Skip to content

Guelph artist brings Lady Duff Gordon to life in new book

'It's a Guelph story,' said Laurie McGaw about 'Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became the Queen of Fashion and Survived the Titanic'
Laurie McGaw with a copy of 'Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became the Queen of Fashion and Survived the Titanic,' standing beside illustrations she did for the book.

Before Chanel took over the fashion world, there was Lucile.

Lucy Sutherland, known later on as Lucile and as Lady Duff-Gordon, was a former Guelph resident who went on to become a fashion designer, creating over a hundred gowns for films. She is credited for the tea gown that freed women from the corset in the Edwardian era, and coined the term 'chic.'  Besides her fashion legacy, Lucile also survived the Titanic. 

Now, the story of Lucile's life is being shared in a new book written by Hugh Brewster called, Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became the Queen of Fashion and Survived the Titanic. On Sept. 25, the Guelph Museums will be hosting a book launch for the hard cover.

The art for the book was done by Laurie McGaw, a Guelph artist, who completed the job in less than a year. McGaw has an extensive background as an illustrator for books, magazines, editorials and advertisements. She has also done work for Canada Mint and commissions for portraits.

During the pandemic, McGaw said she asked family and friends to pose as models for photos, which will be used as reference for the illustrations. She stuck with groups of two and people who lived together. 

"It was actually the perfect thing to do (during the pandemic,) because I couldn't have life painting done in my studio," McGaw said about the project. 

For the book, McGaw said she was able to incorporate parts of the house Lucile grew up in known as the 'Summerhill House,' which is located on Harcourt Drive.

"This is a photo of the actual fireplace at 25 Harcourt, so I was able to incorporate it, and get some details," said McGaw, pointing to a page she had illustrated.

McGaw said she and Brewster work really well together. A third person, a historical consultant, was also brought on to help with making the illustrations accurate and reflect that time period.

"The three of us would talk about every little detail, what this dress looked like, you know, all the uniforms, how many men would be in uniform, how many men would be in tux, all that stuff," said McGaw. 

This isn't the first time McGaw and Brewster have collaborated on a book. The duo are also behind the Governor General nominated book, Polar the Titanic Bear and To Be a Princess, which a copy was given to Queen Elizabeth II.

"Polar and Princess, they were popular among adults, but it is a children's story and it's written for that reading level," said McGaw, referring to these types of books as 'crossover books.'

McGaw said she loves history and has illustrated 15 books on different historical topics. She adds she learned a lot about Lucile while working on this project.

"She was a very interesting woman, a very independent, determined woman for her day and age," said McGaw, "She was a single mom, she was divorced, she had a daughter and she made it out all on her own. She could sew, so she decided to sew clothes for a living."

"She became very wealthy and very successful, so it's a success story really, and the tie-in with the Titanic is always so interesting." 

As an artist, McGaw adds she can also relate to the challenges Lucile faced while owning her own business as a dressmaker.

"She was a designer and an innovator," said McGaw. "I think the story is very inspiring for young women." 

The book will also be featured at the Museum of Fashion History in Cambridge and 24 copies will be on sale during the Guelph Studio Tour. To purchase the book, click here.