Guelph artist brings Lady Duff Gordon to life in new book


“It’s a Guelph story,” said Laurie McGaw of Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became the Queen of Fashion and Survived the Titanic.

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

Lucile Sutherland, also known as Lady Duff Gordon, was a former Guelph resident who later became a fashion designer, designing over a hundred dresses for films. She is credited with the tea dress that freed women from the corset in the Edwardian era and coined the term ‘chic’. As well as her fashion legacy, Lucile also survived the Titanic.

Now the story of Lucile’s life is being told in a new book by Hugh Brewster called ” Unsinkable Lucile: How a Farm Girl Became Fashion Queen and Survived the Titanic. On September 25th the Guelph Museums are hosting a book launch for the hardcover.

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 worked for the Canada Mint, commissioning portraits.

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During the pandemic, McGaw said she asked family and friends to pose as models for photos that will be used as reference for the illustrations. She stayed with couples and people living together.

“It was actually the perfect thing (during the pandemic) because I couldn’t do live painting in my studio,” McGaw said of the project.

For the book, McGaw said she was able to incorporate parts of the house Lucile grew up in, known as “Summerland House,” located on Harcourt Drive.

“This is a photo of the actual chimney at 25 Harcourt, so I was able to incorporate it and get some detail,” McGaw said, pointing to a page she illustrated.

McGaw said she and Brewster worked really well together. A third person, a historical consultant, was also brought in to help make the illustrations accurate and reflect this period.

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“The three of us talked about every little detail, like what that dress looked like, you know, all the uniforms, how many men would wear uniforms, how many men would wear tuxedos, all that stuff,” McGaw said.

This isn’t the first time McGaw and Brewster have collaborated on a book. The duo are also behind the Governor General’s nominated book, Polar the Titanic Bear and to be a princess a copy of which was given to Queen Elizabeth II.

“Polar and Princess, they were popular with adults, but it’s a children’s story and it’s written for that level of reading,” McGaw said, labeling these types of books “crossover books.”

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

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

“She became very rich and very successful, so it’s really a success story and the Titanic connection is always so interesting.”

As an artist, McGaw adds that she can also relate to the challenges Lucile faced in owning her own tailoring business.

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

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





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