About the Book
by Tessa Arlen
Paperback, 352 pages
Published July 5th 2022 by Berkley Books
A sumptuous novel based on the fascinating true story of Belle Epoque icon Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a woman determined to shatter the boundaries of the fashion world and support herself and her young daughter with her magnificent designs.
Lucy Duff Gordon knows she is talented. She sees color, light, fabric, and texture in ways few other people do. But is the world ready for her? A world dominated by men who would try to control her and use her art for their own gain?
After being deserted by her wealthy husband, Lucy is desperate to survive. She 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 courageous innovations in Belle Époque fashion to support her own little girl. Lucile knows it is an uphill battle, and a single woman is not supposed to succeed on her own, but she refuses to give up. She will claim her place in the fashion world; failure simply 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 career, her marriage to her second husband, and her legacy. But no matter what life throws at her, Lucile will live on as a trailblazing and fearless fashion icon, never letting go of what she worked so hard to earn. This is her story.
Never, ever use a cloth from the kitchen to dust my room. I can’t imagine why you would do such a thing.” Lucy’s mother, Mrs. Kennedy, had surprised Celia in the pantry. She had seemed to come from nowhere to loom over her as she wrote out her shopping list.
“Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am.” Celia dipped a respectful curtsy. The owd witch in’t finished wi’ me yet, she thought as she bowed her head in contrition, and waited.
“I can’t begin to imagine who trained you. Didn’t they teach you anything at the workhouse?” She could feel Mrs. Kennedy’s hard eyes boring into her. She was holding a duster between her finger and thumb as if it was a dead rat.
Celia didn’t say the workhouse had given her board and scrape: just enough food so that she could make hemp flour sacks for fourteen long hours a day. She stared down at the floor, reluctant to share the shame of parish charity with this cold woman.
“I see you are off to buy comestibles. Try and remember, if you can, that respectable people do not eat salted, yellow fish—or cabbage.” Mrs. Kennedy’s voice was low, with a bite behind every word. Celia looked up into eyes narrow with contempt and a thin mouth turned down at the corners. “If we must eat fish, then buy white fish: halibut or Dover sole. We are not a family of costermongers.”
Costermongers? You should be so lucky! If you turn up your nose at a nice bit o’ haddock, then it will have to be minced mutton—full of tasty fat and a big helping of cabbage to keep you regular.
Celia waited on the two ladies at luncheon and dinner, watching their reaction to the food she had prepared through half-lowered eyelids. Mrs. Wallace ate her food with graceful thanks, while the old lady sniffed and picked like a fussy old cat, her eyebrows raised in disgust, dabbing at her mouth with her napkin as if it would take the terrible taste away.
“Don’t stand there staring at the floor! If you are going shopping you had better be on your way. No dawdling—you will be back by half past eleven. I have my eye on you, Franklin.” Celia tucked the list in her pocket, picked up a basket for the fish, and fled through the scullery door, her feet light and quick up the area steps to the street above.
“Life was grand without you around,” she muttered as she clanged the iron paling gate shut at the top of the steps. “Why did you have to come back and make everyone miserable?”
The warm sun on her back banished the misery of the scullery, and Celia skipped down Davies Street toward Berkeley Square. Swinging her basket, she crossed into the center of the square and inhaled the sweet freshness of the tree-filled gardens laid out in its middle. She twitched the right side of her new royal blue shoulder cape over her shoulder, the way she had seen other servants do, to show off her dress of light wool. The cape had been cut down from an old coat of Mrs. Wallace’s. The Melton wool felt supple and smooth to the hand, but it was her new slate blue dress with its tall, starched linen collar and folded-back cuffs that en- thralled Celia. The skirt swirled around her ankles as she walked and made her feel tall, stylish, and supremely elegant.
She slowed her pace to a saunter in defiance of being told not to dawdle. There were pink and red tulips and blue forget-me-nots to ad- mire in the rectangular flower beds, and all the fine folk out taking the air. She sat down on a bench in the sun to watch a tall, dark-haired woman sweeping along the gravel path toward her. The plum red of the woman’s merino dress caught the light as she walked through patches of bright sun and dark shade. Celia’s quick eyes admired the detailed black trim of the skirt and the fitted black velvet jacket that emphasized a tiny waist. With a swing of her paneled skirt and a quivering black ostrich plume in her hat, the vision swept by.
Celia had never noticed what people wore before—she had never had the time. What was the point of yearning for pretty things when your day was spent bent over a sink full of pots and pans, or sitting on a narrow wooden bench in a cheerless workroom with windows so high they only let in the light and shut out the world? When you flopped into bed at midnight, too tired to take off your stockings, only to be woken at first light, you certainly didn’t dream of violet silk gowns and plum merino walking costumes. But now with nights of untroubled sleep, her afternoons spent playing with Esmé in Green Park, Celia had time to notice what ladies wore. And they wore wonderful things in heavenly colors that made you hungry for more.
It all started with making this dress, she thought as she stroked the smooth wool twill of her skirt. She hadn’t worn anything so fine in years, not even when her mother made pretty clothes for her.
Esmé had arrived, with the dogs, in her attic room this morning to see her in her new dress.
“Ooh, Celia, you look so pretty,” she had cried as Celia adjusted the detachable collar and buttoned the crisp cuffs. “Don’t use that mirror— it’s too small. Mama is in the morning room with Grandmama, come on.” She had tugged Celia down the back stairs to the second floor of the house, throwing open the door to her mother’s room and standing Celia before the pier glass. “Look!” She had held up her doll to inspect the new dress. “Anna says you look so much prettier now.”
Is that really me? The slate blue made her gray eyes darker, almost the same color as the dress, and her freshly washed and braided hair gleamed like spun silver; even her pale skin had brightened: flushed with excitement and pride. Mrs. Wallace had appeared in the doorway of her room and nodded her approval. She’d picked up the hem of the dress to inspect the needle- work. “Yes, that will do very well, Celia. Your stitches are small and even, and whoever taught you to do French seams, and buttonholes?”
“My mother, ma’am. She was reet handy with a needle.” She hadn’t said that her mother’s skill had kept them housed and fed after her father had died in a carting accident. She couldn’t bear to remember his pallid, sweating face frowning in pain, his pale lips pressed together so he wouldn’t cry out when the doctor tried to splint his legs. When her fa- ther’s desperate struggle for life had ended, the doctor had said her da had been injured inside and that it was a mercy that he had gone to God, as he would never have been able to walk again. Celia remembered pain so cruel and sharp, she could hardly breathe when he had died, followed, five years later, by the agony of watching her mother quietly fade away.
She wouldn’t think of the heartbreak of those distant days again; she had a new family now. You couldn’t find a kinder woman than Mrs. Wallace, and Esmé was like a little sister to her.
“Thank you, ma’am, thank you for this dress,” she had said to Mrs. Wallace.
“Don’t mention it, Celia. Remember that it is to be worn in the af- ternoon when you take Esmé for a walk in the park, or when you go out to run errands for Mrs. Kennedy. We will make you some pretty lavender blue dresses for the summer. And from now on you leave the pots and pans and the heavy cleaning to the new daily woman, Mrs. Clark. Your job is to keep the house clean and tidy and prepare our meals; for that you can wear Palmer’s cotton morning uniform. I have cut it down to fit you—all you need is to sew it together.”
Celia stroked the smooth fabric of her dress and watched another glorious creature swan past in an olive green frogged jacket that empha- sized her soft-bosomed front, narrow waist, and provocatively arched back. It’s all about the curves. Celia admired the pronounced shape of the woman’s torso, wishing she had more “up there.” If they don’t have much bosom or bottom, and too much waist, the dress is cut to make the best of what they do have. That and those terrifying corsets. She had seen Mrs. Wallace’s whalebone corset—an iron cage, strong and unforgiving— lying on her chair when she made the beds in the morning.
The procession of ladies dressed in their elegant outfits thinned to two nannies with large black perambulators. Celia got to her feet and made her way to Slade Street to join servants and housewives bustling along the pavement. She pulled out her list to concentrate on her pur- chases for the family. Pennies had to be watched, and corners trimmed. “That’s a nice new dress you got there. Proper elegant you look.” The fishmonger was a cocky fellow with a straw boater perched at a jaunty angle on the side of his perfectly combed head and a full-lipped, very red mouth. Celia couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead she gazed resolutely at the silver of freshly caught fish arranged in perfect overlap-
ping rows on a table of ice. “What can I do for you today, miss?” Remembering Mrs. Kennedy’s demand: “’Ow much is the ’alibut?” she asked.
“A shilling a pound.” He laughed at her recoil of horror. “Cod. That’s what you want. Affordable, tasty. Fourpence a pound and any leftover you can make fish cakes for breakfast.” He slapped the front end of a codfish on the scales; its flat dull eyes and huge mouth gaped up at her. She must have looked confused. “You new to this cooking lark, or what? Bake it, not too long, with chopped onions, parsley, and a lump o’ butter—just the way me ma makes it. Squeeza lemon before you serve it up with plenty of mash pertaters. They’ll love it.”
“There’s only three o’ them, and the weather is warm, so it won’t keep. I’ll jus’ take a pound off a tha’ piece, thank you. And please fillet an’ descale it an’ include the head and the bones fur stock in a separate parcel.” There, she thought, I might be new at this, but I am quite capable of reading Mrs. Beeton’s cookery book. The fishmonger’s jaw dropped. Celia decisively counted coins into his outstretched palm, pulling her hand back before he could close his fingers over hers. “If I am payin’ fur a piece o’ fish, I want all of it, includin’ the bones.”
The fishmonger put his hands on his hips and grinned. “Tell you what, I’m picking up some plaice from Billingsgate in the morning. Fresh as fresh it’ll be. And I’ll throw in some whelks for your tea. The name’s Bert, by the way.” Celia nodded. “Fancy coming to the flicks?” She frowned. “The cinema tomorrer night?” He tucked a lemon and a bunch of parsley in her basket. “No charge for them,” he said and winked.
She glanced up at him from under the brim of her hat. Black eyes stared impudently back at her as he tossed the coins she had given him in the palm of his big red hand—there were fish scales stuck to his knuckles. She tried not to shudder at the thought of him trying to put his arm around her in the dark of the cinema. “Thank you, but I don’ think I will—g’day.”
“Read me a story.” Esmé was tired, and it made her imperious.
Celia raised her eyebrows. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite . . .”
“Celia, please, will you read me a story?” Esmé wheedled. She nod- ded, and Esmé hauled a large book off the bookshelf and opened it to her favorite fairy tale and then snuggled NouNou into her arms.
“Rapunzel again?” “It’s my favorite.”
“It was mine, too, when I was a little girl. Me mam read it to me, an’ it was the fust story I ever read fur mysel’.”
“Where is she now, your mam?”
“In heaven, wi’ my da.” Celia saw her mother propped up against her pillows, her eyes red-rimmed, lips dry and cracked from fever. She closed her eyes to shut out the image.
“My father ran off. I heard Cook telling our housekeeper,” said Esmé, stroking NouNou’s long silky hair. “He didn’t really like us much anyway.”
Celia wasn’t sure what to say. “Do you miss him?” was all she could come up with.
“No, he was always grumpy in the morning. And if you did some- thing wrong or were noisy, he got cross—like Grandmama. Will you read to me, please?”
Celia smiled as she listened to the clear little voice and decided that she would try to sound less flat and hard. All three of the ladies in the house sounded like silver bells when they spoke.
She opened the book and Esmé rested her head on Celia’s shoulder to look at the illustration of Rapunzel leaning out of her tower, a riot of golden curls falling to the ground.
“Don’t you love her hair?” Esmé stroked the illustration with the tip of her forefinger. “I want hair like that when I grow up.”
Celia tried to enunciate rounded vowels. “Yes, I do. I aw—always used to ask why Rapunzel’s hair din’t . . . did not get all tangled, with the prince climbin’ up and down it all the time.”
Esmé laughed. “You sound funny when you talk like that. How did she get the tangles out?”
“My mam said it was with great diffi-culty, and lots o’—of—brushin’, so perhaps you will stan’ still when we get yours out. Now we will take it in turns to read. But I think”—she stroked back Esmé’s dark curls the way her mother had stroked hers—“I think you know this story by heart.”
Mrs. Wallace tapped her chin with her thimble finger as she circled the dressmaker’s dummy. She shook her head and her eyes slid over to Celia and then back to the dress. “My original thought was that the netted violets would come down the front from the waist, catching the overskirt to the taffeta.” She frowned. “But then the chiffon doesn’t move the way I had planned.”
Celia stood back from the dress, her head cocked to one side, and waited for the final verdict. Mrs. Wallace looked tired; her eyes were strained, her shoulders slumped. She massaged her neck with one hand. “I simply don’t know about that panel. Is it too . . . stiff for such a soft, float- ing dress?”
“Symmetrical?” Celia heard herself and instantly wished she had kept her mouth closed.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, ma’am.” She was not here to venture her ignorant opinions. “No, you said ‘symmetrical.’ That’s it—it is too balanced, too equal.” She had already started to slip out the tacking that held the panel in place. “This is a dress that flows like water, or mist at the end of the day. The flowers shouldn’t look like they are lining a straight garden path but scattered in the grass along the edge of a woodland the way wildflow- ers . . .” The rest of her words were obscured by a mouthful of pins, as
Celia watched the dress transform before her.
“Pull up the hem of the taffeta and pin it, yes, there. I want it to reveal a glimpse of ankle. The chiffon hem should be four inches above the taffeta so we can see the embroidery. Do you know how to embroi- der, Celia? No? I’ll teach you.” Mrs. Wallace’s directions were clear, often brisk, but most of the time they worked in silence. A week ago Celia had a job to keep up with her quick, deft movements, but this evening she felt like another pair of Mrs. Wallace’s hands.
“There now, what do you think? Bit of an improvement, wouldn’t you say?” A swathe of violets rippled from the right side of the waist in a fluid stream to the left seam at the hemline.
Celia reached out and swiveled the dummy slowly back and forth on its one-legged stand. The skirt was a mist of flowers. They flowed with the movement of the chiffon, and from underneath it the taffeta flashed violet and indigo in the gaslight, and then as it turned away from the light: lapis, sapphire, and amethyst. “It’s a dream of a dress. A perfect dream.”
“A dream of a dress.” Mrs. Wallace’s voice was low, and she, too, turned the dummy to watch the violet fire. “I think you might be right, Celia. It is a dream.”
But when, Celia asked herself, when will she ever wear such an exqui- site gown?
The clock chimed in the hallway, four deep bongs. Celia’s back ached. In two hours she must be belowstairs to light the kitchen range to make breakfast.
“Help me,” was all Mrs. Wallace said as she turned her back. “Un- button me; I have to see it on.” There was a detached quality to her as Celia’s fingers, no longer roughened and clumsy from scrubbing floors, flew down her back.
Undressed, Mrs. Wallace was almost perfect. Delicate bones, a di- minutive waist, and rounded hips. Nothing like her own straight-up- and-down boyish shape. She needs a bit o’ weight on her, Celia thought. It’s the worry of those unpaid bills. They were mounting up. Celia had seen them in neat piles on the bureau: a bill from the solicitor, the coal merchant, a City of Westminster demand for rates and taxes, a polite reminder from the landlord that the rent was due.
“Bodice first: start with the top button.” There were twenty-one tiny buttons, each covered with silk. Celia had made every one of them.
“Yes, that’s right, leave the last two undone until we have the skirts on.” Mrs. Wallace looked over her shoulder as she smoothed down the front of the bodice, tugging at the bottom and pushing her breasts out- ward to fill the plunge of the neckline with a mere froth of lace for mod- esty’s sake. “Yes, a good fit. Put the skirt on the floor, yes, that’s the way.” She was barely breathing as she stepped into the pool of silk at her feet. Together they drew up the taffeta skirt to her waist, and Celia started to hook it to the bodice. “It’s a perfect fit in the waist, ma’am . . .”
It should be, she thought. We took it in twice, now.
“The overskirt,” Mrs. Wallace directed. Her brows were down as she stared at herself in the mirror. Celia threw a cloud of chiffon over her head. She smoothed and hooked the overskirt under the bodice and buttoned the last two buttons.
“Now, where did we put the belt?”
Celia searched among the pieces of silk on the dining room table and found a midnight blue velvet boned belt, which fastened at the front with an ornate gilt buckle.
“Turn up the gaslight!” Mrs. Wallace ordered. Her face was pale, her eyes fixed on her reflection. “Bring over the lamps from the sideboard and the table.” Celia organized the lamps in a circle around Mrs. Wallace and the pier glass. One on the edge of the sideboard, another on the plant stand. She held the third one up as high as she could.
“Ah,” she said, as her mistress stepped into the light. The rich bay brown wings of her hair framed a face severe with concentration as she gazed into the mirror at a woman of delicate beauty and elegance.
The skin of her arms, neck, and bosom glowed as lustrous as fresh cream. The deeply plunging neckline emphasized her long, graceful neck and the roundness of her breasts. The cut of the bodice made her waist as narrow as that of a sixteen-year-old. All severity gone, Mrs. Wallace laughed and tilted her head to one side, swaying in waltz time.
“It is absolutely perfect!” she cried. “As light as a summer breeze. And the color, oh my God, Celia, look at the color—it’s mesmerizing!”
The lamp in Celia’s hand shook with fatigue, the dress shimmered in the quivering light, and the sound of Mrs. Wallace’s voice sent a shiver up her spine to prickle in her scalp. “A Dream of Endless Sum- mer,” Mrs. Wallace cried. And to her dismay Celia saw there were tears standing in her dark eyes. “Do you think it will sell?”
“Sell?” Surely she had lost her reason. Women did when their hus- bands ran away and left them, and nothing stood between them and the workhouse. Celia had watched her mother slide away from reason when her father had died in that terrible accident, and grief, poverty, and ill- ness had overwhelmed her.
“Yes, sell! Do you think they’ll like it?”
Celia did her best to reassure her mistress. “Oh yes, ma’am, of course they will. It is the most lovely . . . It is all light and shadows and as ethereal as gossamer.”
Mrs. Wallace turned, and triumph still shone on her face, but there was curiosity there too. “Celia,” she said. “Where did you come by such a vocabulary? ‘Ethereal’? ‘Gossamer’?”
She had no idea; the words had simply come out of her at the sight of the dress, and then she knew. “The Brothers Grimm,” she said. “It is a fairy-tale dress.”
Celia couldn’t bear it a moment longer. She had to know. “Ma’am, please may I have a word?” Mrs. Wallace paused from pairing stockings and waved her into her bedroom. “The dress—what did you mean by ‘sell’ it?” Celia couldn’t let herself believe that she would never see it again. She knew which of the violets she had made, and it had been her hands that had basted the lace into the décolletage and helped to ap- pliqué the flat faces of the pansies. In some way it had become her dress too. She must know what would happen to it.
“Didn’t I tell you? No, I suppose I didn’t. My sister, Mrs. Glyn, has many fashionable friends—they were mine, too, once, when I was first married. She has invited me, and our dress, down to her husband’s country house for a party. There will be many women invited for the weekend, most of them are quite well-off, and I am hoping that they like the dress. If they do, perhaps they will commission me to design similar ones for them.
She is selling the idea of the dress! This made complete sense to Celia’s practical mind. More dresses would rescue them from an impatient landlord and tradesmen who were refusing to make deliveries unless they were paid in cash. She stepped across the tissue paper toward the open dome of the trunk that sat in the middle of the bedroom floor.
“And then?” she asked.
“Then I will design and make dresses for anyone who is rich enough to afford one. And, if I am lucky, there will be enough interest and or- ders for you to help me.” Mrs. Wallace put stockings and underclothes into the trunk. “Everything hangs on the next two days, Celia. If the dress is a success, then it will change our lives.”
Our lives? Oh, please make it my life too! Celia looked down at the pol- ished tips of her boots peeking out from under the hem of her pretty new dress and prayed. A deep fervent prayer that a Dream of Endless Summer would turn heads, lift pulse rates, and ultimately seduce even the most prudent husband to open up his checkbook and demand that his wife buy a dress like the one Mrs. Wallace was dancing in . . . no matter the cost.
Excerpted from A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA by Tessa Arlen, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022
About the Author
Tessa Arlen is the author of the critically acclaimed Lady Montfort mystery series—Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman was a finalist for the 2016 Agatha Award Best First Novel. She is also the author of Poppy Redfern: A Woman of World War II mystery series. And the author of the historical fictions; “In Royal Service to the Queen” and available July 5, 2022 “A Dress of Violet Taffeta.”
Tessa lives in the Southwest with her family and two corgis where she gardens in summer and writes in winter.
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