One of my most anticipated historical fiction novels this summer is A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen. Inspired by a real woman who became an acclaimed fashion designer, it’s a novel of beautiful gowns, a second chance at love, and survival in a rapidly changing world. I was pleased to get an ARC of this novel; it’s out in less than a week and is absolutely worth a read.
Special thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose PR, and Berkley for the review copy of this book!
When Lucy is abandoned by her husband, she must find a way to support herself, her young daughter, and her mother. Going against what is expected of a woman of her class, Lucy opens her own fashion business. Though she starts off with a small number of clients – mostly friends of hers and her sister’s – Lucy’s business quickly grows to encompass most of the elite women of London society and beyond. Over the years, Lucy and her right-hand-woman Celia move through the ups and downs of running a fashion business in the 1890s and early 1900s. A second marriage, scandalous romance novels, and surviving the sinking of the Titanic all add to this fascinating account of a real woman who changed fashion for a generation.
Going into A Dress of Violet Taffeta, I knew nothing about Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, but I was quickly enthralled by her story. When we meet Lucy, she is on the precipice of divorce and nearly out of money… but she has an idea of how to make her own way: She’ll design and sell her own clothing. It’s 1893, and women (especially of a certain class) were often looked down on if they were divorced or began working a trade. But Lucy bravely did both, with the support of her sister and in spite of their mother’s horror at such a prospect. This sets the tone for the novel: a woman forging new paths for herself and other women, not letting old-fashioned ideas hold her back.
Alongside Lucy, her servant Celia quickly rises up to become her most trusted confidante and the general manager of the business. Between Lucy and Celia, A Dress of Violet Taffeta presents a dual perspective, each character bringing her own strengths, duties, and opinions on where to take Lucile. And as the novel spans 20 years, their different experiences over the decades provide extra nuance.
Instead of giving a comprehensive account of Lucile’s rise from 1893 to 1912, the novel shows readers snapshots of where the characters are over the years. Some events get more attention, and some years are skipped over entirely, but it does paint a broad picture of the many changes that arose over time. Early on it is about how to make a dress, attract customers, and earn enough to stay in business. Later, we see growing pains and workaholism, then an insurgence of new ideas – both in the kinds of garments made and in the way they’re presented. Even as the novel ends, there is a sense of more opportunities and hurdles to come.
One of my favorite aspects of A Dress of Violet Taffeta is just how forward-thinking Lucy and her sister Elinor both are. Lucy isn’t afraid to buck tradition, and that extends to how women dress. It’s fascinating to learn of her role in changing women’s undergarments and devising fashion shows. Her sister also had impact: Elinor wrote romance novels that were risqué for the time; she also coined the term “it girl.” Wow! Both sisters pushed beyond the confines many women had faced, and it’s inspiring to see them in action here.
Celia, in particular, offers another valuable perspective to the novel: views on working class people and the extra barriers in their path. This novel shines a light on the horrible conditions many working class people existed in at the time. Celia’s own background, a young woman who works for Lucile, the Titanic crew who’d go without pay – all three are examples of how different life was (and still is) between the upper and lower classes.
And of course, we have to mention the fashion. I’m far from a fashion expert, but I enjoyed learning about different materials, lines, colors, and so much more that goes into designing the perfect garment. Lucy’s creativity, passion, and hard work are inspiring to behold. That she has such a strong support system – her sister, daughter, husband, mother, and friends – gives her the tools and drive to succeed.
A Dress of Violet Taffeta is a fascinating and impactful novel about a real woman who led an incredible life. From starting a business from nothing to achieving international renown to surviving the infamous Titanic sinking, Lucy Duff-Gordon was stunning in her time and the perfect subject for a novel. This is a beautiful book, and I will certainly take the time to learn more about Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon now that I’ve gotten this glimpse into her life.
Get the Book
You can pre-order A Dress of Violet Taffeta now – on July 5, 2022, it will be available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
AMAZON | BARNES & NOBLE | BOOK DEPOSITORY | BOOKSHOP | GOODREADS | BOOKBUB
|A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen|
|Setting||England; France; Italy; USA|
|Number of Pages||352|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||July 5, 2022|
A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of La Belle Époque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, who shattered the boundaries of fashion with her magnificently sensual and enchantingly unique designs.
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.
About the Author
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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Lovely, thoughtful review, Amanda. Lucy’s life and career are fascinating. She was such a trailblazer and so inspiring to modern women who want to start their own business. Arlen really knows how to mine history and spin it into a fabulous tale. I am looking forward to her next novel.
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Thank you, Laurel! Yes, Lucy is such a fascinating person, and I loved getting to know her in this novel. I look forward to reading more from Tessa Arlen!