A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
A Dress of Violet Taffeta Book Cover A Dress of Violet Taffeta
Tess Arlen
New Adult, Biographical Historical Fiction
July 5, 2022
Kindle, Paperback, Audiobook

Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, and texture in ways few people can begin to imagine. But is the male dominated world of haute couture, who would use her art for their own gain, ready for her?

When she is deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is left penniless with an aging mother and her five-year-old daughter to support. Desperate to survive, Lucy turns to her one true talent to make a living. As a little girl, the dresses she made for her dolls were the envy of her group of playmates. Now, she uses her creative designs and her remarkable eye for color to take her place in the fashion world—failure is not an option.

Then, on a frigid night in 1912, Lucy’s life changes once more, when she becomes one of 706 people to survive the sinking of the Titanic. She could never have imagined the effects the disaster would have on her fashion label Lucile, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucy will live on as a trailblazing and innovative fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story

“We never, ever tire of the joy when they see themselves in their dress for the first time.”

A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen is an historical fiction account of the life of Lucille, aka Lady Duff-Gordon, a cutting-edge British-based fashion designer during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Her designs captured the attention of stage personalities, American upper crusts, royalty, and nobility around the globe. Her life is an example of going against convention; from her divorce from her first husband, to being a woman of class owning a business, to designing “unmentionables”. If that isn’t enough notoriety for one person, she is also one of the survivors of the titanic and was involved in the precedent-setting 1917 contract law case of Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon.

Celia remembered what Mrs. Wallace had told her. “When some of our clients appear to lose their heads at the sight of a dress we have created for them, it is important to remember that these women spend most of their lives not just thinking about their wardrobe but worrying about it. They change their clothes five or six times a day, spending hours in their dressing rooms. Some of them truly believe that the clothes they wear during their long day and evening are who they really are. The right dress gives them a feeling of security, that they belong on the august perch their marriage to a wealthy man, a duke, or a great landowner has given them. They are not just dressing for themselves but as a representative of a powerful, rich, or noble family. They must never look at themselves in their dressing room mirror and feel anxious or unsure.” This had all made perfect sense to Celia once she had actually witnessed one of their clients overwhelmed to tears by a new ball gown.

Lady Duff-Gordon’s actual life is intriguing in its own right, but Tess Arlen takes this fascinating woman a step farther in A Dress of Violet Taffeta, a fictional exploration of Lucy’s private life. From the viewpoint of both Lucy and Celia, Lucy’s lowly maid who became her trusted personal assistant and business manager, we are given a glimpse of the exclusive world of late 1800s couture fashion from behind the scenes as well as the personal life and struggles the women who created the “mannequin parade”, the precursor to fashion shows. You will be quickly captivated by Arlen’s descriptive abilities and transported to a time where fashion sensibilites, gender roles, and life in general was so different than our own.

Arlen has written a creative account of a noteworthy woman of history. However, I did struggle with finding a compelling plot to carry me from chapter to chapter. It felt more like vignettes of Lucy’s life shared through a compilation of novellas. Each of Lucy’s life events were interesting, especially knowing that they were true, I just found myself struggling to stay engaged in the book as a whole. A Dress of Violet Taffeta is still a worth your time even knowing this as it gives you a great opportunity to meet the public and private sides of Lucille/Lady Duff-Gordon, a trailblazer and icon.