Genna Reeves-DeArmond kindly wrote this guest post for Worn Through
When RMS Titanic set sail on her maiden voyage April 10, 1912, she was the ultimate passenger liner – unchallenged in size, luxury, and technology. Some believed she was unsinkable, but she would prove them wrong in just five short days. One hundred years after she set sail, the fascinating and harrowing story of the Titanic continues to enthrall. The subject of the Titanic offers enormous scope for exploration of the people and history of her time. Clothing is a captivating aspect of this remarkable story and has the unique ability to reveal other facets of cultural history. The maiden voyage of Titanic was situated in a decade – the 1910s – that was dominated by change and reform in all aspects of life. By examining what women wore, we gain a fuller and more rounded picture of what life was like, both on board and during the time period in general.
The story of Titanic provides a lens through which to learn about women’s history, as clothing was an important component of the larger social picture. There are numerous Titanic museums to visit and they serve a unique multi-purpose function of education, social interaction, and entertainment. Museums often make use of visitor engagement practices and dress can be classified as a visitor engagement technique. Another visitor engagement technique utilized by Titanic museums is the presentation of a boarding pass containing the biographical information of a real Titanic passenger to each museum visitor. Large-scale social movements (e.g., the women’s rights and suffrage movements) were taking place in the 1910s. The clothing produced and worn by women served as a visual indicator of daily life and social values in 1912.
One of the fashion designers responsible for ridding women’s wear of the corset and introducing slits in skirts – “Lucile”, Lady Duff Gordon – was aboard the Titanic. Lucile was a renowned couturier and Titanic first-class passenger. When I visited the Branson Titanic Museum Attraction in January 2012 there was a gallery that contained a reproduction Lucile Tea Gown. Until its commission and construction by Julie Keen, this tea gown had only existed as a sketch, and in a copy of the Sears catalog in which Lucile’s designs appeared in 1916, as well as her original portfolio. In the past, the Branson location has been fortunate to have the opportunity to display authentic Lucile gowns from the time period that were loaned by a private collector.
My visit to the Branson Titanic Museum Attraction was part of my doctoral research at Oregon State University. I also visited Titanic museums in Las Vegas, Pigeon Forge, and Orlando, studying how they display dress artifacts of the time, and how visitors learn from and personally relate to such displays. I interviewed museum visitors ranging in age from 20 to 85 to further understand what dress displays add to the museum experience and what type of information is learned from such displays.
Marshall, who had visited the Branson location, engaged with the Lucile reproduction dress by using prior knowledge to make an educated guess about the social class to which the passenger who might wear the dress belonged; he guessed that it would have been a first class passenger prior to reading the accompanying text and his guess was correct. In this way, participants observed dress and determined certain characteristics about the wearer by reading visual cues.
Allan, who had visited the Branson location, engaged with the Lucile reproduction dress in a different way. During my post-visit interview with Allan, he stated that he remembered seeing the Lucile reproduction dress on display and that it was designed by one of the passengers. The dress was blue and silver, and there was information on a text panel that stated she was the first fashion designer to put slits in a dress and his immediate response was, “okay…so what?” The primary reason that Allan did not find interest in this display is because he is not interested in people that are seemingly ahead of their time (i.e, avante garde). Allan believes that the Lucile dress, like fashion of today, is not functional; and that one of the reasons that runway fashion is not purchased and worn by the masses is because it is, generally speaking, too uncomfortable for daily wear. Allan proceeded to compare runway fashion to a spacesuit, drawing attention to the meticulous functionality of every design detail. In this words, “when you see something [on a spacesuit] and you say to yourself, ‘well, why is that there?’ there is a specific answer for why it’s there.” Allan was more interested in the functionality of the dress items that he viewed in the museum, based upon his own interests. The museums do, on occasion, display functional dress pieces that would interest visitors like Allan. For example, the life vest worn by famed first class passenger Madeline Astor is displayed in the Memorial Gallery.
Allan was also drawn to the dress depicted in photo displays. He remembered a photo of a woman boarding the ship, which was almost life size. The enlarged photo size allowed him to take notice of the woman’s boots. He noticed that they were not high-heeled but just very basic and functional boots. This led to a discussion about what makes a photo interesting: that they allow him to focus on interesting details of dress that may not be the focal point of the image. Allan was somewhat surprised that the women in the images showing the boarding process were not decked out in high fashion clothing, revealing to him rules for daily dress of the period that he had not previously understood. He also found that the photos allowed him to compare the styles and types of dress worn by women of various social classes to the type of cabin in which a passenger would have stayed and other objects that they would have used during the maiden voyage, enabling him to better understand class differences of the time.
The Branson location also has the privilege of displaying a rare dress artifact: the purse of Velin Ohman. Ohman, a 22-year-old third class passenger from Sweden was traveling to Chicago on the Titanic. The purple and black purse adorned with netted beading was with Ohman when she made it in to a collapsible lifeboat. The purse is a rare and unique piece in the artifact collection on display because it was difficult for pieces to survive both the sinking of the ship and/or laying on the ocean floor for many years. During my participant observation a participant known as Ella was especially drawn to the display of this purse in The Shipyard Gallery. Ella and her husband, a participant known as Bradley, were drawn to the ornate quality of the bag (i.e., the shine of the beads and the intricate netting). The purse also caught her eye because it was the only dress artifact presented in a gallery about the building and layout of the ship. In this way, the purse added an additional human dimension to information being presented about the number of lifeboats added to the ship during the final stages of the construction process.
Another precious accessory on display belonged to Helen Candee. The miniature pendant with a cameo of her mother was with her on the Titanic. In January of 1912 Helen Candee – an American author, journalist, interior decorator, feminist, and geographer -was on an extended stay in Europe to complete research for a book on tapestries. Candee is credited as one of the first professional interior designers and a strong advocate for the feminist movement: she authored the best-selling book, How Women May Earn a Living (1900). In April of 1912 she received word that her son had been seriously injured in a car crash. She booked her passage immediately on the next ship available – which happened to be Titanic. The night of the sinking Candee met a fellow friend, architect Edward Kent, on the grand staircase. She became emotional and asked if he would take her miniature pendant with a cameo of her mother that had been painted by the famous American artist, Ella Hergesheimer. Later, Candee was saved in lifeboat no. 6, but Edward Kent was not. When his body was found, he still had the pendant in his pocket. The Kent family returned the precious memento to Helen Candee.
Ella’s boarding pass contained the biography of Helen Candee and she exhibited a personal attachment to this passenger. Ella formed a personal connection with Helen during her museum visit. That is, she seemed to discover a new and alternative connection that she could make to history, beyond facts and figures, because she was clearly attracted more to the stories of the people and how dress artifacts fit into their lives. Objects like Candee’s pendant and the other items of dress on display make it easier for visitors to relate to the event and the passengers, showing them the personal experiences of actual people. Upon entering the Interactive Gallery, I was standing near Ella during my participant observation and heard her say, “Where am I?,” referring to the possible presentation of photos and artifacts related to the passenger on her boarding pass. I told her that there was a whole case of items for Helen Candee and directed her to it. She was obviously pleased and went directly to the display case to view the artifacts (which included the miniature pendant described above), remaining visibly excited about her find.
A participant known as Elizabeth described herself as a women’s history enthusiast. She described herself as being particularly interested in how women are portrayed in museums because so many museums are presented from the perspective of “great men, great deeds.” In this way, women’s history was not only present in the museum attraction content, but also in the personal interests and responses of participants. There were a variety of reflections in response to how dress displays aligned with personal background, interests, and emotional reactions. Elizabeth was visiting the Orlando Titanic Museum Attraction and stated that the first thing she noticed was the display of dress on a dress form in a full-scale first class stateroom replica.
Elizabeth said that she became more aware of the social rituals observed by women throughout history as a result of that first display, but particularly after viewing and reading about a woman’s mourning pin during her museum visit. Elizabeth remembered that the woman died in the 1950s, making the story even more poignant because women mourned in a different way at that time and it’s not a ritual that is carried out through dress over a long period of time in our culture anymore. The mourning pin described by Elizabeth belonged to Marjorie Anne Newell, 23-year-old wife of first class passenger and banker Arthur Newell. She did not travel on the Titanic. However, her daughters and husband did. When the Carpathia docked following efforts to rescue Titanic passengers, it is said that she screamed and nearly fainted when she saw her husband not with her girls. She slept with his watch under her pillow every night, never allowed Titanic to be mentioned in her presence, and never took off his Edwardian mourning pin until the day she died in 1957 at the age of 103.
Simone, who visited the Orlando location, said that the dress displays helped her to get an idea of how a passenger’s personal finances (i.e., social class) dictated the amount of clothing they brought with them. She noticed that the wealthy passengers brought more accessories that were intended to create an entire ensemble, while the poorer passengers typically brought only what was necessary to be “properly dressed”. Simone particularly enjoyed the replica rooms because she could appreciate all of the individual elements that worked together to make it a successful replica, including the placement of dress and a wardrobe trunk in the first class stateroom. Another visitor, Caroline, stated that the trunk in the first class stateroom was her favorite dress display. She explained that she enjoyed seeing the contents of the trunk because it helped her to further understand the passengers’ daily lives through the process of packing and storing clothing.
In general, Simone felt that the display of dress and costume should be more interactive. She acknowledged that the display of dress on a mannequin is cost-efficient; even that would be better than nothing. The addition of dress in the tea/dining room would be nice. Simone also suggested a display of how clothing was stored and transported during the voyage. This would help to showcase the many layers of clothing that were worn and the multiple outfit changes that took place during each day. First class passengers aboard Titanic were known for their embellished and opulent dress. Titanic’s first class ladies placed great importance on looking their best. Women of higher social classes changed outfits around three to four times a day to reflect changes in performed tasks and social activity throughout the day. Evening dress was differentiated from afternoon (or “casual”) dress. In this way, social life was directly connected to women’s dress during 1912. Along the same lines, Simone suggested a peek-a-boo booth where visitors can watch a woman dressing from her undergarments to her full outer garments to get a sense of the dressing process. It is especially important to her to have a human presence in the full scale replica rooms via dress displays.
Participants learned from and found personal meaning in dress displays by comparing them to contemporary dress, behaviors, and other aspects of society. Serena, who visited the Branson location, added an interesting observation about her museum experience with regard to viewing dress displays as parts of a whole. She wanted to see more extant representations of men’s dress. For her, the visual language of dress is better understood when given the opportunity to observe and compare men’s and women’s dress together. The Las Vegas location was the only location to display men’s dress – a pair of chevron-patterned men’s pants dated to the early 1900s – that was not a movie costume associated with the 1997 film Titanic.
This study revealed several recommendations for practice in museum attractions when it comes to dress and costume displays, based on the feedback of participants.Increased quantities of dress displays in the museum setting, the consistent inclusion of an explanatory text panel with such displays, the identification of a dress object as extant, replica, or reproduction, and the display of dress objects on mannequins all allow visitors to envision how the dress objects should look when worn. It is not always possible to display dress objects on mannequins due to their fragility. Therefore, the request for dress objects to be displayed on mannequins suggests that reproduction pieces, such as the Lucile gown described above, provide equivalent entertainment and educational value for visitors. Through the presentation of artifacts in the museum setting and research participant insights, it is clear that the attraction to the ill-fated ship goes beyond the sinking; it is the stories of the passengers and their personal affects that bring the Titanic to life. The Titanic is representative of a historical moment and clothing is a tangible marker of that moment. The clothes and accessories that the female passengers wore add a rich layer to the historical knowledge and provide cultural context for the lives of women who lived in this time period and sailed on this magnificent ship.
Guest Contributor Genna Reeves-DeArmond, an independent historic and cultural dress scholar, earned her PhD from Oregon State University’s School of Design and Human Environment. Her research interests include the role of dress/costume displays in historic learning within museum and heritage environments, visual rhetoric of historic dress displays, historic/cross-cultural dress instructional techniques, and cross-cultural apparel design. Find Genna’s dissertation here and professional portfolio here