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High fashion on the high seas: A history of cruise ship style

A silk georgette and glass beaded 'Salambo' dress.

Victoria and Albert Museum

In the classic era of ocean travel, passengers were attracted by amenities such as art deco decor, porcelain dishware with provenance and the allure of wearing pretty slipdresses. Today, we prioritize cruise-ship features such as escape rooms, virtual reality experiences and WiFi, of course. One thing, though, has not changed – in the dead of winter, travel fantasizing is at its peak.

One way to do that is at the Victoria and Albert Museum's new Ocean Liners: Glamour Speed and Style exhibit. The display gathers more than 250 artifacts and design objects, including lighting, wall panels, textiles, furniture and fashion, to showcase how ships in the golden age of transatlantic travel helped shape the modern world. The dazzling pieces on show range from tiles created by William de Morgan for the saloon aboard P&O's Sutlej, to the wardrobe of New York socialite Emilie Grigsby, a frequent traveller and couture client of Vionnet and Lanvin.

The show explores fascinating aspects of ocean liners' design in that golden age – the engineering and architecture, certainly, but also the lifestyle on board and the role of the passenger cruise as an archetypal symbol of the modern age. Co-curators Daniel Finamore and Ghislaine Wood consider the ocean liner a symbol of progress and the most visceral experience of modernity. "[It] metaphorically conveys man into this brave new age while also being the embodiment of it – gigantic machines, whose complex systems and idealized societies provided models for new ways of living while also shaping the cultural imagination."

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The era was first and foremost a triumph of tourism marketing, as the journey itself became a desirable destination. As floating liminal spaces of gracious idealized living, ocean liners became showcases of opulence, technology and social sophistication.

Curvilinear staircases were a standard architectural feature on ocean liners, and the purpose was to enable passengers to make an entrance into the dining room below in their most fashionable evening wear. This was a nightly ritual known as the grande descente. To reinforce the idea of the display of fashion, mezzanine balconies and domed halls converged around the area.

The exhibition recreates this entrance-making mode sur mer. Project curator Anna Ferrari enlisted theatre costume makers and textile designers to make replicas based on a few of the original Emilie Grisby garments on display (couture evening dresses of gold lamé, fine silk Georgette and glass beads) and set them into motion on models to capture the full effect.

Ocean travel had a further influence on fashion through the choice of materials, with designers using jersey and other weighty fabrics that were less susceptible to on-board humidity. There is also the tradition, beginning with Poiret in 1913, of designers making well-publicized transatlantic voyages with models, press agents and their collections as the entourage on board. Little wonder designers capitalized by creating travel-themed clothing and luggage.

Also on view are a few of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's custom Maison Goyard trunks. Famously – or more accurately, infamously – the couple once boarded a ship with 100 pieces of luggage in tow.

Who could blame them? The elegant public spaces on these floating cities were an opportunity for spectacle. Passengers would stroll through the wide continuous promenades running from bow to stern, which were lined with onlookers perched on deck chairs to watch the proceedings, and formed a natural runway at sea. And, it wasn't just those on board: Crowds assembled on the dock to watch the arrival and departure of major ocean liners.

Savvy marketing equated the high seas with high fashion early on.

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Fashion magazines naturally associated forward-looking cruise liners with designer clothing. A stylized colour-blocked 1927 cover of American Vogue depicts a model wearing the latest fashions while waving farewell on the deck of a passenger ship bound for Paris, and the era's early fashion photography by Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen was set on liners. Even paparazzi shots of celebrities favoured the setting, and indelible images such as Marlene Dietrich with a fur cape over her tailored travelling suit, waiting for a porter among her monogrammed steamer trunks on the deck of the Normandie conveyed jet-set glamour.

Travel posters and commercial advertising quickly followed suit. Exhibition researcher Catherine Flood details how brochures for the Italian liner Rex, for example, were commissioned from fashion illustrator Vittorio de Testa and his wife, Edina Altara, who was a fashion designer. Their posters resemble fashion plates in an issue of Harper's Bazaar and soon, even those magazines' illustrators and graphic designers such as René Gruau and A.M. Cassandre were depicting women in transit at sea. By the 1930s, entire issues of Vogue and Bazaar were devoted to cruise-ship style – it's the reason the in-between fashion season that's now called "pre-fall" was, until recently, known as the cruise, or croisière, collection.

But after the First World War, the demographic of transatlantic travel shifted. Companies focused on the luxury tourist market and business customer, with fewer steerage accommodations and more first-, second– and "tourist third-class" staterooms catering to a newly emerging middle class. And the way to attract both wealthy and aspirational passengers through the ever more elaborate decor.

The appeal was not only commercial or romantic: Ocean liners conveyed prestige, and ambitious status symbols of national taste. There was increasing competition between not only the shipbuilding companies and transportation lines but, naturally, by their respective countries as a point of pride. Vessels such as the Queen Mary with her English country-manor style became ambassadors, exemplars of a country's craftsmanship. Government subsidies to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, for example, enabled the unprecedented opulence of its Normandie as a floating monument to the design glory of France.

By the time the Normandie launched in 1935, it was arguably the most beautiful and luxurious ocean liner ever to set sail. Among its dazzling designs are the Smoking Salon installations by lacquer artist Jean Dunand, and several monumental murals by painter Jean Dupas for the Grand Salon, executed on the reverse of plate glass panels, then overlaid with fine palladium, silver and gold leaf.

Also in the V&A exhibition, on loan from Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, is the rococo-style carved wood panel. The salvaged fragment (recovered from the water) was part of an arch over the forward entrance to the Titanic's First Class lounge and served as James Cameron's design inspiration for the much-debated makeshift "bit of door" raft that keeps Kate Winslet afloat in his Academy Award-winning Titanic.

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Jack and Rose were doomed, but for travellers craving style on the high seas there's hope: The ship cruise is the last remaining mode of leisure transportation that still has a minimum prescribed dress code and can require careful packing. Take heart that that certain heritage cruise lines, such as Cunard, still have formal nights – and now include the saving grace of on-board tuxedo rentals.

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