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Ocean Liners – Speed and Style – Review

March 4, 2018

V & A exhibitions are getting more and more dynamic and imaginative. I wasn’t expecting Ocean Liners: Speed and Style to be one of the shows the museum was pulling out all the stops for, but this is their spring blockbuster. Wow, it’s great!



Of course, Ocean cruise liners, like grand old country houses and couture fashion are necessarily elitist and you have to put those thoughts away if you’re going to enjoy the show. Luckily, the presentation of these artefacts soon make you feel like you’re involved in the cruise ship lifestyle yourself. Or, more accurately, perhaps you’re on a film set, of something like Brideshead Revisited. Despite such a lavish presentation of the facts, and actual objects used on the boats, I can’t help but feel it’s all an opulent jazz age myth after all.

Ocean Liners – Not always so decadent

Cruising, the notes explain, wasn’t always a sought after pastime. Many immigrants, making the third class passage from one country to another under cramped and insanitary conditions wouldn’t look back on their long journey all misty eyed. But as the income from packing those seeking a new home in like sardines grew less, the shipping companies tried a new tack, and attempted to upgrade their image from a downright frightening experience to something rich people might do for fun.

Ocean Liners – Beautiful Posters

The  Ocean liners show opens with a wall of beautiful posters from late Victorian times onwards, designed to lure higher-paying passengers in. Many were created by leading artists of the time in Art Nouveaux or later, Art Deco styles. The passenger stations also became remodelled along the latest ideas of chic interior design and architecture to make people feel safe, welcomed and bathed in luxury.

Many gobsmacking artefacts

From there we move through many examples of the furniture and items of decoration which made this such an amazing experience. Some wall panels displayed here are, I don’t know, five or six metres tall and gilded in shades of gold, copper and bronze for a majestic effect: you can see how spacious the public rooms inside the ships must have been in order to allow such scale.


There are videos and some photos which record the grand staircases, dining rooms and ballrooms. Some boats took their cue from hotels frequented by the rich and famous, like the Ritz. But on-board life was a little different from merely staying at hotel, however grand – after all a voyage could last months and so every aspect of a person’s existence needed to be considered, not just places to sleep and wash.


Cruise liners contained multiple dining rooms, lounges, bars and places to go apart from one’s own cabin, a nursery for the children, perhaps an on-board swimming pool and room for games on deck.

Ocean liners – Beautiful design

The cabin furniture, too, was as carefully considered as any in the public spaces; a first class bed is shown which is curved on one side, to fit against the ship’s hull, and intricately made from wicker and mahogany, so as to be as light as possible. It also has sides, like a cot, presumably in case of bad weather. It seems that even first class passengers couldn’t be protected from squalls and storms.


There was also another kind of storm they couldn’t be protected from either. During WW2 many cruise liners were taken over by the army as battle ships. With all the other rigours of war it probably was unimportant, but it must have been quite sad for many of the upper classes who had already had their stately homes requisitioned – now their social clubs and playgrounds were to go, too.


In a suitably dark and claustrophobic room, the V & A Ocean liners exhibition shows us how some of the great ships, inevitably, sank. Most had already been prepared for their new roles by the removal of their greatest treasures, so many of the fitments and fittings were preserved. And speaking of great cruisers that sink, they could not create a show like this without at least mentioning the Titanic. A chunk of wooden carving from that ship is displayed “floating” lonely in a pool of water created with special lighting effects.

Ocean liners – The Titanic

The Titanic has always been a source of special fascination since its demise but its attraction was surely re-kindled for a new generation with James Cameron’s 1997 film of the same name. Ocean Liners: Speed and Style discusses how film has always romanticised the ocean liner, with an especially alluring clip of Marilyn Monroe making the point perfectly.

Amazing outfits

But I know the question on everybody’s lips is going to be, well, that’s all very good and interesting, but what did they WEAR? Of course we’ve all heard about how the socialites had entire wardrobes made especially for one Ocean liner voyage with all the latest fashions, and seen the film clips of the stars disembarking in their chicest with not a hair out of place.


Ocean Liners: Speed and Style does not disappoint. After the dim clankings of the war room (this exhibition is replete with sound effects) comes the bright squawking of seagulls as you pass an enormous blue sea projection with an ocean liner chugging slowly across the horizon. A white suited, be-hatted man dressed in the fashions of the 1930s stares pensively out to sea. Nearby, a bellboy invites you to relax on a wooden recliner.


Ocean liners – The First Class Fashions

The Ocean liners room opens out into a large, double height space where twinkling lights set in the far-away ceiling denote the evening stars. Film of beauties descending a staircase repeats behind dummies posed in original Paul Poiret of 1913. Daringly, the ensemble is a cream silk evening cloak over “harem” trousers, and an unstructured brocade dress. These fashions were cutting edge. Nearby is a beaded Lanvin flapper dress worn on a cruise in 1926, as well as a beautiful silk crepe bias cut Lucien Lelong evening gown of 1934-9, worn on the maiden voyage of the Normandie. Beauties dive into a pool wearing swimming fashions down the ages.


The Ocean liners exhibition also details the craze for cruise themed accessories. If you couldn’t actually go on the Queen Mary, perhaps you’d like to wear a blouse printed with its title? Or would a clutch bag in the shape of the Normandie be more your thing?


I don’t know anyone who has seen this exhibition who hasn’t liked it, whether a fan of ocean liners or not, so for a pleasant afternoon of daydreaming, I highly recommend it.


Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is at the V&A Museum until 17 Jun 2018




Jeanne Lanvin Dress, 1926. Image copyright V and A Museum.

Fragment from the Titanic. Image copyright V and A Museum.

Marquestry panel, Deluxe suite wall panel from the Ile de France. image copyright V and A Museum.

Cartier tiara of 1909, saved from the Lusitania. Image copyright V and A Museum.

The Duke of Windsor’s Louis Vuitton’s luggage. Image copyright V and A Museum.

(Original Caption) 12/21/1950-New York, New York- Actress, Marlene Dietrich, unquestionably one of the most glamourous grandmothers in the world, shows herself to be little the worse for wear after her arrival at New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Image copyright V and A Museum.

Silk crepe dress by Lucien Lelong, worn on the maiden voyage of the Normandie, 1935. Image copyright V and A Museum.