out on her and their daughter Esme. She, somewhat scandalously at the time, filed for divorce. But to support herself and her daughter, she started designing and selling dresses from their flat. 

This took off and she kept growing, with her finger on the pulse of fashion -- less restrictive clothing, less corsetry, lower necklines, and skimpy & silky underclothes. She was a hit. The book focuses quite a bit on the business side of things, describing the dresses and clients well. There is also an assistant who is important in the book, who is an amalgamation of two real people in Lucy's life. The character is interesting, so I was disappointed to learn she was a mashup of sorts. 

Lucy also meets a Scottish lord, Cosmo Duff Gordon, who she eventually marries. They end up travelling on the Titanic, and both survived, though they were accused of bribery afterward as the way they survived. They were completely cleared of the accusations in an inquiry, but Cosmo never got over the character assassination during the trial, and they separated a few years later, he retiring back to Scotland and Lucy spending much time in New York where she'd launched a shop. 

The book was mostly interesting, though it did drag on a bit. I enjoyed the descriptions of the fashions and the sewing, as well as the actual running of a business by a woman at this time. The problem with the book is one I often have with these kinds of stories: the reliance on real people as fictional characters. I don't mind real people showing up as side characters, or having a walk-through role. But when they are the main characters and their motives and personal thoughts are created by a fiction writer, it makes me uncomfortable. Where does truth end? It's not always clear what the author is basing their interpretation of a character on. And I found that in this book, the author tries very hard to create a great love affair between Lucy and Cosmo that I just don't think is based in real life. She focuses heavily on romance, perhaps because this book falls into that kind of genre. But I feel like Lucy would have been a much more self-focused, pragmatic person, as shown by the couple's eventual separation as well. 

In any case, I enjoyed the dressmaking parts, found the writing adequate, and was a little unsettled by the heavy use of real people as main characters. Despite the fact that Lady Duff Gordon had an eventful life, full of moments perfect for a novelist, I am not sure that in the end I wouldn't have just preferred a good biography. 

(this review first appeared at Following the Thread)

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