Myth Information – The Merry Widow Hat

Lily Elsie in The Merry Widow, 1907

Exaggerations of truth plague the history of fashion, none more than the Merry Widow Hat. The story is that Lily Elsie, the English stage actress (and Kardashian of her day), donned a large hat to play the lead in the hit play The Merry Widow in June 1907. Elsie’s hat, by English designer Lucile, reportedly inspired fashionable ladies in London and New York to wear similar sized hats of up to an unbelievable 36 inches or more in diameter.

The silhouette, 1905

The fact is that there were already large hats fashionable in the years before the debut of the Merry Widow, but of a slightly different shape. Before 1907 hats were worn atop upswept hair, canted over the face. However, balancing this cantilevered topper was a blouse pouched at the front of the waist, and a skirt trained at the hem. The overall silhouette was overtly curvaceous. To add to this, skirts were often ruffled, flounced, or pleated below the knee to add volume to the bottom, creating a balanced silhouette.

The silhouette, 1907

1907 saw the debut of a slightly altered silhouette. The skirt became plainer and a bit slimmer; the bodice lost its pouching over the waist. Coats and jackets often took on shapeless, kimono cuts, de-emphasizing the overall silhouette. The higher, more heavily emphasized bust line created a cameo effect when balanced by an even larger hairstyle and voluminous hat sitting further back on the head. In reality, it is the volume of hats, and hair, worn in combination with a slimmer silhouette that makes the ‘Merry Widow’ hat appear larger than previous hat styles. The beautiful Lily Elsie was the ultimate model for this look, which lasted until 1911 when hats began to reduce in size.

Comic postcard, 1908

Most large hats from this period are never wider than the shoulder’s breadth, the largest I have ever measured was 22 inches in diameter. But the myth for hats of up to 36 inches in width or more dates back to the era itself from newspaper and magazine reports of what was being worn in ‘other’ cities. The Los Angeles Herald reported on March 22, 1908 (see below) that the sidewalks on Broadway need to be widened to accommodate the new fashion for Merry Widow hats that measure 36 – 40 inches wide. Dipped in sarcasm, the report goes on to say the widest hats available in Los Angeles are only 21 inches in diameter at most. Aside from comic postcards, those elusively wide hats never seem to get photographed. Despite this, the massive Merry Widow became a fashion myth as real as the 18 inch waist.

Designer Pets: Lucile and Mahmud

I just read this great story on Randy Bryan Bigham’s facebook page and am reposting it in his words:


Here’s LDG with her heroic pup in 1916 soon after their reunion. He looks a little tired!

A DOG HERO STORY: The early 1900s designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) had a Chow named Mahmud who was a WWI veteran. She left him with her chauffeur in 1914 when she gave over her Paris dress salon to the Red Cross. The chauffeur became an ambulance driver and Mahmud a depot mascot, sitting beside him and other drivers on their missions to the war zone to bring back wounded soldiers. On one trip the following year, the ambulance was fired on by the Germans and the driver was injured but Mahmud, also injured, limped all the way back, over many miles, to Paris to get help. He later rejoined his mistress in New York and accompanied her on a vaudeville fashion show tour, raising funds for the Secours Franco-American Pour la France Devastee which aided refugees.


Mahmud before the war, hanging out with one of Lucile’s beautiful models for a fashion spread in Les Modes magazine

Mahmud so missed his buddy, the chauffeur, who was disabled from the accident, (that) when Lucile came back to Paris after the war, she hired the man as a dog walker, and they all were together until he passed away in her shop… at the ripe old age of 12 in 1922, the news rated a front page obituary in the London Daily Telegraph!

Thanks Randy for the great story!

Canadian Fashion Connection – Lucile

Lucy and Elinor while in Canada, c. 1870

‘Lucile’ was the label for Lady Duff Gordon, the daughter of Douglas Sutherland, a Scottish civil engineer father, and Elinor Saunders, her Canadian born mother. Born Lucy Christiana Sutherland in London, England on June 13, 1863, her sister Elinor Glyn was born in Saint Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands the following year. When their father died two months after Elinor’s birth the family returned to their mother’s parental home in Guelph, Ontario.

While in Guelph, the two girls were schooled by their grandmother, who had been raised in an aristocratic family. The training was useful for Lucy and Elinor’s entrée into society after their mother remarried in 1871 and the family returned to Jersey in 1872.


Childhood home of Lucy and Elinor, when they were in Canada 1865 – 1872

In 1884, Lucy married James Stuart Wallace with whom she had a daughter, Esme. The couple divorced in 1890 and Lucy began to work as a dress designer from home. By 1894 she had opened Maison Lucile in Old Burlington St, in the West End of London. In 1896, a larger shop was opened at 17 Hanover Square, and by 1900, she was operating as Lucile Ltd at 23 Hanover Square.

Her clientèle began to include some aristocrats after Lucy married Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, a Scottish landowner, in 1900. However, Lady Lucy was never invited to attend court, as her title should have prompted because, despite her marriage, she was still seen as a dressmaker by society, as well as a divorcee. In 1907 Lucile costumed The Merry Widow, the most popular and influential London play of its time, and soon stars of stage and screen, including Irene Castle and Mary Pickford, began to custom her salon.

Typical floaty-drapey ethereal fashion by Lucille, c. 1913

Although a variety of clothes were available at Lucile’s, it was the ultra-feminine, lingerie-style tea gowns and evening dresses in draped, diaphanous fabrics that were her most most popular creations. She showed her fashions at catwalk-like shows – invitation-only fashion parades of live models, with music.

In 1912 Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon were survivors of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. They were pulled from a lifeboat that was less than half full, leading to speculations of bribery, but sometimes any publicity is good, because Lucile’s business did not suffer. However, an application was made for compensation from the White Star Line for the loss of her collection as Lucy had been travelling on business from her Paris branch, opened in 1911, to her New York branch, opened in 1910.

Page from her spring 1917 catalogue sold through Sears Roebuck, Chicago

During the height of her popularity (1910-1917) Lady Duff Gordon wrote a fashion page for the Hearst newspaper syndicate as well as columns for Harper’s Bazaar and Good Housekeeping magazines. She took on commercial endorsements of various lines of clothing and cosmetics and, after opening a third branch of her business in Chicago in 1915, she became the first designer to enter into a licensing venture with a line of affordable clothes for the Chicago mail-order giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. for two seasons in 1916 and 1917.

Lady Duff Gordon, c. 1917

Lady Duff Gordon’s design empire began to disintegrate in 1917. She was the well-publicized loser in a precedent-setting 1917 contract law case regarding exclusive endorsements of product lines. A later well-publicized case of customs avoidance was a further blow to her reputation and finances. She was also a well known thief of other designer’s work – putting her own name on sketches offered by freelance designers and not paying for their work. On top of all this, the post-war recession of 1919 nearly bankrupted her business but the company survived through restructuring. However, her feminine frou-frou fashions were not in keeping with changing tastes and by 1922 Lucile had ceased designing for the company. The company continued on for a few years with less success, whilst Lady Duff Gordon continued working from home designing for individual clients.

Lucy regained some fame when she wrote her best-selling autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions in 1932. She died from complications of pneumonia while suffering from breast cancer in a London nursing home in 1935 at the age of 71.