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Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Review: I Love Lucy (Lady Duff Gordon)

Pace's Jim Fishman has always been a fan of Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, and offers this review of a retrospective show featuring her work at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.  Click on the illustrations to enlarge them.

                    I Love Lucy

                                by James J. Fishman
                         Pace University School of Law

     Designing the It Girl: Lucile and Her Style
     Fashion Institute of Technology, New York New York
     March 1-April 16, 2005

Lucy_lady_duff_gordon_1"The defendant styles herself a creator of fashion. Her favor helps a sale."  Thus begins Cardozo’s famous decision in Wood v. Lucy Lady Duff Gordon, 222 N.Y. 88, 118 N.E. 214 (1917).  Some have speculated that Cardozo is making a clever play on words, or signaling that Lucy is in for a rough time.  In fact, Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon (who worked under the name "Lucile") was an innovative fashion designer, a ground-breaking entrepreneur and arbiter of style who transformed herself from a court dressmaker to an international couturière.  (Left: Lady Duff Gordon in 1917, courtesy Randy Bryan Bigham.)

The museum of New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) exhibition, Designing the It Girl: Lucile and Her Style is the first fashion exhibition devoted to our Lucy.  It was curated by several gifted graduate students from FIT’s Masters Program in Fashion and Textile Studies: History, Theory and Museum Practice. Featuring original garments and fashion accessories from the FIT and private collections, as well as sketches and photos from Lucile’s archives, which are housed in the Gladys Marcus Library’s special collections at FIT, the exhibit concentrates on the years 1900 to 1920, when Lucile was at the height of her success.

Lucy’s rise in the early 20th century was unprecedented for a female designer. The working woman was unknown in her social setting. Her fame in America was unsurpassed. In her day, she was a combination of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart. In 1915, Lucile Ltd. was the first and only couture house with branches in London, Paris, New York and Chicago.

Lucile_sketch Lucy was surprisingly modern.  An advocate of fashion self-expression, she encouraged her clients to develop a personal style. Lucy transformed clients into stars or "It" girls.  This phrase, which roughly translates into celebrity or star power, was coined by her sister, the novelist Elinor Glyn.  Lucy’s clients—socialites, fashion models and stars of the stage and screen—had It, an indefinable combination of magnetism, charisma, compelling personal style, confidence, charm and sex appeal.  (Left: Lucile sketch for an afternoon gown, 1914, courtesy Randy Bryan Bigham.)

According to the curators, the unique Lucile style—simultaneously romantic, exotic and modern—incorporated a blend of color, texture and embellishment.  Lucile layered sheer fabrics over of a foundation of skin toned silk, broke down the visual barrier between the lady and her clothes.  Lucile picked a life style, offering women the correct ensemble for every occasion from sipping tea in one’s boudoir to piloting an airplane!  Lucile’s importance in the history of fashion is her bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, high society and the demi-monde, the artistry of the designer and the personality of the client.  She set the stage for the modern era in fashion.

Lucile_and_modelHer first major show in 1904, "Gowns of Emotion" made explicit the link between feeling and fashion. She looked back to the idealized past, naming dinner dresses in honor of Nell Gwynne, mistress of Charles the Second, and Marie Antoinette.  Lucy was one of the first designers to market fragrances with fashion, selling blended perfumes at her salons. She also sold a full line of accessories manufactured by others. She opened in New York in 1910, and Paris in 1911.  She wrote a monthly column in Harper’s Bazaar "The Last Word in Fashion", beginning in February 1913.  (Left, Lucile with a model, 1916, courtesy Randy Bryan Bigham.)

Wood’s complaint mentioned two breaches of the exclusive endorsement contract. In the first, Lucy designed the interior of the Chalmers motorcar, auguring Ralph Lauren and Eddy Bauer seventy years later—though these contemporary designers do not bathe the interiors of their designer SUVs in pink.  The second breach involved a contract with Sears. Then as now, Sears and fashion was an oxymoron.  Lucy had hoped to reach a wider audience.  Though the venture lasted only one year and was unsuccessful, Lucy’s business plan of a lower-priced ready-to-wear line was ahead of its time.  It presaged the business model for couturiers, who lose money on annual runway shows of new designs but use the publicity to aid their fashion collections for the middle classes.

Lucile_fashion_showLucy was the first designer to stage theatrical fashion shows starring models whose persona were also her creations.  Before her contemporaries, she understood the opportunities for publicity offered by the confluence of fashion, fame and entertainment.  (Left, a Lucile fashion show in Paris, 1914, courtesty Randy Bryan Bigham.) 

Lucile was the first designer to use models on a runway.  She gave each a stage name and transformed ordinary girls into glorious goddess-like stars, assuming each had that It quality.  Her models were taught to walk down the runway with a signature, slithering Lucile walk.  Lucy gave her models names such as "Hebe," "Gamela," and "Dinarzade." Her most famous model, the six-foot Delores, was discovered by Flo Ziegfeld while modeling in Lucy’s New York branch and became a Follies Star.  Delores wore Lucile’s costumes on stage.  Lucy also gave her models invaluable off-runway advice for life. "Girls" she said, "If you want to get married be good. If not, be expensive."

Lucile_dress_irene_castle Lucile dressed actresses and performers in London, Paris and on Broadway as well as film stars of the silent era, without losing her High Society clientele.  She created designs for more than 70 stage productions as well as for over 20 silent films.  She designed costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies from 1915 to 1919. The exhibit includes a screening of Vernon and Irene Castle starring "The Whirl of Life" (1915), where the women are all clothed in Lucile designs.  (Left, Irene Castle in a Lucile tea-gown, 1922, courtesy Randy Bryan Bigham.)

In 1918 she made a number of poor business decisions, beginning with the sale of her trade name "Lucile."  (She kept the title of chief designer). Ultimately her salons went into bankruptcy everywhere.  A number of subsequently famous designers, Edward Molyneaux, Norman Hartwell, and Howard Greer, worked for her.

The exhibit features photographs and designs, books and memorabilia.  There are only four original dresses and a jacket in the show.  Most extraordinary to this reviewer was a 1920 evening dress from her final phase of work.  It is gorgeous, combining the richness of velvet with a sparkle of sequins that were applied in a cubist design to maximize the shimmer.  The dress was worn with a headband of silk velvet and aigrette, a large feather at the front of the head.  It was a flapper dress before flappers, which became popular later in the decade.

The past year has witnessed a resurgence of interest in Lucy.  In November 2004 a Lucile velvet evening gown was sold at the William Doyle Auction Gallery in New York for $35,850 (not including the 19.5% buyer’s premium) to a foreign buyer.  The sale price far surpassed the presale estimate of $5-$7000.  The gown came from the Margaret Daly Brown collection and appears to be from Lucile’s American debut collection in 1910.  It was on the cover of the sale catalog, which still may be available from the auction house.

The gown consisted of a rich informal design of purple velvet voided overall, i.e. cut so as to show the skin of another garment underneath, with metallic gold silk gauze in an Orientalist meandering cloud motif.  The gown had an iridescent lime to lemon silk satin sash concluding in metallic gold fringe, and an Oriental poppy corsage of metallic gold gauze lined in purple velvet.  The size was 2/4.

The original owner was Margaret (Madge) Daly Brown, a society woman, who divided her time between New York, Baltimore, and Montana.  She died at a young age in 1911.  The Lucile gown was packed away in a trunk in 1913, and lay forgotten for ninety years, until the distribution of the estate of her daughter.

Anyone who viewed the Lucile exhibit and saw her gown at auction can only conclude as did this reviewer: "I love Lucy."

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