Monday, July 4, 2022

Review: A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen

Women's lives have not been easy. They have long been at the mercy of men's ideas and are the ones to suffer approbation when their lives veer from accepted paths. But women have always done what they need to do to survive, even if they have to buck societal norms. They are creative and determined and with a little luck, they will more than survive; they will thrive. One woman who overcame so much, none of it of her own making, was Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon. Tessa Arlen has written a captivating fictionalized version of Lucy's life, her rise to prominence, and the slander that damaged her reputation and marriage and haunted her for the rest of her life in this new novel, A Dress of Violet Taffeta.

Opening with Lucy Wallace telling her mother that not only has her alcoholic, philandering husband abandoned her and their young daughter Esmé for a pantomime dancer, but he has squandered all of their money, she's had to let all the servants but the scullery maid go, and she is suing James for divorce. The latter bit of information is, of course, the most scandalous of all in the Belle Époque, where gently bred ladies did not divorce their husbands no matter what the circumstances. Lucy has a plan to survive though. She will design and create the sort of ball gown, a dress of violet taffeta, that others in high society will want too. Using her wealthy younger sister, the future romance author, Elinor Glyn's contacts, Lucy will discreetly start her own couture house to support herself and Esmé.

Arlen captures the stress and worry of starting the fashion house Lucile, the learning curve of the financial side of a business, and the innovation and risks that Lucy took to get to the top of her trade. Lucy's personal life is also woven into the story, the story of her becoming self-sufficient, her second marriage, the social snubs she suffered, and the privilege of designing for the Prince of Wales' favorites as well as noted actresses of the day and the wealthy Americans who found their way across the ocean to London. Arlen has imagined a close friendship with Lucy's former scullery maid, Celia Franklin, who rises to become Lucile's manager. The narration follows both Lucy and Celia independently, giving the reader a full vision of both the artistic side of the business as well as the financial side. Lucy finds inspiration in everything she admires and the descriptions of how she created her dresses and the tactile way in which the fabric and trimmings are described really bring the feminine and romantic designs to life. Coming up with the idea of a fashion show and of selling wispy under garments that allowed her to design her dresses differently, Lucy was truly a cutting edge and visionary fashion designer and this tale of her life, both as a couturière and as a first class survivor of the Titanic, is fascinating. The time period is richly evoked and the characters are engaging.This is a wonderful story for historical fiction readers, especially those who have an interest in tenacious women and the fashion industry.

For more information about Tessa Arlen and the book, check our her author site, like her on Facebook, follow her on Instagram or Pinterest, look at the book's Goodreads page, read an exclusive interview and follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Laurel Ann from Austenprose and publisher Berkley for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kristen. Lucy was such a trailblazer for fashion and women entrepreneurs. Arlen did a fabulous job describing the era and fashion, and developing the characters. I am looking forward to her next novel.


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