The Titanic and the “Titanic Era” in Costume History, Part 1

RMS Titanic begins her maiden voyage.

RMS Titanic begins her maiden voyage.

This blog post originally started as a commemoration to the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately, life got in the way and I was unable to complete it in time for April 15 so I set I aside. However, it took on new life after hearing a few people referring to clothing appropriate to 1912 as the “Titanic Era.” While this term may seem adequate for describing an era in fashion, it is also misleading and fails to recognize that fashion at this time was really part of larger transition in fashion styles that was taking place during the years from 1908 through 1914 and as such it should not be considered in isolation.

Every year at this time, we at Lily Absinthe like to take a moment to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic which occurred on the night of April 14, 1912. The story of this tragic event is well documented in print and has been the subject of several movies to include A Night to Remember which was released in 1958 and the more recent Titanic released in 1997. While in no way we minimize the impact of this event nor the tragic loss of life, we cannot help but consider things from a costume/clothing perspective and how it has been depicted in film.

Poster advertising the movie

Poster advertising the movie “Titanic”, 1997.

With the opulence and luxury that were integral to the design of the Titanic, it is inevitable that there would be a connection between costume and the fate of the ship and it’s never failed to fascinate people.

When it comes to costume of the early teens and 1912 in particular, people’s perceptions never fail to focus on women’s clothing with visions of extreme corseting, tight constrictive hobble skirts, and large elaborate hats with every sort of decoration to include feathers, birds’ wings, and sometimes the whole bird (OK, that’s probably a bit of exaggeration…:-)).

Well, it was a bit more complicated than that…

Essentially, the clothing worn in 1912 was part of a broader fashion trend that had started about 1909 that saw the constricting ultra-feminine fashions of the Edwardian Era give way towards more unstructured, linear designs. In particular, the S-Corset had given way to corsets that helped to create a straighter line combined which in turn led to the rise in the waist line. The end result was that the female profile became straighter, more balanced and gave the illusion of garments being draped (even though there was a firm superstructure underneath).

Below are a few examples from the 1909 – 1914 time frame which pretty much epitomizes female fashion during this period. However, it must be noted that there is a bit of overlap in that many of the characteristics of this era can be also be found in earlier styles to one degree or another. Rarely is there a sharp dividing line that services to neatly categorize styles.

Evening Dress, French, c. 1909 - 1911; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1333a, b)

Evening Dress, French, c. 1909 – 1911; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1333a, b)

In the above two examples, one can see a moving away from the form-sculpted shapes so typical of early Edwardian (c. 1900 – 1909) and now the shape is much more loose, reminiscent of the Classical Greek Chiton.

Evening Dress, c. 1909, American or European, made of silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.41.7.6)

Evening Dress, c. 1909, American or European, made of silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.41.7.6)

Evening Dress, French, c. 1909 - 1910; designed by Callot Soeurs, made of silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( C.I.40.27.2)

Evening Dress, French, c. 1909 – 1910; designed by Callot Soeurs, made of silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( C.I.40.27.2)

In the above example, one can see an almost clean break from the past in that the lines of the dress follow are almost completely formless, almost tube-like. The line is an Empire line and while there is less fabric to “drape”, it is still a seemingly loose-fitting garment.

For comparison, below are a couple of examples of early Edwardian styles:

Evening Dress, c. 1900, designed by Worth and worn by Queen Alexandrine of Denmark.

Evening Dress, c. 1900, designed by Worth and worn by Queen Alexandrine of Denmark.

Evening Dress, 1905; Collection Galleira del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

Evening Dress, 1905; Collection Galleira del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

Evening Dress, 1900, Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1250a, b)

Evening Dress, 1900, Worth; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1250a, b)

As you can see from just the three examples above, the dresses are two-piece, consisting of the skirt and bodice and they present a much more sculpted appearance.

To be continued…

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