“The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott

I recently finished reading The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott and although it’s a story about the Titanic tragedy it’s not the usual take on the disaster. The Dressmaker focuses mainly on the aftermath of the ship’s sinking…an aspect of the story I knew very little about. The author uses verbatim testimony from the transcripts of U. S. Senate hearings that were held in an attempt to discover what exactly happened and who, if anyone, was at fault. The hearings also investigated the behavior of survivors and why the numbers were so skewed in favor of the wealthier passengers. Out of 2,223 people on board the Titanic, 706 survived and of that number 60 percent were from first class. Therein lies the story that Miss Alcott tells in The Dressmaker.

Tess Collins is an ambitious young woman desperately looking for a way out of her class restricted existence. She is a talented dressmaker and is determined to make her mark on the world…if only she can find a way. That opportunity arises when she meets famous fashion designer Lucile Duff Gordon just as she is about to board the Titanic and agrees to become the designer’s personal maid. Of course the disastrous sinking occurs only four days into the voyage and actually the author deals with the sinking and rescue in very quick measure. What happens when they eventually land in New York is when the story really begins to take shape.

A United States senator is determined to prove negligence on the part of the White Star Line and begins hearings in New York almost immediately. However, what begins to become apparent through the testimony of various survivors is how class and wealth determined to a great extent who lived and who did not. Reports of life boats being launched with 12 people aboard when they could have held upwards of 60 people, stories of half full life boats refusing to pick up survivors still in the water, and other horrendous acts of cowardice and malice were documented during the hearings. And Lucile Duff Gordon and her husband Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon find themselves smack in the middle of this maelstrom. Because of the negative publicity and fierce public outcry, the designer is forced into seclusion and Tess gets her chance to prove her value to Lady Gordon by taking over the preparations for the upcoming fashion shows.

But Tess’s allegiance to her employer is torn. She has developed a strong friendship with one of the surviving sailors from the ship and he was aboard Lady Gordon’s lifeboat. So he knows what really occurred that night and has hinted to Tess that her high regard for the designer may be ill placed. Poor Tess is truly stuck in the middle! She owes so much to Lady Gordon but finds it harder and harder to overlook what is becoming clear….Lady Gordon concerned herself with her own survival at the expense of many others.

There is another male suitor pursuing Tess during the story as well. He is a wealthy businessman, twice divorced, and I honestly found that relationship to be a little far-fetched. I didn’t think it added anything to the story except to give Tess another chance to show the reader what she was really made of. 

I enjoyed this book although I can’t say I loved it. I thought the writing drug a bit toward the end and it was fairly predictable. However, the information from the Senate hearings was fascinating and horrible at the same time. This was a side of the tragedy I was totally unaware of. Another interesting tidbit I discovered is that Kate Alcott is the pen name for Patricia O’Brien, a New York Times best selling author. Evidently because her previous novel had not sold well, her publisher passed on The Dressmaker as did 12 other publishing houses. Her agent decided to try another tactic and tried selling the book under the pen name, Kate Alcott. The book sold in three days!

~ Judy