A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen
Greetings everyone! I recently had the absolute pleasure of reading an advance copy of Tessa Arlen’s new historical fiction novel, A Dress of Violet Taffeta, which will be released on July 5th. I was already a fan of her mysteries and her previous historical fiction release, In Royal Service to the Queen, so I was beyond excited to dig into this latest. It didn’t disappoint! What it did do was pique my curiosity into Tessa’s writing process and the inspiration behind this story, so I asked Tessa a few questions. First, here are some of my thoughts on this wonderful book:
A Dress of Violet Taffeta breaks all the stereotypes about Gilded Age women being locked away at home, depending on their husband's riches in order to survive. Lucy Duff Gordon, after being abandoned by her first husband, made her own riches as a pioneer in the fashion world, a woman who understood other women's needs and desires when it came to the clothing they wore. The book takes the reader on a journey from desperation to success to tragedy to recovery, written in a sumptuous, engaging style that appeals to all the senses and brings Lucy, her creations, and her world vividly alive.
A conversation between authors:
1. The fashion details—colors, textures, styles—are all wonderfully vivid and come alive on the page. Have you always been interested in fashion, or did your appreciation of fashion as an artform develop as you researched and wrote the book?
A bit of both! I love clothes, but I can’t imagine changing them four or five times a day, or spending hours being fitted for a new wardrobe every season, as Lucy’s clients did. But there is something about the dresses that Lucy designed in the 1910s—the Titanic era as it is sometimes referred to-- that makes me wish I could at least own one spectacular Lucile dress, simply for the workmanship of the exquisite detail, and her sensational use of color. I went to a Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition of Lucile Ltd.’s gowns and was spellbound by the way she used light and texture: her dresses simply shimmered. It was then I decided I would find out more about this extraordinary woman.
2. As a writer, I am always fascinated by how fellow authors craft their stories. There is a marked difference in the tone and mood of the prose when Lucy was in London vs. when she was in France, i.e., the London scenes being faster paced with a focus on business and fashion vs. the France scenes feeling much more relaxed, sultry, and almost indulgent on the part of Lucy. Please talk about the writing techniques you employed to create the differences that mirrored different stages in Lucy’s life.
Lucy experienced a kind of freedom when she was abandoned by her first husband: she was thrilled to be in charge of her destiny, but she paid a price for her independence and that was financial insecurity. I thought of Lucy as a sensual, intuitive woman locked up in a corset. She was, by necessity, driven to achieve, to succeed—so I depicted the building years of her business in chilly London where she was always inside: working.
I felt that the gritty, sooty and fog shrouded climate of London, especially in the coal fueled 1890s, was a perfect backdrop for Lucy’s early career. It was easy for me to write about London this way because I was brought up in the tropics and came to England when I was ten—culture shock doesn’t begin to describe my first winter in England –it felt bitterly cold, even inside our house!
When she became ill Lucy had to leave England to convalesce in a warm climate. This was the perfect opportunity for me to help Lucy discover another part of herself—her sensual side. The greatest joy in her life came from creating her beautiful gowns but I wanted her to love something more than just silk and lace (and family). So, I slowed everything down when she was in Monte Carlo. Overworked Lucy became leisurely, she basked in the sun surrounded by bright birds and fragrant flowers. I wanted her to re-discover the physical pleasure of swimming in a warm sea at night without her cumbersome Edwardian swimming costume (another corset!). If she recaptured some of her youth. I hoped that then perhaps she might be ready to fall in love with someone who had already fallen in love with her.
I wrote the Monte Carlo part of the book in the middle of the COVID lockdown in winter. I was yearning for past vacations in France or Italy, sitting outside a café eating long Mediterranean lunches with a bottle of the local wine. Writing that part was a pure escape from the misery of COVID!
3. Can you tell us how how change influenced fashion and, in turn, how fashion fueled change in the story? Do you feel being a woman put Lucy at an advantage or disadvantage in ushering in these changes?
However talented Lucy was as a designer, she was competing in a pretty cutthroat industry, and I think her ‘edge’ was her intuition and that she was a gifted listener which is what helped to make her so popular and successful. Rich and titled women of the time took their appearance very seriously: their costly clothes and jewels represented the wealth and success of the men they were married to; they never wore the same dress twice to a grand occasion, and there was a specific dress for every occasion. Morning dresses; an outfit to ride in the park; another change of outfit for lunch; dresses for visiting; a tea gown to wear at home, and then the all important change for dinner, the opera or a ball. By our standards the right outfit had reached obsessive standards. Lucy understood the importance of the right dress for the right occasion, but she also made buying new clothes an adventure. She might have been competing against very successful men, but no one understands how women feel about their clothes than another woman.
Lucy reached her zenith in design in the early 1910s in the first decade of a new century when people consciously embraced change. The old standards of changing four or five times a day still stood firm. Everything was new and exciting, if you were rich you had every opportunity to enjoy these changes in the arts, literature, music, the new king and his sophisticated friends. A Liberal government was embracing the needs of the working poor. Workers were joining unions and the educated middle classes were curious about, horror of horrors, something called socialism!
These changes affected the lives of women too. Women were aggressively demanding the franchise and playing a more active role in society: going to university and actively participating in sport. Change was in the air and Lucy was an innovator: she was at the forefront of throwing out whalebone and designing dresses that emphasized a more natural female form that allowed women far more freedom of movement. When the first woman decided to ride her horse astride I am quite sure that Lucy was ready with a divided skirt and a modesty panel.
4. There was a rather sharp distinction made between Lucy’s American customers and her English ones. Please talk about those differences in the context of society at the time. Also, do you find similar differences today?
The social divide between classes in Britain had never been more strongly entrenched that in the bright new 20th century. The titled and the rich led lives of astronomical excess and the working poor suffered unimaginable privations. But there was a horribly snobby aspect to New York’s polite society too---the Four Hundred and Old Money Knickerbocker set were every bit as rigid in their class distinctions as Britain’s aristocrats.
Most of Lucy’s American customers were new money and she did more than just dress them when they came to London for their stylish wardrobes, she helped prepare them for a country house weekend and the rigid formality of the aristocracy who were hoping to marry off their heirs to dollar princesses as fast as they could.
Lucy was not from a titled family; she was from the upper middle class and when she married a second time she married ‘up’ and was often regarded by polite society as a social climber—even by some of her more bohemian friends. I think she loved New York because of its energy and the informality of her nouveau riche friends. As a divorcee Lucy must have found it reassuring that Americans did not regard divorce as the social taboo it was in Britain. I did read that although Americans found divorce acceptable they viewed affairs outside of marriage one of England and Europe’s more lamentable decadences.
As an Englishwoman living in America, I honestly don’t see much difference in behaviour and manners between our two cultures, separated by a common language as Oscar Wilde put it. I think poor manners today are a reflection of our uncouth time, and not the country we come from.
5. It’s said the Titanic tragedy marked the beginning of the end of the Gilded Age in America, because of the number of industrialists who died, John Jacob Astor IV among them. Did the sinking have any lasting and far-reaching effects on British society?
Of the 171 men on board the Titanic in First Class 105 did not survive, 71 were American and 25 were Brits. So, it makes sense that a large number of American industrialists died that night.
The RMS Titanic was ostensibly a British ship Although she was registered as a British ship, to a British company: The White Star Line, she was owned by an American tycoon, John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan whose company was the controlling trust and retained ownership of the White Star Line!
But the British Board of Trade Inquiry into the sinking was all about avoiding lawsuits because the White Star line had been so terribly sloppy (no lifeboat drill, not enough lifeboats, going too fast into an icefield, for starters). Britain didn’t want White Star to crash because it would mean losing their lucrative shipping industry to Germany, or even France. So, the British inquiry was really quite a nasty business. I think the most lasting thing to come out of the Titanic catastrophe was far more stringent British maritime safety laws for commercial passenger liners. What marked the end of the luxurious and privileged lives of the British aristocrat and rich in the Edwardian era was the beginning of WWI, two years later, and the appalling losses of a generation of young men.
7. In general, do you believe Lucy could have been equally as successful at any other time in modern history? What factors do you believe came together to ensure her success?
Tessa: I can see Lucy designing theatrical costumes for movies in the 1930s-1950s—another Edith Head perhaps. She was 100% creative with a talent for publicity, but she was not a very astute businesswoman. It is interesting to note that after WWI women’s fashion underwent a colossal change because of the work women did and the excessive years of the Flapper that followed it. The fashion was for more tailored and sleeker lines: the day of the wafty, seductive dresses of the early 1910s had gone and Lucy’s style fell by the wayside. It seems as if Lucy herself was caught up in the pre-war years and unable to move forward in 1918. She was very much a woman of her time, she liked voluptuary and feathers and disliked the boyish dresses of the roaring ‘20s.
8. Please tell us anything else you’d like readers to know about A Dress of Violet Taffeta.
Lucy Duff Gordon has been criticized in history for being the woman who refused to go back to help survivors after the Titanic sank—but over half the people in her lifeboat were male members of the crew manning the oars—so who really made that decision? A very seasick woman? I don’t think so!
When I was researching for my Lady Montfort series set in Edwardian England, I read about Lucy Duff Gordon who ‘kept a shop’ and ‘designed naughty lingerie’. There was a sort of put-down atmosphere clinging to her, as if she wasn’t a particularly ‘nice’ person. Then I saw an exhibition of her incredible clothes. I was so struck by her ingenuity, her remarkable eye for color, and the originality of her dresses that I had to find out more about her. I was not disappointed! Lucy was much loved by her clients, her friends on both sides of the Atlantic, and her second husband. Her employees stayed with her for years. I made the Lucy of A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFFETA entirely mine, and I had so much fun writing about her.
Tessa Arlen writes historical fiction when she is not toiling away in her garden. She is the author of the Edwardian mystery series: Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson; the Woman of World War II mystery series. Poppy Redfern. And two standalone historical novels: IN ROYAL SERVICE TO THE QUEEN and A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA.
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