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Womens fashion 1912 – The Titanic

April 3, 2016

RMS Titanic sank on the 15th of April 1912. The sheer size and grandeur of the ship and the bravery of its crew, plus the pathos of the fact that this was its maiden voyage means that this event still fascinates today. People want to know all about it, and looking in particular at what people were wearing on that fateful day gives a great snapshot of womens fashion 1912.

The Titanic

There were 2,224 people travelling on the Titanic when it went down.

There were the extremely wealthy, all set to enjoy the gilded ballrooms. There were also the crew, of course, and the upper class traveller’s lady’s maids, valets and children’s nurses, all of whom they wouldn’t dream of travelling without. But as well as this, there were nearly a thousand second and third class customers, many of whom were travelling with their families to start a new life abroad.

Womens fashion in 1912 and the upper class

The rich arrived wearing the latest fashions. Some had boarded the ship because it was the latest thing, a fun diversion and a trip to America into the bargain. For others, it was a swift and convenient way of getting to the USA for business.

 

The most expensive First Class ticket available was £527 (about £55,000 in today’s money) but prices varied wildly. But anyway, the cost wasn’t important. Some prominent members of the upper classes of both the US and the UK had tickets to sail just in case they fancied it, but never ended up using them. Which must have been a relief in the circumstances.

 

The lifestyle on the Titanic mirrored the formality of life at home, so for upper class women morning, afternoon, and dinner dresses were required as well as something a bit more comfortable to relax in the cabin, splendid evening dresses for the balls which took place, warm coats and walking outfits to walk on deck, sportswear for the games which took place and nightwear.

 

As well as this a whole battery of underwear was needed: plainer for day and fancier for evening, including stockings, drawers, chemises, corsets, and corset covers. And then there were the accessories, like shoes, handbags, hats and fans, and let’s not forget the jewellery. The voyage was scheduled to take a week, so there needed to be enough changes of clothes for regular different looks. Each passenger took trunks and trunks of clothes with them – there was no packing light to fit in the hand luggage restrictions of Easyjet then.

Womens fashion 1912 – a packing list

From the insurance claims which surviving passengers submitted we can get a unique look at what a passenger in First Class considered necessary. For example Mrs Margaret Brown listed as lost:

 

  • Street furs
  • Ermine collarette
  • Ermine opera cape
  • Brussels lace gown
  • Persian overdress
  • 6 dinner gowns ($75 each)
  • Green lace gown
  • Sealskin jacket
  • 4 gowns ($200 each)
  • 1 necklace
  • Odd laces
  • 1 pearl brooch
  • 14 hats
  • 6 lace shirt waists
  • 6 embroidered waists, lace
  • Silk hosiery
  • Lingerie
  • 2 Japanese kimonos
  • 1 black satin gown
  • 1 blue and white serge gown
  • 3 satin evening gowns
  • 1 Irish lace gown
  • 3 dozen gloves
  • 1 hat
  • 6 shoes
  • 4 tailored gowns and 2 coats
  • 3 shoes
  • 1 evening wrap
  • 4 evening slippers
  • Brown velvet gown
  • Brown velvet coat
  • 2 black gowns

 

All this came to a value of $27,017 (about $681,000, or  half a million pounds in today’s prices) – although chief among the cost was the necklace, valued at $20,000. But this is a relatively short list. Another aristocratic passenger lists 84 pairs of different kinds of gloves alone, many of them bought by the dozen such as “30 pairs of new white silk gloves, 1 long, 14 short” and “20 pairs new white kid gloves, 16 long, 4 short”. She also has all kinds of designer dresses, from Redfern, Worth and Rouff, Paris, along with a detailed list of all her accoutrements in each Louis Vuitton trunk up to and including a bar of French soap worth $1.75.

Womens fashion 1912 – changing fashions

The descriptions of the gowns here are vague at best. Womens fashion 1912 was a time of change – from tailored clothes in pastels and beige with huge flounces and frills, the shape of which required a corset that gave a small waist and an upright posture, to wildly colourful outfits that included harem trousers and ideally required no underwear at all. It depended on a woman’s age, taste, and how closely she kept up with changes in fashion as to what she would have packed.

 

The name of the couturier if it is listed in the insurance documents does give an idea to the style of the gown to some extent – a Paul Poiret is likely to have been a crazily colourful design, while a Lucile dress would probably have been tailored in a subdued shade. However, designers copied other designers and though Worth dresses were usually corseted and tight, some of his designs are also rich and flowing, following the Oriental influence of designers like Poiret.

Womens fashion 1912 – Lady Lucy Duff Gordon

One person on the ship who was probably wearing mostly Lucile gowns was Lady Lucy Duff Gordon. This was because Lady Duff Gordon was the head of the house of Lucile – she was its founder and chief designer. As the iceberg hit the ship, she survived by leaping into a lifeboat along with a few other first class passengers, including her husband Cosmo Duff Gordon. Despite the fact that it was less than half full, Lord Duff Gordon ordered the men at the oars to set off to safety, and when they made to turn back, he actually paid them to keep going.

Womens fashion 1912 – Servants

Travelling with the wealthy were their servants. Staff that were needed on the trip, like lady’s maids, valets, governesses and nursery nurses travelled first class to be near their employers.

 

Don’t forget that this was a boat so huge that  crewmen often got lost simply getting from one end to the other, so if the Countess needed her hair dressing or if she needed undressing at the end of a long night of socializing, she wasn’t going to wait half an hour for her maid to get there. However, the servants didn’t enjoy all the perks of First Class, and they certainly didn’t dine in the First Class Dining Rooms – just in case a nursery nurse should be mistaken for a Lady and a drawing-room comedy ensue. Those servants which a traveller had decided they simply couldn’t do without in America but were not needed on the voyage, such as cooks and chauffeurs, travelled second class.

 

Most of the servants would have worn their ordinary clothes. This is because lady’s maids habitually did so, sometimes wearing their mistresses cast offs if they were sufficiently plain. The cooks and chauffeurs were not on duty, so didn’t need their uniforms for the time being. The only exception may have been the nursery maids, who depending on the age of their charge may have added a large apron for practicality.

 

“Ordinary clothes” for female servants was usually a high-necked, ankle length dress in a dark fabric which didn’t show the dirt, as servant’s clothes were not washed as often as their employer’s. The fashion at the time was also for a blouse and skirt combination. The blouse was usually white, with embroidery, high at the neck and with log sleeves, and the skirt dark and ankle length, with a bell-shaped flare, not very full. They wore sturdy, kitten heeled ankle boots in brown or black, and discreet jewellery – perhaps a brooch at the neck and a wedding ring. They would have taken their Sunday Best too – a pretty floral dress – as well as nightwear and underwear in cotton or wool. Servants wore corsets too – you can be sure that they hadn’t taken up the new underwear-free Oriental style fashions.

Womens fashion 1912 – the working classes

The same kind of clothes went for  Second and Third class passengers, according to their means. White blouses were expensive to wash and keep clean, so they may have stuck to the dark coloured dresses. Some families were taking all their worldly possessions with them, which may not have been much; perhaps not even as much as a change of clothes. But then, the extensive wardrobes of today were unknown at the time, and for many your work day dress and Sunday best were enough, with the same boots worn every day until they wore out.

 

Conditions for Second and Third class passengers on the Titanic were not all that bad. As opposed to the “Coffin ships” that went before, where passengers were crammed onto open dormitories often without proper toilets or feeding arrangements, these passengers had comfortable rooms that accommodated two, four, six, eight or ten passengers.

Womens fashion 1912-The Titanic crew

Although you might wonder if the Titanic had a female crew, as women weren’t usually allowed to be sailors at the time, there were in fact 23 female staff, because of course stewardesses were required. This is a bit of a fancy term for some badly paid jobs including Turkish bath stewardesses, ordinary bath stewardesses (who made sure the baths were clean and had the supplies they needed) and Glory-Hole stewardesses, who worked in the toilets.

 

There were also bedroom stewardesses, who cleaned the rooms and in addition helped passengers without lady’s maids in getting dressed and undressed if required, and linen stewardesses who were basically laundresses. Today they would be referred to as waitresses, maids, attendants, etc. Because they were badly paid, stewardesses relied on tips to top up their income. There were also two female cashiers in the onboard restaurant.

 

These women did wear a uniform. It consisted of a dark coloured, high collared dress as for servants, with detachable starched collar and cuffs, plus a starched apron and cap. They might only have one dress, but would need to make sure they always had a supply of freshly laundered aprons, cuffs etc so that they always looked spotless.

Womens fashion 1912-The Titanic survivors

Almost all of these female crew survived the disaster. Most of the female servants did too, thanks to a “women and children first into the lifeboats” policy enacted by the officers. In all, there were an estimated 705 survivors.

 

After a few hours the ship The Carpathian rescued those in lifeboats and a few of the swimmers. One cook survived despite treading water for four hours in water which killed many in four minutes. He cheerfully put his survival down to the fact that he had quite a few nips of whisky whilst he was cooking before the accident, which doubtless insulated him.

The Titanic Enquiry

Later in the year an enquiry was held, looking into not only the construction of a ship that had been advertised as “unsinkable”, but its provision of lifeboats which could only have carried 1,178 people—slightly more than half of the number on board . As well as the low number of boats, not all staff had been trained to use them. There was a plug in the bottom of each which in some cases wasn’t fitted, leading to the boats becoming half filled with water as a soon as they hit the sea. Some passengers died of the cold even though they were in a lifeboat due to being knee-deep in freezing water.

 

The behaviour of its staff and passengers was examined as well. The brave actions of its crew were lauded, as despite the captain Edward John Smith releasing them from their duties and saying “Well boys, do your best for the women and children, and look out for yourselves. Now it’s every man for himself”  to them, many of them chose to stick by their posts to the last and to help other people. The Captain went down standing on the bridge, after helping to get women and children into the boats and making sure they were lowered properly.

 

Other famously heroic crew members included the orchestra, who continued to play as the ship sank. Some men like Cosmo Duff Gordon who put themselves first were branded as cowards and never lived it down. There is a report of millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet, who were travelling first class going from the deck back down to the cabins and changing into evening clothes instead of the warm jumpers that could have been more practical, and re-appearing on deck to announce “I shall die as a gentleman” and refusing a space in the lifeboat, calmly smoking on deck to the last.

 

 

The Titanic

Titanic luggage

Mrs Margaret Brown, shortly before sailing.

A Lucile dress from about 1912.

Opera coat by Paul Poiret, 1912 France ,Paris, Met Museum

Opera Coat Jean-Philippe Worth, 1912 The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Lady Duff Gordon

A poor Edwardian working class family.

Captain Edward John Smith

Benjamin Guggenheim.

A stewardess outfit -right.

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