The Titanic and the “Titanic Era” in Costume History, Part 3

Untergang der Titanic (

Untergang der Titanic (“Sinking of the Titanic”) by Willy Stöwer, 1912

And now Dear Readers, we come to our third installment of “The Titanic Era” and I want to thank you all for enduring my somewhat lengthy posts regarding the evolution of fashion from 1900 through 1912. I will admit that perhaps I restated the obvious a bit but I also believe that it never hurts to get an idea of the proverbial “big picture” and how one tragic, yet fascinating episode of history fits in.

In many ways, the sinking of the RMS Titanic was a microcosm of both the good and not-so-good elements characteristic of the era from 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. To many, it represented beauty, decadence, and opulence perched on the brink of disaster and a preview of the social, economic, and political forces that were to be unleashed by that war, a war that ultimately saw an almost near-complete rearrangement of the political, economic, and social landscape of Europe, then the center of the Western World. So profound were the effects of the First World War, that its effects are still felt today in 2015.

Of course, much of the above observations are neither new or original on our part; commentators were saying much of the same back in the early 20th Century, some almost as soon as the first survivors were arriving in New York on board the RMS Carpathia on April 18, 1912, some three days after the disaster. However, this is still thought provoking and holds a fascination up to this day.

One of the primary manifestations of this era of opulence was in its fashions and this in turn has been a constant feature in the numerous dramatic films and documentaries that have been turned out over the years. Watching a compelling story about an historical event is fascinating in that one is viewing the past being brought back to life and costume plays a key role in this. Done correctly, it can enhance the experience immeasurably; done wrong, it can seriously compromise a production (of course, in some cases the best wardrobe/costuming in the world can’t save a production from a poor script and/or poor direction).

Now, one movie that does an excellent job of production design and wardrobe/costuming is Titanic that came out in 1997. Starring Leonard DiCaprio and Kate Winslett, this  movie works the disaster angle by way of an Romeo and Juliet type of story of mismatched lovers from two vastly different social classes. The plot itself is somewhat improbable with the characters acting more like people of the 1990s than the 1912. Also, it demonstrates an almost complete lack of understanding of social classes during the period and relies on the usual modern day stereotypes to move the story along. In the end, it borders on a schmaltzy sentimentality approaches the simply irritating. But, as with all things, you be the judge. 🙂

Poster advertising the movie

Poster advertising the movie “Titanic”, 1997.

All right, now that I’ve savaged the movie’s plot, let’s move on to one of the movie’s best aspect: the costuming. The costumes were designed by Deborah L. Scott and she won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1997 for her work on Titanic.

Starting with day wear, the most notable dress is, of course, the “boarding dress” which Rose, the main female lead, wears when she boards the RMS Titanic early in the movie:

The Boarding Dress

The Boarding Dress- From a travelling exhibit of movie costumes sponsored by the Victoria & Albert Museum. This picture provides a pretty decent view of the boarding dress along with the costume sketch that it’s based on.

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A costume sketch of the boarding dress from the production.

From the Hollywood Costume Exhibit in Los Angeles. This is an

From the Hollywood Costume Exhibit in Los Angeles. This is an “official” picture since the viewing public was not allowed to take pictures.

Boarding Dress3

On the left, one major source of inspiration for the boarding dress side-by-side with the costume from the movie., designed by Deborah L. Scott. The original is pictured in Les Modes (Paris) for Linker & Company, 1912.

The original source, Les Modes, 1912.

The original source, Les Modes, 1912, for Linker & Company.

In comparing the original dress with the movie version, one can see that they both use the stripes on the fabric to emphasize the vertical lines of the dress. The silhouette is decidedly slender and tubular, its shape being created by the draping of the fabric itself. There is little hint of a corset or any other structural underpinnings (although there is little doubt that there was a corset present, at least on the model wearing the 1912 dress).

What is also striking is that both dresses not only utilize vertical stripes, but that they’re also integrated with horizontal stripes on the front of the jacket and each set of stripes intersects at a precise 90 degree angle. Also, to add further accent, large buttons are used. Interestingly enough, the buttons used on the movie dress are significantly smaller than those on the original. Finally, the one major difference between the two dresses is that the 1912 dress is also fur-trimmed on the cuffs and around the neck which gives the dress a more heavy look/feel- basically it’s a winter day dress. The movie version reads much lighter and as such, I think it just works better.

Both dresses are geometrical with their use of precise lines but the 1912 version works better because the lines are more wide and well defined. The lines on the movie version almost wash out, depending on the light. When I viewed this dress in person at the Hollywood Costume Exhibit, the lighting was very dark with bright spotlights illuminating the garments. Under the harsh light, the striped lines on the dress were somewhat washed out and when viewed from more than a few feet away, they disappeared. In the end, I do not believe that it affects the overall effect but it’s still interesting to note (plus it really detracted from the overall exhibition).

Here's a set of detail shots of the dress and hat.

Detail shots of the dress and hat.

Finally, it’s interesting that the designer chose to use a dark purple velvet to highlight the lapels and the collar. In the absence of the dark fur trim, some sort of dark accent is needed and highlighting the lapels and collar was a good design choice; they help to offset the thin lines in that and the eye tends to be drawn to them rather than the lines.

In terms of style, the boarding dress definitely captures the fashion trends that were going on at the time, especially in terms of the silhouette. The only quibble there might be is with the exaggerated bow on the hat but it’s not a deal-breaker by any means. Overall, it definitely captures a moment in time.

In the next installment, we’ll look at some more of the wardrobe from Titanic how it fits into fashion during the years from 1900 to 1912.

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