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.



The Titanic and the “Titanic Era” in Costume History, Part 2

We continue our discussion on the “Titanic Era”, or more properly, “Fashions that were in style in 1912” with some more compare and contrast. So you think that the past post was overly concentrated on evening wear? Well, yes, guilty as charged. So, we are going to show some “practical” examples drawn from day wear. 🙂

To begin, the 20th Century opened up with styles structured around the infamous S-bend corset which was developed around 1901 (ironically enough, the S-bend corset was originally marketed by Inez Gaches-Sarraute, a corsetiere with a degree in medicine, as a “hygienic” corset intended to counter the ill-effects of previous models). While discussion of the characteristics and fit of the S-bend corset is beyond the scope of this article, it is safe to say that created a distinct silhouette that in turn influenced the style and cut of women’s clothing.

And just to refresh your memories, here are some images of the S-bend corset:

S-Bend corset

French Advertisement

1903corset

Advertisement, c. 1903

Summary of corset sillouettes

Summary of corset silhouettes.

And now for some pictures of the S-bend corset in action:

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Arlette Dorgère, c. 1906.

Picture 1

The above two examples are probably somewhat extreme in that they portray the “ideal” figure. The top image is of Arlette Dorgère, a French actress who posed in a number of portraits in which she is wearing dresses with S-bend corsets that seem to defy the laws of physics.

The bottom fashion plate is a bit less extreme but it still amply demonstrates the pigeon breast (aka “mono-bosom”) characteristic of the body shape created by the S-bend corset. Now we continue our story showing some examples of early Edwardian day dresses:

Day Dress, c. 1903 - 1905; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo.

Day Dress, c. 1903 – 1905; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo.

Day Dress, c. 1905, British; Crisp-looking blue and white dresses such as this were popular for boating and seaside wear. This dress was worn by Miss Heather Firbank (1888-1954), daughter of the affluent Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Firbank and sister of the novelist Ronald Firbank. Summer day dress consisting of a bodice, skirt and two belts. Flared skirt composed of four 28-inch widths of printed blue and white striped cotton pleated onto the narrow waistband. The bodice is pouched at the front and slightly bloused at the back. The circular yoke consists of tucked Broderie Anglaise frills and a pin-tucked cotton infill, and with a high-boned (using five bones) pin- tucked collar finished with a tape lace frill. Sleeves with short flared striped over sleeves which are gathered into the armholes bordered with Broderie Anglaise and frills. The inner plain white cotton sleeves are narrow, tucked and reach the elbow. The bodice is lined with white cotton, and fastened with original hooks, eyes and loops. Pearl buttons. Pleated belts with five bones and hook and eye fastenings concealed by a rosette. Machine stitched. There is evidence of minor alterations. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.21 to C-1960)

Day Dress, c. 1905, British; Crisp-looking blue and white dresses such as this were popular for boating and seaside wear. This dress was worn by Miss Heather Firbank (1888-1954), daughter of the affluent Member of Parliament Sir Thomas Firbank and sister of the novelist Ronald Firbank.  Victoria & Albert Museum (T.21 to C-1960) For more about this fascinating dress, click HERE.

Day Dress, c. 1904 - 1905, Gustave Beer; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999.135a–e)

Day Dress, c. 1904 – 1905, Gustave Beer; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999.135a–e)

The above examples are only a small sample of the wide variety of day dresses that existed and were available in a variety of fabrics and trims. The earlier day dresses tended to have a lot more lace and trim that tended to obscure the curve of the breast (or pigeon breast) but as the century progresses, the lines tend to become more clean. In terms of the influence of the S-bend corset, day dresses were a bit less extreme in their silhouette but the general line still exists.

However, at the same time, there are those who argue that the S-bend corset was by no means as extreme and uncomfortable as what the popular conception is and in fact were no worse than their predecessors. We will leave that debate for another time but you may find this article from Foundations Revealed presents some compelling arguments in this regard.

However, the reign of the S-bend corset did not last long and as early as 1905, styles began to shift towards a more upright “barrel”-shaped silhouette.  Below are a few examples:

First, some illustrations from the September 1911 edition of the Parisian fashion magazine La Mode:

1911lamodedesigns3 1911lamodemaidofhonor French Plate 1911

And let’s not forget Vogue Magazine:

Vogue_1912

Vogue Magazine cover, c. 1912

Day Dress, c. 1912; Augusta Auctions

Day Dress, c. 1912; Augusta Auctions

Day Dress, American, c. 1912 - 1915; Constructed of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.245a–c)

Look familiar? Day Dress, American, c. 1912 – 1915; Constructed of cotton; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.245a–c)

So from the above, we see the silhouette in transition away from the “pigeon breast,” returning to the straight, flowing lines characteristic of the empire line, a style last seen nearly a 100 years earlier with the Regency Era. The years from 1900 through 1912 saw an ever-accelerating process of fashion change, pushed along by designers like Paul Poiret, which was the elimination (or at least reduction) of the corset and a major fashion influence. Of course, it could also be argued that while the influence of the corset was waning, the advent of the hobble skirt seemed to make up for it. However, the hobble skirt was merely a small bump in the fashion continuum having no lasting influence. On the other hand, the gradual elimination of the corset as a major fashion influence had far more profound an effect on fashion.

Garments, and their attendant underpinnings, were becoming less restrictive to the point where outerwear was no longer got its structure and form from the corset but rather relying more on the cut and drape of the garments themselves. The end result was the nearly seemingly formless fashions of the 1920s (although it must be noted that foundation garments were still employed but in a more muted manner).

I will stop with this survey here in 1912 and while one can easily point out many exceptions to the above, it is safe to say that the styles as worn by the female passengers (at least the more upper class ones) on the RMS Titanic were not static but rather, represented a single snapshot of a moment in fashion history that only lasted for a brief moment.

To be continued…in the next installment, we’ll actually look at some at “The Titanic Era” and film. Stay Tuned! 🙂

Afterward:

For an excellent treatment of this “moment in time”, I would highly recommend the book Titanic Style: Dress and Style on the Voyage by Grace Evans:

Titanic Style



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…