Fashion, Film, Licentiate Columns

Licentiate Column 12/04/12: Titanic Centenary Style

Everyone has their nerdy pop-culture peccadillos. Alan Moore graphic novels. Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The Titanic.

As a dedicated Titanorak (pre-dating James Cameron’s epic film, I’ll have you know), it’s interesting, and often slightly frightening, to see how a human tragedy which reshaped the Edwardian consciousness and had several major repercussions on how people lived a century ago has been reduced to a pop culture soundbite, a platform for turgid television dramas and an opportunity for Strictly Come Dancing judges to bore us all to tears with talk of brittle rivets.

Rifling through my local bookstore’s Titanic table, I picked up a book called ‘Titanic Style: Dress and Fashion of The Voyage’. Normally, this kind of utter bad-taste cheese is my catnip. Case in point: I have a copy of a book called ‘Titanic Love Stories’ with a picture of a coy looking Gibson Girl on the front cover on hold at my local library.

On the Titanic were several heiresses, members of the nobility, self-made millionaires, a model, a film actress, a fashion designer and a noted fashion journalist. All of whom had wardrobes bursting full of haute couture, the likes of which a thoroughly modern millionairess can only dream of.

Many would have been returning from Paris, the epicentre of fashion at that time. Selling in Paris were three of the early twentieth century’s foremost designers; Paul Poiret, Marios Fortuny and Coco Chanel, who was at time a much feted milliner.
Together, the tree designers collectively freed women from corsets, cumbersome fripperies and sombre colours. Poiret’s designers were vibrant and Eastern-inspired, Fortuny designed Grecian goddess dresses that were pleated sinuously over a woman’s curves (a technique that has never been successfully duplicated) and Chanel was single-handedly creating the garconne look with simply trimmed straw boaters.

When we look at the Titanic films, documentaries and television series, do we see any of that? Do we see the dresses brushed with glaring brightness? Do we see the members of the first class who were unregimented and bored with endless sessions of afternoon tea? Do we see anything that hasn’t been reigned in with either a corset or a historically set-in-their-ways costume designer?

In 1912, the world was on the cusp of the new modern era. The need for speed was a new obsession. Technology was the new religion and the people’s faith in the cogs of machinery, whether it be political or literal, had not yet been fully tested to its limits.
The sinking of the Titanic is the start of the modern world as we know it. It was a microcosm of the shock and horror that would greet the whole globe with the start of The Great War. The class warfare, the regimented oppression, the ritual lifestyle, the blind faith in technology and the futile nobility of dying with a stiff upper lip.

We see it in black and white now. The band played on and we repeat it over and over with a press of the play button. But, in reality, it was in color. The people were not blank ciphers, they had lives and worries and nerdy pop-culture peccadillos, like music hall comedy or Caruso recordings or cigarette trading cards. And it doesn’t really matter what they were wearing. Fortuny or sackcloth, they were all created equal in the end – that’s the one thing that we should remember.

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