The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker

by Kate Alcott

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Overview

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 her personal maid on the Titanic. Once on board, Tess catches the eye of two men—a kind sailor and an enigmatic Chicago businessman—who offer differing views of what lies ahead for her in America. But on the fourth night, disaster strikes, and amidst the chaos, Tess is one of the last people allowed on a lifeboat. 
 
The survivors are rescued and taken to New York, but when rumors begin to circulate about the choices they made, Tess is forced to confront a serious question.  Did Lady Duff Gordon save herself at the expense of others? Torn between loyalty to Lucile and her growing suspicion that the media’s charges might be true, Tess must decide whether to stay quiet and keep her fiery mentor’s good will or face what might be true and forever change her future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307948199
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 159,290
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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

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.

Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about The Dressmaker, Kate Alcott's romantic and intriguing new novel.

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. Officer 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?

Interviews

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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