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Back Story: Titanic book looks at fashion of the era

Fashion

In 1998, I interviewed Walter Lord, the man credited with kicking off the never-ending Titanic craze in 1955 with the publication of "A Night to Remember." I asked him if there were any more books to be written about the doomed liner. He suggested two.

One, he said, should be written about the Titanic's brave engineers and engine-room crew, who remained below at their posts keeping the pumps operating and the dynamos running so that the lights stayed on until moments before the ship plunged to the bottom.

The other was a book about Wallace H. Hartley, the ship's courageous bandmaster, whose quintet kept playing on deck until they were swept away as the liner went under.

Dozens of books have been written through the years on every aspect of the Titanic and its loss. And this year — the 100th anniversary of its foundering — is no exception, with another 15 books or so proving that the Titanic industry is well and thriving, and the thirst for books on the subject nearly insatiable.

In the ensuing Niagara of books about the great ship, along comes one that is truly original and memorable, and makes a valuable academic contribution to the Titanic saga as well as to social history.

"Titanic Style: Dress and Fashion on the Voyage" was written by Grace Evans, an English fashion historian who is curator of costume at Chertsey Museum in Surrey.

It is a detailed and comprehensive look into the vanished world of Edwardian fashion, an era defined by rigid social stratification, which revealed itself in the clothing worn by those with social status and those without.

She re-creates a world using both words and illustrations — many in color — when travel was only for the wealthy and the middle class. Those in third class or steerage were the poor, making their way to the New World and, they hoped, a better life.

Also, it was a time when dressing for travel was more than climbing into a pair of gray gym sweats and strapping on a backpack.

Women's dresses, tweeds, undergarments, stockings, corsets, minks, ostrich feathers, hats, veils, shoes and parasols came from the finest couturiers and department stores in New York, London, Paris and Rome.

It was not uncommon, Evans writes, for women who were the toast of American and European high society and traveling in the Titanic's luxurious first-class staterooms to change several times a day.

Cynthia Asquith recalled in her memoir, "Remember and be Glad," what the daily routine was like for a wealthy women of that era.

"A large fraction of our time was spent in changing our clothes, particularly in winter when you came down to breakfast ready for church in your 'best dress' made probably of velvet if you could afford it, or velveteen if you couldn't," she wrote. "After church you went into tweeds. You always changed again before tea, into a 'tea gown' if you possessed that special creation; the less affluent wore a summer day-frock."

She added: "However small your dress allowance, a different dinner dress for each night was necessary."

"Clothes were an essential part of the social whirl that wealthy women inhabited, and these established rhythms of dressing and undressing throughout the day were adhered to by the women of Titanic's First Class," writes Evans.

Some traveled with their maids; first-class gentlemen were accompanied by their manservants.

Most men in first class avoided the formal morning coats, top hats and white spats, and dressed in lounge suits, which included pants, vest and coat. A tie was also always worn.

And because many in first class enjoyed deck sports or other activities, "warm underwear was essential," writes Evans, to ward off chilly Atlantic breezes.

Tweed caps — which were worn only during the day — were considered de rigueur for the shipboard male traveler and competed with the derby or rolled-brim hat. Men changed into evening clothes for dinner.

Evans takes us from the opulence of first class to steerage, and also details clothing and uniforms worn by the Titanic's officers, crew and stewards.

Most of those traveling in second class wore ready-to-wear clothing, and Evans writes that those in steerage "would have been dressed in decent" yet functional clothing.

She adds that it was somewhat difficult to document what steerage travelers — including children — wore because so little of that clothing exists in museums.

She includes the story of steerage passenger Amy Stanley, a former dressmaker who dressed like a first-class passenger. After the ship hit the iceberg, she put on a dress of blue silk and a fur coat and went on deck.

Arriving on board the rescue ship Carpathia, she was shown to a cabin, and when it was discovered that she was not traveling in first class, she was banished to "sleep rough with the rest of the third-class survivors," writes Evans.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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