Book Review: The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

We all know the story of the Titanic. But the lesser-told story surrounding its infamous sinking is its aftermath. During the trials, the questions on everyone’s mind were: Why weren’t the seventeen lifeboats filled to capacity? And while there was still plenty of room on several lifeboats, why did only one go back to rescue more people? Kate Alcott wrote a novel to address these questions.

The Dressmaker follows Tess, an assertive young woman at the turn-of-the-century, determined to become a seamstress. The wealthy, famous designer, Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, takes a chance on Tess, and offers her a job aboard the Titanic. Tess quickly learns that Lady Duff Gordon is a volatile and impossible-to-please character, prone to theatrics and mood swings, although Tess detects something of a bond (if not only an enormous opportunity) with Lady Duff Gordon.

After surviving the Titanic’s sinking together, rumors circulate as “Lifeboat One,” upon which Lady Duff Gordon rode, only carried twelve first-class passengers and sailors, while it could’ve carried fifty more. Reporters are now out to destroy reputations with scandalous headlines. Meanwhile, no one tells the truth (or at least the same story) during the hearings, and surviving passengers are faced with public shame and survivor’s guilt. Eventually, Tess must decide: remain loyal to the woman who could give her the career of her dreams, or heed the testimony that Lady Duff Gordon acted less than honorably upon Lifeboat One, and sever ties with her.

But this book is more than a Titanic story. It’s also a story of a seamstress, of dressmaking, the American Dream, and of the larger-than-life Lucile Duff Gordon, who pops off the page. Embedded into Tess’s story is also a little love triangle, as she holds the hearts of two men. This was, to me, a story of choices, the moral being a woman’s independence, of breaking free of servitude, earning what you have, and not letting anyone else determine your future. Between New York Times reporter Pinky Wade, Lady Duff Gordon and her sister Elinor, Tess Collins, and the unsinkable Molly Brown, Alcott portrays several women who do just that, each in unique ways. Tess is a clear-headed heroine, with just the right amount of vulnerability to make her lovable.

I did spot a few issues with the editing of the novel (passive sentences, repeating words, redundancy, a few typos). But it was an overall decent read. Readers interested in Titanic history will enjoy this novel.

Memorable Quotes:

“‘[Preparing to die] told me to keep doing and saying what I damn well please, and not be bamboozled by anyone. Life is short. No mulling things over for a dozen years or so.’” -Molly Brown (page 192)

“Here she stood, demanding to be paid almost the same as his other reporters and, truth be told, she was worth it. That much money for a woman? It wasn’t done. But times were changing. Lord, who knew what was next with women like this. She wasn’t backing down, or smiling, or trying to win him over. She was setting the bar. Amazing.” (page 352)

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