A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
“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.
Tanya’s love for books has been a lifelong passion that she likes sharing with others. Reading is also the thing that relaxes her after a day of juggling the many responsibilities that come with being being wife to an amazing man, mother to four great kids spread around the world, business manager, and farm hand on their place in southwest Missouri; home to Akaushi cattle and a menagerie of pygmy goats, horses, chickens, dogs and cats.