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The Dressmaker

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Overview

Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.
 
Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on...

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The Dressmaker

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Overview

Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.
 
Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.
 
Amidst the chaos and desperate urging of two very different suitors, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. Tess’s sailor also manages to survive unharmed, witness to Lady Duff Gordon’s questionable actions during the tragedy. Others—including the gallant Midwestern tycoon—are not so lucky.
 
On dry land, rumors about the survivors begin to circulate, and Lady Duff Gordon quickly becomes the subject of media scorn and later, the hearings on the Titanic. Set against a historical tragedy but told from a completely fresh angle, The Dressmaker is an atmospheric delight filled with all the period's glitz and glamour, all the raw feelings of a national tragedy and all the contradictory emotions of young love.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

On April 12th, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk, taking with it more than two thirds of its passengers and crew. Among the survivors was the famed London-based designer Lady Lucille Duff Gordon (1863-1935), who figures prominently in this centennial historical novel. The title character of this novel, however, is the fictitious Tess, a youthful seamstress who shares Lifeboat No. 1, the infamous "Millionaires' Boat," with this imperious fashion house mogul. Tess' shipboard encounters, some tragic and some not so, shape the dressmaker's life and leave an indelible imprint on her subsequent story. (P.S. The very controversial Lady Duff Gordon is prominently portrayed in both the two most famous Titanic films: A Night to Remember and Titanic.)

Sessalee Hensley

From the Publisher

"Folds compelling story into Titanic tragedy....Seamlessly stitching fact and fiction together, Alcott creates a hypnotic tale"
--USA Today

"An unashamed girlie-book....we learn a good deal about what it was like when the ship went down. But we also follow Tess as she learns about the high-fashion business in New York."
--Washington Post

"Why write a Titanic story not really about the Titanic? Because what happens to the survivors makes for interesting reading.....compelling.....Her research into the Titanic, its sinking, and the hearings subsequently prompted is impeccable....fascinating.....actual historical figures become intricate characters in Alcott's hands."
--Seattle Post Intelligencer

"If you want a fictional escape [about the Titanic], then it's time to turn to a new novel called The Dressmaker....the book explores complicated gender dynamics of the time, and offers a heroine you can really root for"
--NPR's All Things Considered

"Kate Alcott seamlessly stitches fact and fiction together creating this wonderfully colorful book. This story has many layers and reaches far beyond the tragedy of the Titanic....riveting....This novel is steeped in truth woven together with fiction making this Titanic tale feel like one never told before....beautifully told and really examines loss, love, survival and the choices made in between."
--The Examiner 

"While reading The Dressmaker, I felt as if I were actually living and breathing the events before, during and after the tragedy....The novel is filled with the atmosphere, clothes, and historical figures of the times, including the Astors, "The Unsinkable" Molly Brown, and J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star's Managing Director, who cowardly boarded a lifeboat before others."
--Huffington Post

"It's Titanic revisited, in a romance focused on the survivors and the scandal, seen from the perspective of an aspiring seamstress whose fortunes intertwine with real characters from the epic tragedy....interesting historical facts...an appealing, soulful freshness to this shrewdly commercial offering"
--Kirkus

"Brims with engrossing storytelling....For fans of Sarah Jio, Susanna Kearsley, and immigrant tales."
--Booklist

"The Dressmaker
will appeal to readers of other historical book group favorites, The Paris Wife and Loving Frank."
--Book Group Buzz, A Booklist Blog

"Thoroughly enjoyable."
--The Book Reporter

"The 1912 sinking of the Titanic is the stone at the center of a ripple expanding to encompass the rest of the world in this fictionalized account of real historical persons and events. It is a layered story highlighting class differences and the public and private personas people put on as easily as high-fashion dresses, illustrating both the tragedy’s individual torment as well as a larger wave of survivor’s guilt. Multiple points of view bring many perspectives to the witch-hunt atmosphere and courtroom drama of a shocked world looking for someone to blame. By setting the story mainly in New York City, Alcott contrasts Lady Duff Gordon’s lush, glittering world of high society with reporter Pinky Wade’s tenement squalor and seamstress Tess Collins’s ambition and longing for freedom. Tess, the fulcrum of a star-crossed love triangle with two fellow survivors, a twice-divorced wealthy American and a sailor with a talent for woodcarving, never loses her integrity as she struggles to make sense of everything. These small stories stand for hundreds of others whose voices were stolen by the tragedy as survivors faced the consequences of indiscretion and quick tongues. A low hum of background action–suffragettes and union tensions–mirrors the human costs in the disaster that besets the Titanic....will find much to think about in this story shaped by the inherent desire to know more about one of the most documented and researched tragedies in human history"
--Library Journal

“We all know how the Titanic went down, we all saw the movie. But what happened after? This brilliant book shows the aftermath of the tragedy, seen through the eyes of a brave, young girl who was on board, on her way to America, to start a new life as a dressmaker. From the minute Tess sets foot on the doomed ship, this is the kind of novel you simply cannot put down and cannot forget.”
--Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah's Key and A Secret Kept

“Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker is a beautifully told story that examines loss, love, couture and the choices we make when everything is on the line--all sewn together into one compelling read. I can’t stop thinking about this book and its characters.”
--Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow 
 
   
"We're all riveted by a tragedy, but what happens to the survivors?  THE DRESSMAKER is that rare novel that asks not only what comes next but what we would do in a morally unspeakable situation--and how we live with those choices.  A brave, truly gripping novel."  
--Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
 
“The Dressmaker achieves the remarkable -- it makes the sinking of the Titanic feel like a story never told before.  By focusing on the search for justice in the aftermath of the tragedy, this compelling first novel examines humanity at its best and worst, as seen through the eyes of one of the ship's survivors, a courageous young woman who is determined to make her own way in America.”
-- Lauren Belfer, author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light
 
“This is a fascinating premise for a novel as well as a powerful, page-turning read.  It's also a very valuable contribution to our understanding of the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic, and its aftermath.”
--Isabel Wolff, author of A Vintage Affair
 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307970121
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/21/2012
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 9
  • Sales rank: 819,959
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.96 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

KATE ALCOTT was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live

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Read an Excerpt

1

cherbourg, france april 10, 1912

Tess pulled at the corners of the sheets she had taken straight from the line and tried to tuck them tight under the mattress, stepping back to check her work. Still a bit bunchy and wrinkled. The overseer who ran this house was sure to inspect and sniff and scold, but it didn’t matter anymore.

She glanced out the window. A woman was walking by, wearing a splendid hat topped with a rich, deep-­green ribbon, twirling a bright-­red parasol, her face lively, her demeanor confident and sunny. Tess tried to imagine herself stepping forward so confidently without someone accusing her of behaving above her station. She could almost feel her fingers curling around the smooth, polished handle of that parasol. Where was the woman going?

She gazed back at the half-­made bed. No more fantasizing, not one more minute of it.

She walked out into the central hall and stopped, held in place by the sight of her reflection in the full-­length gilded mirror at the end of the hall. Her long dark hair, as always, had pulled out of a carelessly pinned bun, even as the upward tilt of her chin, which had so often registered boldness, remained in place. But there was no denying the shameful crux of what she saw: a skinny young girl wearing a black dress and a white apron and carrying a pile of dirty linens, with a servant’s cap sitting squarely and stupidly on the top of her head. An image of servitude. She yanked the cap off her head and hurled it at the glass. She was not a servant. She was a seamstress, a good one, and she should be paid for her work. She had been tricked into this job.

Tess dumped the soiled linens down the laundry chute and climbed the stairs to her third-­floor room, untying her apron as she went. Today, yes. No further hesitation. There were jobs available, the dockworkers had said, on that huge ship sailing for New York today. She scanned the small room. No valise—­the mistress would stop her cold at the door if she knew she was leaving. The picture of her mother, yes. The money. Her sketchbook, with all her designs. She took off her uniform, put on her best dress, and stuffed some undergarments, stockings, and her only other dress into a canvas sack. She stared at the half-­finished ball gown draped over the sewing machine, at the tiny bows of crushed white velvet she had so painstakingly stitched onto the ballooning blue silk. Someone else would have to finish it, someone who actually got paid. What else? Nothing.

She took a deep breath, trying to resist the echo of her father’s voice in her head: Don’t put on airs, he always scolded. You’re a farm girl, do your job, keep your head down. You get decent enough pay; mind you don’t wreck your life with defiance.

“I won’t wreck it,” she whispered out loud. “I’ll make it better.”

But, even as she turned and left her room for the last time, she could almost hear his voice following her, as raspy and angry as ever: “Watch out, foolish girl.”

The rotting wood planks beneath Lucile’s feet were spongy, catching her boot heels as she made her way through the crowd on the Cherbourg dock. She pulled her silver-­fox stole snugly around her neck, luxuriating in the plush softness of the thick fur, and lifted her head high, attracting many glances, some triggered by the sight of her brilliantly red hair, others by the knowledge of who she was.

She glanced at her sister walking quickly toward her, humming some new song, twirling a red parasol as she walked. “You do enjoy playing the blithe spirit, don’t you?” she said.

“I try to be an agreeable person,” her sister murmured.

“I have no need to compete; you may have the attention,” Lucile said in her huskiest, haughtiest voice.

“Oh, stop it, Lucy. Neither of us is impoverished on that score. Really, you are cranky lately.”

“If you were presenting a spring collection in New York in a few weeks, you’d be cranky, too. I have too much to worry about with all this talk of women hiking their skirts and flattening their breasts. All you have to do is write another novel about them.”

The two of them started squeezing past the dozens of valises and trunks, brass hinges glowing in the waning light, their skirts of fine wool picking up layers of damp dust turned to grime.

“It’s true, the tools of my trade are much more portable than yours,” Elinor said airily.

“They certainly are. I’m forced to make this crossing because I don’t have anyone competent enough to be in charge of the show, so I must be there. So please don’t be frivolous.”

Elinor closed her parasol with a snap and stared at her sister, one perfect eyebrow arched. “Lucy, how can you have no sense of humor? I’m only here to wish you bon voyage and cheer you on when the ship departs. Shall I leave now?”

Lucile sighed and took a deep breath, allowing a timed pause. “No, please,” she said. “I only wish you were sailing with me. I will miss you.”

“I would like nothing better than to go with you, but my editor wants those corrected galleys back by the end of the week.” Elinor’s voice turned sunny again. “Anyway, you have Cosmo—­such a sweetheart, even if he doesn’t appreciate poetry.”

“A small defect.”

“He’s a dear, and his best gift to you has been a title. Is that too crass? But it is true that he has no literary appreciation.” Elinor sighed. “And he can be boring.”

“Nonsense.”

“You know it as well as I do. Where is he?”

Lucile was scanning the crowd, searching for the tall, angular figure of Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. “This delay is maddening. If anybody can get things operating efficiently and on time, Cosmo can.”

“Of course. That’s his job.”

Lucile glanced sharply at Elinor, but she was looking elsewhere, an innocent expression on her face.

Up the hill, away from the shipyard, amid the sprawling brick mansions on the bluffs of the Normandy coast, Tess was marching downstairs to the parlor. Waiting for her was the mistress, a prim Englishwoman with lips so thin they seemed stitched together.

“I want my pay, please,” Tess said, hiding the canvas sack in the folds of her skirt. She could see the envelope waiting for her on the corner table by the door, and began edging toward it.

“You haven’t finished my gown for the party, Tess,” the woman said in a more querulous tone than usual. “And my son could hardly find a towel in the hall closet this morning.”

“He’ll find one now.” She was not going back upstairs. She would never again be backed into that linen closet, fighting off the adolescent son’s eager, spidery fingers. That was her envelope; she could see her name written on it, and she wasn’t standing around to hear the usual complaints before it was doled out. She moved closer to the table.

“You’ve said that before, and I’m going upstairs right now to check.” The woman stopped as she saw the girl reaching out for the envelope. “Tess, I haven’t given that to you yet!”

“Perhaps not, but I have earned it,” Tess said carefully.

“Rudeness is not admirable, Tess. You’ve been very secretive lately. If you pick that up before I give it to you, you have burned your bridges with me.”

Tess took a deep breath and, feeling slightly dizzy, picked up the envelope and held it close, as if it might be snatched away.

“Then I have,” she said. Without waiting for a reply, she opened the heavily ornate front door she would never have to polish again and headed for the docks. After all her dreaming and brooding, the time was now.

The dock was slippery with seaweed. Heart pounding, she pressed into the bustle and chaos around her and sucked into her lungs the sharp, salty air of the sea. But where were the signs advertising jobs? She accosted a man in a uniform with large brass buttons and asked in hesitant French and then urgent English who was in charge of hiring staff for cleaning and cooking on that big new ship.

“You’re too late, dear, the servicepeople have all been hired and the passengers will soon be boarding. Bad luck for you, I’m afraid.” He turned away.

It didn’t matter how brightly she smiled; her plan was falling apart. Idiot—­she should have come down earlier. What now? She gulped back the hollow feeling of not knowing what came next and tried to think. Find families; look for young children. She would be a good nanny. Didn’t having seven younger brothers and sisters count as experience? She was ready to go, no trouble at all; all she had to do was find the right person and say the right things and she could get away. She would not, she would not be trapped; she would get out.

But no one paid her any heed. An elderly English couple shrank back when she asked if they needed a companion for the trip. When she approached a family with children, offering her services, they looked at her askance, politely shook their heads, and edged away. What could she expect? She must look desperate, tangled hair and all.

“Lucy, look at that girl over there.” Elinor pointed a delicate, polished finger at the frantic Tess. “My goodness, she’s a beauty. Gorgeous, big eyes. Look at her running around talking to people. I think she’s trying to get on the ship. Do you think she’s running away from something? Maybe the police? A man?”

“I wouldn’t know, but I’m sure you’ll weave a good story out of it,” Lucy said, waving to Cosmo’s approaching figure. He looked, as usual, somewhat detached from his surroundings. Cool eyes, a calm demeanor; always in charge. Following him, at his heels, was a timid-­looking messenger.

“Lucile, there is a problem—­” Cosmo began.

“I knew it,” Lucile said, her jaw tightening. “It’s Hetty, isn’t it?”

“She says she is unable to come. Her mother is ill,” the messenger said. He bent forward almost in nervous homage—­as well he might, because Lucile was furious now.

“Tell that girl she can’t back out just before we sail. Who does she think she is? If she doesn’t board with us, she’s fired. Have you told her that?” She glared at the man.

“I have, Madame,” he ventured.

Tess heard the commotion and stopped, arrested by the sight of the two women. Could it be? Yes, one of them wore the same grand hat with the gorgeous green ribbon she had spied from the window; she was right here, idly tapping the ground with that same red parasol.

The other woman’s sharp voice jolted her attention away.

“A miserable excuse!” she snapped.

Someone hadn’t shown up for the trip, some kind of servant, and this small person with the bright-­red hair and crimson lipstick was furious. How formidable she looked. Her strong-­boned, immobile face admitted no compromise, and her wide-­set eyes looked as if they could change from soft to hard in seconds. There was no softness in them now.

“Who is she?” Tess demanded of a young man attached to the clustered group. Her voice was trembling. Nothing was working out.

“You don’t know?”

She looked again at the woman, noting how people slowed as they passed, whispering, casting admiring glances. Yes, there was something familiar.

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Interviews & Essays

Two bonus essays by Kate Alcott

ESSAY #1

THE AFTERMATH - WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE TITANIC SANK?
By Kate Alcott

It's maddening for a writer: you've got a fascinating piece of information you want in your book, but you can't find the right place to put it.

Now multiply that by the hundreds of facts that tumbled out in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic, and you get an idea of how frustrating it can be to have to toss one great fragment after another into the wastebasket.

Even now I'm tempted to collar a friend or two once in a while to talk compulsively about things I couldn't squeeze into The Dressmaker. You, dear reader, will get the same treatment. Here are some of the things that happened AFTER the Titanic went down that aren't in my book. (Much of this information comes from The Titanic: End of a Dream, by Wyn Craig Wade, which is one of the best and most extensively researched books I've read on this tragedy.)

• Overall, 75 percent of the women passengers survived, but only 25 percent of the men. Sixty percent of all the survivors were travelling First Class. Those in steerage were not so fortunate: only 25 percent of them survived.
• Carl Van Anda - the legendary and much respected editor of the New York Times - did strike a secret deal with Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless radio transmission. He ordered the Titanic wireless operators to speak only to the Times, promising them money, a deal that enraged other newspapers. "Titanic Story Is Held Up For Cash," the Associated Press reported. "New York Paper Kept World In Agony While Dickering For Wreck News," charged the Hearst papers. Senator William Alden Smith, who chaired the U.S. Senate hearings, was outraged and hammered away at Marconi on the witness stand. Still, he was forced to tread carefully. Not only was Marconi a very popular figure in the United States, but turning the even more powerful New York Times into an enemy was dangerous. Smith quickly found himself disparaged and mocked by the newspaper and was forced to back off.
• Senator Smith ended up questioning eighty-two passengers, four officers and thirty-four crew members, sticking doggedly to what often seemed a thankless job. A measure of his success is the fact that U.S. legislation was passed within months decreeing 24-hour wireless service on all ships and a guaranteed lifeboat seat for every passenger.
• J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star line, was cleared of wrongdoing in the British inquiry, but his reputation suffered for making an apparently effortless escape from the Titanic and haunted him the rest of his life.
• Authorities were puzzled by the fact that hundreds of bodies had not surfaced weeks after the tragedy. They had been caught by the Gulf Stream waters and began emerging finally, in some cases as far as forty-five miles from where the Titanic went down. Various ships began reporting macabre sights - people floating in steamer chairs, a man in evening dress atop a door, a woman floating in a billowing white nightgown.
• According to Wade, all the identifiable first-class passengers that were found - including John Jacob Astor, who was identified by the initials sewn into his jacket (and had $2,500 in his pockets) - were brought back to shore for burial. Others were buried at sea. Class distinctions, one might surmise, lived on even in death.
• Many of the burials were in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was home port for the ships searching for bodies. It is now the location of a Titanic museum.
• One of the bodies brought back and buried there was that of a small boy who was dubbed "the unknown child." It took 92 years before US Armed Forces scientists were able to identify him through DNA testing. His name was Sidney Leslie Goodwin. The child had sailed with his entire family - his parents and five brothers and sisters - on the Titanic's maiden voyage. None survived, and his body was the only one ever identified.
• The heroine of my book is a young dressmaker named Tess who considers herself quite fortunate to be hired at the last minute as Lady Duff Gordon's maid for the voyage. Her real-life counterpart was Lady Duff Gordon's secretary, Laura Francatelli, who escaped with her employer in Lifeboat One. A vivid letter, written by Francatelli to a friend describing "the screams and cries" of the dying in the water, was sold at auction a few years ago for $32,000.
• There were many auctions of artifacts over the years, including life-vests and a canvas bag used to haul children up from the lifeboats onto the rescue ship, the Carpathia.
• Liability claims exploded through the roof, amounting to over $16 million dollars (including a claim for a $5,000 Renault automobile). The White Star line went bankrupt in the 1930s.
• American feminists, in what turned out to be a strategic mistake, firmly disavowed the policy of "women and children first" aboard the Titanic. They argued that full equality meant equal risk, a stance many women and men rejected. This caused the suffragists to lose significant support and outraged anti-suffragists launched a fund-raising campaign to build a Titanic monument honoring "the everlasting memory of male chivalry." Over 25,000 women sent in donations. The monument is in Washington, DC.
• One of the mysteries remaining: did Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic, commit suicide? There are reports he shot himself; others say no. But it is true that he never raised an alarm or warned his passengers to climb into the lifeboats, although he knew the ship was sinking.

I could go on and on, for there are many stories to be told. But I'll share just one more: One of the women saved, who lost her husband in the waters that night, met a fellow passenger on the rescuing ship, the Carpathia. They formed a close bond, and eventually he became her second husband.

And so, a salute - to life.

ESSAY #2

THE MOST FAMOUS DESIGNER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF...
By Kate Alcott

Let me introduce you to the most famous designer you've never heard of—a fiery red-head named Lucile Duff Gordon, who in the early years of the twentieth century was the one of the top names in the fashion world. Lucile was famous for her diaphanous, floating fabrics in soft colors that freed women from the corsets of the nineteenth century. Her clothes were worn by royalty, high society women and glamorous movie stars alike.

But Lucile, herself, was a very tough lady.

When I first "met" Lady Duff Gordon in the course of researching The Dressmaker, I thought she was one of the most imperious and unlikeable women I had come upon in years. I wondered: do I really want to write about her? Is she too much of an obnoxious type?

Nobody was allowed to stand in her way to success. The people who worked for her were indeed terrified half the time. "Madame" was mercurial and prone to fire anyone who did not do her bidding instantly. Rules and propriety were for other people. She thought nothing, so it is reported, of spitting her gum (which she chewed often and with relish) out of a window at her New York loft, ignoring the possibility that it might land on a passerby (which it did once, prompting an angry woman with gum in her hair to storm the loft and demand an apology. She didn't get it.)

I decided to leave that vignette out. My readers would hate Madame before the story got going.

And yet the longer I thought about Lucile, the more I saw her as one of the more amazingly determined women of her time. (Maybe on a par with Elinor Glyn, her sister, who, in order to stay attractive in Hollywood, was daring enough to have one of the very first face lifts ever.) Lucile reigned supreme in the designing world at a time when few women had the savvy to propel a business to success.

How ironic then that the most indelible image of her doesn't stem from the fact that she was the most famous dress designer in the world, but from the fact that—as a passenger on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic, escaping in a boat that held only twelve people—she refused to allow the crew members to row back and save others. In addition, her husband offered money to those crew members. As a bribe or simply a thank you?

Lucile's boat was not the only one that didn't go back, of course, but she made a plum target for the newspapers of the time. Nobody will ever know for sure what happened in Lifeboat One, but Lucile never quite escaped the shadow of the ensuing scandal. There were still some good years ahead - but her business began to weaken, made even more vulnerable when she lost a major legal battle involving a contract dispute.

Her one piece of irrefutable good luck? Three years after the Titanic went down, Lucile made a last minute cancellation for her reservation on a ship due to become as notorious as the Titanic - the Lusitania. The ship was destroyed by a German torpedo and sank in 1915. Twelve hundred people died.

Lucile died years later in 1935 at the age of 71, already forgotten, in an English nursing home. Her business went bankrupt in 1921.

But, oh, the clothes! I pored over pictures of them: ethereal Edwardian gowns hinting at female sensuality; bolder costumes for her Hollywood clients. They were magical, the kind of clothes I used to imagine wearing as a child when I wrapped myself in curtain remnants from my father's textile factory, pretending to be a princess.

A few years ago, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hoping to see one of her gowns on display. I was disappointed to find that all they were showing was a dreary olive-drab, no-nonsense suit that Lucile designed for women during World War I. I stared at it, looking for some hint of the creativity of the woman I hoped to capture for my book, wondering what splendid examples might be locked away in the vaults of the museum. I wanted to see the billowy sleeves and scalloped hemlines; the layers of floating chiffon, mixing colors of blue and gold, silver and green. I wanted to see the laces, airy as a spider web, the satin ribbons - all of it.

Lucile would be furious that her best work wasn't being shown. I could easily imagine her stomping out of the place, ranting and raving as underlings scurried about to correct what she would see as massive injustice. But for all of her tantrums and scenes, she was a complicated and immensely talented woman. Yes, the designer you never heard of.

And yes, I decided, I did want to write about her.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 remains in many people’s eyes a symbolic dividing line between a world with rigid class divisions and one with a rising middle class. Tess yearned to be part of the glamour and Jim wanted to be free of its constraints. Can a happy medium be found between these two desires, not only for Tess and Jim, but for anyone in similar circumstances?
 
2. Tess and Pinky were two young women in a rapidly changing world, on the cusp of a time when women could actually make choices about their lives and work.  Describe how the choices for women one hundred years ago differ from today, and how they remain the same.
 
3. Tess and Pinky are both smart, competent women who experience moments of both conflict and companionship with one another. What ultimately draws them together and bonds their friendship?
 
4. In many ways Tess is unflappable and emotionally direct, but at times, she can be anxious and uncertain, especially around Lucille.  Dealing with design—fabric, texture, and color seem to be the best route to confidence. What does this say about Tess’ personality?
 
5. What is your overall impression of Lucile?  Is she a villain or simply misunderstood? If her arrogance and sense of privilege are what got her into trouble, what redeeming factors—if any—do you see in her?
 
6. How would you argue Lucille’s case? Compare her treatment to that of celebrities of our own time who get caught in controversy.
 
7. Fashion is its own character in the book—both glamorous and fickle. Is the fashion industry viewed differently now than it was in 1912? Who is Lucille’s design equivalent today? Or was Lucille incomparable?
 
8. If Lucille’s career had not declined after the sinking, do you think she could have evolved as a designer and conformed to society’s new opinions of the female figure and fashion? Or were both Lucille and her designs destined to become obsolete?
 
9. Only one of twenty lifeboats went back for survivors. Many people felt anguish and regret; others believed they had no choice.  Can you picture yourself in that same situation? Husbands, children in the water—what comes first, the instinct to survive or to save others? How would you hope you would act?
 
10. Øfficer Harold Lowe was criticized for declaring he waited until the pleas for help from the water “thinned out” before going back on a rescue mission.  This kind of blunt honesty shocked those who heard it. Are we still adverse to hearing hard facts from those whom we want to be heroes?
 
11. Using the “whitewash brush,” as a ship officer put it, the White Star Line did its best to deny all responsibility for the Titanic tragedy. Its officers even falsely claimed at first that the ship had not sunk, raising the hopes of the families waiting on land. What parallels do you see with White Star’s corporate reaction and current corporate self-protectiveness?
 
12. Did you find out anything new about the Titanic from reading the book? Were you aware of the hearings that occurred after the sinking?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 183 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 183 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2012

    Couldn't Put It Down

    I read the novel in just two sittings, eager to find out what happened to Tess and her beaus and Lucile. I have to admit that I didn't know much about what happened after the Titanic disaster and this book filled in all those gaps in my historical knoweldge but also kept me immensely entertained. The writing is solid but not showy, the characters are wonderful and real and the drama is heartfelt and often surprising.

    29 out of 30 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2012

    The Dressmaker

    To Anonymous who is so proud of her synopsis-- why does it never occur to uou and all those like you who insist on rewriting what is ALREADY written for us in the ,"Overview"?
    This space is for a sentence or two, did you like the book or not. Okay, that is enough!
    Me? I love historical fiction and thougjt this one was fresh and new.
    See, on the first morning she opens her eyes, thrn breathes in, then scratches the end of her nose.......

    25 out of 45 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 22, 2012

    The Dressmaker is unsinkable!

    Synopsis: Just in time for the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic comes a vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young woman who survives the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy.

    Tess, an aspiring seamstress, thinks she's had an incredibly lucky break when she is hired by famous designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon to be a personal maid on the Titanic's doomed voyage. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men, one a roughly-hewn but kind sailor and the other an enigmatic Chicago millionaire. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes.

    My thoughts:

    I knew when we first met Tess, putting unironed, crumpled sheets on her employer's bed, that this wasn't going to be the usual Titanic story. This one was going to have a different spin to it. I was really looking forward to reading Kate Alcott's The Dressmaker, and I am really glad that I did get to read it! Tess wrangles her way on to the Titanic by seizing an opportunity to work for Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, the infamous clothing designer and the somewhat questionable survivor on the Titanic. Tess is no maid, she's a talented seamstress, with a gift in design and Tess uses this opportunity to get to New York and find a future there.

    Unlike other books and stories with a Titanic plotline, The Dressmaker's author, Kate Alcott, wisely places the tragic sinking towards the beginning of her story and places all of the action and development around the survivors and the U.S. Senate hearings that asked questions that one hundred years later, are still being asked.

    I enjoyed reading The Dressmaker, I think the plot lines were interesting and the writing even and consistent. I do have to add that I was a bit disappointed in the character development in some of the second tier characters and I felt that we really didn't get to know Tess, or what she really thought of the two diametrically opposed men who Tess is involved with from the ill fated cruise, Jack, the wealthy Chicagoan and Jim, the sailor.

    Alcott, in a brilliant move, used actual testimony from the hearings to help paint the scenery of what the world was like in 1912 and how the Titanic was evacuated. It was good to see the names of the famous and infamous included in her telling and it was enlightening to learn that even a hundred years ago, the paparazzi were present (and hounding in their pursuit of a photo and a story from the mournful, dazed survivors) as the Carpathia docked in New York. Alcott also includes a daring and somewhat pushy female reporter, Pinky, so that she could provide the readers a look at the about-to-explode world of the suffragettes and women's rights.


    *This galley was provided to me by the publisher's publicist at my request, and that in no way affected my fair review.

    25 out of 42 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2012

    Aftermath of Titanic

    Tess is a young maid with aspirations to be more than just a servant. She is basically in the right spot at the right time (or alternatively, the very wrong spot at the wrong time) and talks her way into working for the famous and famously rude fashion designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. The first order of business is a trip across the Atlantic on the Titanic.

    Despite a few awkward interactions with Lucile, Tess proves herself a worthy helper and the fashion designer seems to taking a likiing to the young woman. Lucile even allows Tess to indulge in a few luxuries, bumping her up from storage to a room in first class. As Tess fills her days accompanying Lucile on leisurely strolls along the deck, she meets a wealthy business man and a young sailor, who are set up as her love interests.

    But then disaster strikes shortly into the novel. We see the sinking of the Titanic and Lucile's sketchy behavior during the tragedy, but the novel's real focus is once they land in New York. The media swarms the survivors, grieving relatives cast scornful looks in their direction and the senate begins an investigation into what exactly went wrong.

    There are specific accusations thrown at Lucile and Tess is swept up in the drama surrounding her boss. There are some unexpected turns and I had my heart in my throat during the courtroom scenes but it's also a lovely atmospheric novel and a great coming of age story. Lots of compelling (albeit very imperfect) female characters. In addition to Tess and Lucile, there's a feisty New York Times newspaper reporter.

    18 out of 30 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2012

    A snoozer....

    This book had promise, but fell very short. The characters were underdeveloped. The reader feels no connection at all. The writing was choppy and confusing at times. I struggled through this one. I did appreciate the historical aspects of the book.

    15 out of 24 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2012

    Riveting story based on historical record

    The ship's sinking informs the drama and there is a ton of great historical detail but the book is always fundamentally driven by character, relationships and the complexities of politics and society, all of which make for a very satisfying read.

    14 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2012

    Was so looking forward to reading this and was highly disappoint

    Was so looking forward to reading this and was highly disappointed. Although I know the premise was based on fact, the fictional story was so unrealistic. Amazing how someone "accidentally" gets to come to America, and then so freely roams around with no knowledge of how America works, yet is so comfortable is suddenly eating with high society, running a factory, and getting a marriage proposal from a rich man. Right. I lend my books to my friends and relatives when I finish but not this one It will go into the donation pile.

    11 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2012

    I need to apologize to my local library for requesting this

    I loved the idea but the execution was at times painful and made me involuntarily stab myself with my metal bookmark several times in my right temple. I was not looking for such a feathery relaxed almost Young Adult fiction attempt at a captivating area of history. I wanted meat and all I could taste at the end of reading this was whipped pudding.


    While the story moved along at a decent pace in certain parts, it seemed to just float over the most exciting parts or the areas for the most potential (the sinking of Titanic or even the rescue) and focused more on the thrown in lame love attraction . It was all just anticlimactic and dull. I wanted to experience some emotion, but the first 40 pages left me reaching for my Titanic encyclopedia (some major details of the blue print of the ship do not match, example the levels of the decks). However, some potential readers will not be so particular with the Titanic’s construction, so I will move along.


    The characters were just bland and predictable. The rich were cruel and haughty (and always written in smoking a cigarette at a crucial moment of the story, smearing red lip stick or wearing red) and the poor were just thrown in as the victims, with expected and clich¿ side stories. The only interesting gray character was continually described with having “an ample stomach” (not flattering when the character is actually an interesting woman in history). Besides the lack of characterization, I cringed and rolled my eyes at times with the dialogue and lack luster romance of the main character. Supposedly exciting Historical moments were handled with an overly sugary approach that came off as something just thrown in; to “prove” to the unfortunate reader they were supposed to believe that they were still floating above the late Edwardian era.


    In the end, I thought the book’s only saving grace was the absolutely mesmerizing Sea Trials of the Titanic. If anything this fluffy book made me race to my Library and do my own research on the trials. To any potential reader, the advice I will leave you with is: borrow this title is you must read this.

    10 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 20, 2012

    I was excited for this book since I love all things Titanic. Thi

    I was excited for this book since I love all things Titanic. This was a total waste of money. It went so slow in parts and I was very bored with the so called love story in it.

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2012

    I liked the idea of this book, but the execution felt lazy, poor

    I liked the idea of this book, but the execution felt lazy, poorly researched and poorly written. You would think that it would not be that hard to write a well-researched book about the sinking of the Titanic when there is so much information out there, but the author somehow managed to almost skim over the shipboard and sinking scenes as if she was not comfortable with them and wanted to hurry up and get to the parts she could safely make up. Tess was OK when she was not around either of her two "love interests". And the love interests were kind of bland and boring. The Duff Gordons came off as one dimensional. To me, the book felt like an early draft that was rushed into market before it was ready in order to capitalize on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking. Some more research and a couple more drafts would have made a huge improvement on the quality of this book.

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2013

    !

    Thanks to rude inconsiderate plot spoilers here is another book i cannot buy because why pay that much for a book when these rude ppl already gave away eveey detail. These posters should be banned.

    4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012

    Great Story

    Am enjoying this book and the details of the period. Recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical/romantic stories.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 3, 2012

    Disappointing!

    I was so glad to get to the last chapter ... just not able to get into this book. If you're into historical fiction, I doubt that this novel will suffice. Very disappointing!

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 27, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I was so looking forward to reading this, but really struggled t

    I was so looking forward to reading this, but really struggled through each chapter, hoping it would get better, it didn't. Very disappointing, it lacked substance, I felt little, if any connection to the characters and felt it did an injustice to the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic portion was skimmed over and I am wondering if this book was written to cash in on the sensationalism of the 100th anniversary. I often had difficulty following the story line as it jumped around irratically Iwould pass this one up if I were you...

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2012

    Save your money

    Poorly written...will cash in on the renewed interest in the sinking of the Titanic.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 26, 2012

    Exciting at first...but sinks in the middle.

    The Dressmaker starts out well, but grinds to a halt and sinks. Slow and boring after the exciting Titanic scenes. I didn't even finish the book. Not recommended.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013

    this was poorly written and disappointing. It started off promis

    this was poorly written and disappointing. It started off promising then just ended. Historical fiction is always interesting but this was a waste of time.
    Move to another book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2012

    Loved it!

    I loved this book! I reallly enjoyed how the author went into great detail about how some of the characters came to terms with the aftermath of the tragedy. It was great that some of the info included were actual facts. I would really enjoy reading a sequel that continues the story of Tess and Jim as they make their way in America.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 31, 2012

    Tried on three occasions to get into this one. Finally gave up.

    Tried on three occasions to get into this one. Finally gave up. Happy I only borrowed it from the library.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2012

    A good read

    Really good book-wish it had been longer!

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 183 Customer Reviews

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