Tessa Arlen Author Interview all about A Dress of Violet Taffeta is here on Chit Chat. Today, Tessa answers all our questions about her latest novel!
Tessa, welcome! Tell us more about A Dress of Violet Taffeta!
A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA is a historical fiction set in England and America between 1893 and 1913. It is the story of the real-life Lucy Duff Gordon, who became one of the world’s most innovative fashion designers of her time. She opened fashion houses in London, New York, Chicago, and Paris at a time when women were demanding a more active role in their worlds and fashion had to keep up!
This book is based on the true story of Lady Lucile Duff Gordon. She was alive during the La Belle Époque period. How did you go about researching this era to ensure you captured the story?
I came across Lucy when I was researching for my Edwardian mystery series Lady Montfort. She was mentioned everywhere. And not always with approval because she had divorced her alcoholic husband (a no-no in 1893) and gone into trade (a scandal for a woman from the upper middle class). Then there were references to her surviving the sinking of the Titanic and being asked to testify in the inquiry that followed it.
What made me want to find out more about this extraordinary woman was an exhibition of her label Lucile Ltd. It was in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Her gowns were breathtaking. Her use of color original and enchanting. The workmanship and detail of her gowns simply gorgeous—these weren’t just gowns and dresses, they were works of art. From there, I delved deeper into Lucy’s life. The more I discovered about this courageous and innovative woman, the more I wanted to write her story.
How long did you spend researching the storyline of A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
Lucy was in my writing life off and on for about six years. Until I decided that it was time to write her story!
Lady Lucile Duff Gordon makes for such an interesting character. She was a fashion icon, Titanic survivor, divorcee, single mother, and businesswoman. Were you always captivated by her?
At first glance, I wasn’t particularly drawn to Lucy as a protagonist! She had a very strong personality. She was often described as ruthlessly ambitious and a social climber. I could easily see why she was perceived this way. When her spend thrift husband ran off with a dancer and abandoned her and their daughter Lucy had a struggle to make ends meet.
She had to pay the rent and put food on the table. Like many women of her background and generation, she had absolutely no formal education. She certainly lacked the skills or training to earn a living. Terrified that her daughter would be made a ward of court and sent to live with a spinster aunt because Lucy couldn’t support them, she fell back on her natural talent of making clothes. So, what might be perceived as ruthlessly ambitious in a woman in 1893 might very well translate as struggling to survive and doing a thoroughly good job of making a success today.
In Edwardian England’s rigid class divide, women only married ‘up’ into the aristocracy. If they were the daughters of rich men willing to fund their future son-in-law’s tottering finances drained by their massive country estates. As a divorcd woman in trade, Lucy was hardly a viable marriage partner for a baronet. But Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon was utterly captivated by Lucy’s independent spirit and how she seemed to make “everything in life beautiful.” When Lucy married Cosmo, she was more than making ends meet. She was a success. I think he was lucky she said yes!
Do you have a favorite chapter in A Dress of Violet Taffeta?
The best one to share is the one where Lucy receives her Decree Absolute. Her freedom was so important to her. She was prepared to risk socialization to be free of an abusive husband. Now she mulls over her nine-year marriage. Remembering the time when she met James Wallace and how young she was. She pulls herself back from too much regret over her wasted youth and turns instead to her future. It gives us a good insight into the sort of life she has endured. It is a huge indication of the level of her resilience as she goes forward into her new life. At this point, she draws the design of her first dress for what she hopes will be the beginning of her professional life. Not just as a dressmaker but as a fashion designer.
Who was your favorite character to craft?
There are four very strong female characters in A DRESS OF VIOLET TAFFETA. Since the novel is written from two POVs, Lucy and her scullery maid and future salon manager, Celia Franklin, I’ll talk about Celia. Celia shows us what life was like in Edwardian England for the underclass: often short, miserable, and usually food insecure. The working poor put in long hard hours of labor to earn just enough to keep them alive. The only system in place for those who fell ill, could not find work. Or were orphaned was a terrible institution called the workhouse where you paid for shelter and food with long hours of labor.
The workhouse meant a future of slavery for those spiraling into poverty. As an orphan, this is where Celia spent the last two years of her life. She is 16 when she is employed by Lucy’s cook as a scullery maid. The only servant Lucy can afford when she is left to fend for herself. Celia is practical, smart, intuitive, and prepared to do whatever it takes to help Lucy make a success of her business. She is also incredibly grateful to be part of Lucy’s family. Over the years, the two of them have become close friends.
Let’s talk about your writing. Did you always want to be an author?
No, but after I started my first book, I was addicted! Love the writing part—the business side, luckily, is taken care of by my wonderful agent Kevan Lyon. The publishing team at Berkley: my incredible editor, publicist and marketing coordinator are fabulous to work with. I am grateful for their generosity and willingness to help me make the very best of the book. There are times when I want to chuck it all, but it is rare!
Was writing historical fiction always something you wanted to do, or did you want to write in another genre?
I started writing historical mysteries. I wrote and published six books and had great fun with them: The Lady Montfort series and the Woman of WWII series. Writing standalone historical fiction was a natural progression for me. I am far more interested in history and taking the reader back to another time and place than worrying if my murderer is too easy to spot or if the clues pale or obscure. I also prefer standalone fiction to series. Historical fiction also offers me the chance to develop my characters through the arc of the story.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers?
Write the book you want to read.
Before I let you go, tell readers where they can find you on social media.
Website: tessarlen.com Facebook: tessaarlenauthor Instagram: Tessa.arlen
Thank you so much for joining us, Tessa! That concludes Tessa Arlen Author Interview! Definitely don’t miss your chance to get your copy of A Dress of Violet Taffeta on Amazon! Stay tuned for more author interviews! Comment below any questions you have for Tessa!