The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott


WMBC - Discussion Questions


All page numbers mentioned relate to the iPad version of the book.


1.  Tess showed extraordinary fortitude for a woman of her day in leaving her job and landing a new one with Lady Duff Gordon at the harbor before boarding the Titanic.  It was a moment of truth for her.  What characteristic of hers do you think most motivated her to do that? 


2.  Lucile asks her sister, Elinor, if she has had any of her ribs removed to look so thin.  Do you think women actually did that in the 1900’s?  Research indicates it would have been suicidal to do so but suggests instead that women were heavily corseted at a very young age to “train” the ribs into a smaller shape.


3.  This novel was filled with 20th century life “lessons”.  Do any still apply?  EX:  pg. 23 ”Waste no time on false humility.  Tell the world about your achievements; don’t wait for someone else to do it” and “You gain confidence by doing what no one else has done.  Or what no one else wants to do.”  Pg 26 “Men can be boring but they are necessary.  One needs to learn to work around them…”  Pg 32 “…position doesn’t make a gentleman.  Or evening clothes, for that matter.”  Pg. 160 Margaret Brown to Pinky: “Preparing to die has a way of clarifying the mind….(It) 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.  What about you?


4.  The actual sinking of the Titanic on 04/15/12 was very little of the story, focusing more on the Duff Gordon’s entourage.  What did you think of Lucile when she is brought onboard the Carpathia and poses with her life boat survivors for a photo by the ship’s reluctant surgeon? 


5.  Only 706 (according to the novel) survived, 65% of them first class, the bulk of them being women, thus the legendary “Women and children first” when any disaster strikes.  However, the rallying New York women suffragettes felt that those women were cowards for letting their men die for them.  How do you think today’s society would handle a similar situation?  How abut in war?  Are we not debating that issue today?


6.  “The Millionaires Boat” did indeed create quite a lot of controversy due to the Duff Gordon’s by Cosmo paying the crew and for their survivors photograph once onboard the Carpathian.  The incredible error was that it had only 12 passengers on board with a 30-passenger capacity.   Did this novel help defend, explain or even slightly justify the actions taken that night?


7.  The reporters were relentless with Lucile, Jean and Jordan Darling and others.  Do you think any of those same people handled the press effectively or were they simply culprits who should have faced sooner what they were being accused of doing? 


8.  The sailor in the crow’s nest, Frederick Fleet, originally accused of being asleep by another sailor but when subpoenaed by Senator Smith said he reported the iceberg when he first saw it but could not judge its distance because he had no binoculars.   How fatal of a multiple error was this for the Titanic?  Also, it should be noted that the crow’s nest was missing after a French salvage team in 1986 had completed their job.  Did it collapse or was it taken?  There are Titanic museums all around the world, but several US permanent exhibitions currently exist: Branson, Missouri; Indian Orchard, Massachusetts; Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas and International Drive in Orlando, Florida.  Check them out the next time you’re on vacation in any of these locations.


9.  Tess asks Jim when touching his reproduction of the Titanic, “What did I learn?  What did it teach me?”  Well, what do you think it taught her?  What did it teach any of us?  As per Wikipedia:  One of their most important legacies was the establishment in 1914 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which still governs maritime safety today. 


10.  What did you think of Margaret Brown, aka the “Unsinkable Molly Brown”?


11.  Jean Darling admits to her failures and the risings and fallings of others during the Senate hearings but do you think she voluntarily testified in part to extract revenge on Lucile Duff Gordon?  Her testimony had an effect on Tess who after quitting her job with Lucile goes back and completes the fashion show before walking away forever.  Do you think Tess should have done that?


12.  Lucile showed her true colors before and during her testimony by lying.  What did it gain her?  What did it cost her?  Elinor later says to Tess, “See how we piece our stories together?  To redeem ourselves, I suppose.”  Do we?


13.  Pg 305 and within the Author’s Notes is Senator William Alden Smith’s final, emotional key points.  To view his speech, go to  



Knopf Doubleday -- Publisher’s Discussion Questions:

1. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 remains in many people’s eyes a symbolic dividing line between a world with rigid class divisions and one with a rising middle class. Tess yearned to be part of the glamour and Jim wanted to be free of its constraints. Can a happy medium be found between these two desires, not only for Tess and Jim, but also for anyone in similar circumstances?
2. Tess and Pinky were two young women in a rapidly changing world, on the cusp of a time when women could actually make choices about their lives and work.  Describe how the choices for women one hundred years ago differ from today, and how they remain the same.
3. Tess and Pinky are both smart, competent women who experience moments of both conflict and companionship with one another. What ultimately draws them together and bonds their friendship?
4. In many ways Tess is unflappable and emotionally direct, but at times, she can be anxious and uncertain, especially around Lucille.  Dealing with design—fabric, texture, and color seem to be the best route to confidence. What does this say about Tess’ personality?
5. What is your overall impression of Lucile?  Is she a villain or simply misunderstood? If her arrogance and sense of privilege are what got her into trouble, what redeeming factors—if any—do you see in her?
6. How would you argue Lucille’s case? Compare her treatment to that of celebrities of our own time who get caught in controversy.
7. Fashion is its own character in the book—both glamorous and fickle. Is the fashion industry viewed differently now than it was in 1912? Who is Lucille’s design equivalent today? Or was Lucille incomparable?
8. If Lucille’s career had not declined after the sinking, do you think she could have evolved as a designer and conformed to society’s new opinions of the female figure and fashion? Or were both Lucille and her designs destined to become obsolete?
9. Only one of twenty lifeboats went back for survivors. Many people felt anguish and regret; others believed they had no choice.  Can you picture yourself in that same situation? Husbands, children in the water—what comes first, the instinct to survive or to save others? How would you hope you would act?
10. Officer Harold Lowe was criticized for declaring he waited until the pleas for help from the water “thinned out” before going back on a rescue mission.  This kind of blunt honesty shocked those who heard it. Are we still adverse to hearing hard facts from those whom we want to be heroes?
11. Using the “whitewash brush,” as a ship officer put it, the White Star Line did its best to deny all responsibility for the Titanic tragedy. Its officers even falsely claimed at first that the ship had not sunk, raising the hopes of the families waiting on land. What parallels do you see with White Star’s corporate reaction and current corporate self-protectiveness?
12. Did you find out anything new about the Titanic from reading the book? Were you aware of the hearings that occurred after the sinking?