A different take on the Titanic

Curator of new exhibit in Irvine threads a lifelong fascination with the disaster on the high seas with his knowledge of high-class clothes that were in vogue in and around 1912.

April 12, 2012|By Imran Vittachi
  • One of the Titanic survivors was Lady Duff Gordon, who was known as Lucile. The successful businesswoman had shops in London and the United States.
One of the Titanic survivors was Lady Duff Gordon, who… (Courtesy Randy…)

The mannequin in the pale gold and embroidered silk gown stands in a corner of the gallery.

Her head-to-toe ensemble of the same color is highlighted by identical fruit patterns woven into her gown's delicate fabric. She also wears a cotton and taffeta French hat while toting a parasol. The display is supposed to evoke a female passenger in First Class on her way to tea aboard the R.M.S. Titanic.

The gown, circa 1916, is an original outfit. The real-life woman who designed it was known as Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon. A prominent figure in the world of high fashion in that period, she was among the most privileged class of passengers aboard the Titanic when the ship went down in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg on April 15, 1912, taking more than 1,500 souls with it.

"She did survive the sinking of the Titanic and went on to do amazing things and find great success," said Christine Johnson, associate curator of the Fashion Institute of Designing and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum.


On Saturday, the eve of the centennial of the Titanic's sinking, the Los Angeles-based FIDM will unveil at its Orange County satellite campus in Irvine the "adDRESSING Titanic" exhibit, which features women's haute couture garments that were in vogue in the years around 1912.

"This is literally the very last of a time period where you had a complete disregard for what you would call the lower classes — people could be used up, basically," said Kevin Jones, the museum's curator who has pulled together the exhibit that will stay up through August.

"You know, if you were the cream of the crop ... you got to wear these types of garments ... " he added. "The Titanic is considered really the death knell of this kind of Edwardian, Victorian era, where there was a great deal of advancement in technology … but the human side of it had not caught up to it yet."

The tea outfit is the sole one designed by Lucile among a set of nine period ensembles that will go on display. None of the outfits — all originals — were aboard the doomed ocean liner, but somehow they survived the test of time and appear to be in excellent condition.

"Any one of these dresses could have been onboard the Titanic, if the circumstance had worked itself out," said Jones. "None of these were meant to last, and yet they did. For some reason, they're all accidents of survival."

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