Life on Board: Fashion
The Fabulously Fashionable Attire Aboard Titanic
Illustration: Standard Fashion Book, Summer 1912, New York
As Titanic passenger Archibald Gracie later recalled: "Full dress was always en règle; and it was a subject both of observation and admiration, that there were so many beautiful women—then especially in evidence—aboard the ship." But the male passengers paid attention to fashion as well, even when they were in peril on the night of April 14. According to Titanic historian Daniel Allen Butler, when Benjamin Guggenheim realized that he probably would not make it off the ship alive, he went back to his cabin, discarded the warm sweater and life belt that a steward had urged him to wear, and changed into white tie and tails before reappearing on the Boat Deck to help women and children escape. When asked about the new outfit, he reportedly responded: "We're dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."
The Titanic's passenger roster, in fact, was so fashionable that it actually included a noted dress designer of the time, Lady Duff Gordon, who was best known for designing unique "personality" dresses for clients that were finished with sprays of her signature handmade flowers. It also included a fashion critic—Edith Russell, a correspondent for the publication Women's Wear, who felt compelled to travel on the Titanic even after she was spooked by a squall at Cherbourg, because her ample luggage already had been loaded onto the ship. In terms of style, the Edwardian era in which the Titanic's passengers lived was a transition period between the staid, constricted clothing of Victorian times, which obscured the shape of the body beneath it, and the more daring fashions of the 1920s. Fashion historian Lynn Schurnberger, in her book "Let There Be Clothes," writes that Edwardian fashion was by the "youthful" spirit of early 20th Century America, and the culturally liberating effect of the technological and scientific advances it created. "The motor car, ocean liner…and Sears Roebuck and Co. all bring people closer to fashion," she writes.
By the time that the Titanic sailed in 1912, modernism had already changed women's clothing dramatically. Victorian bustles were gone, replaced by a clean, straight, vertical shape. The roles available to women in society were evolving as well, with more of them going to work outside the home in offices or as shop assistants, and wardrobes began to reflect that social shift. The "tailor made," a coat and skirt worn with a blouse that had first emerged in the 1850s, became a popular look even for women who did not work.
But even if women's wardrobes were more utilitarian than in the past, the Edwardians still liked fine detail. Just as the Titanic itself was filled with decorative flourishes, the clothing that affluent passengers wore often was hand-embroidered, according to Karin J. Bohleke, director of the Fashion Archives and Museum at Shippensburg University, and curator of a recent museum exhibit on Titanic-era fashion. And the evening dresses that female Titanic passengers wore to soirees tended toward the dramatic, with asymmetrical lines and drapery. The resulting silhouettes also were influenced by the elaborate undergarments of the time. Most women wore chemises and knickers under corsets, and slips or petticoat covers over that.
The Titanic passengers' fine attire didn't fare well during the ordeal of escaping from a sinking ship. Once he had reached the Carpathia, survivor Archibald Gracie handed over his soggy clothing to be baked dry in one of the ship's ovens, while he laid under a pile of blankets in the Carpathia's dining room. Survivor Violet Jessup noted that when the Carpathia finally arrived in New York, locals greeted them with a load of second-hand clothes they had collected for them to wear in lieu of their lost luggage. The garments were brought down to the dock and spread on tables, which reminded Jessup of a rummage sale. "Had it happened when we were in a happier frame of mind, we might have derived much fun from the grotesque figures that some of us cut in full disarray," she recalled.