Tag Archives: 1912

Exhibition: Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie at Biltmore Estate

For the past four years or so Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC has had a spring costume exhibition. And by costume, I mean movie and television costumes, not historical dress. This year’s exhibition featured the costumes from the 1997 film, Titanic.  I know the movie has a lot of fans, and if you are one, you really need to see this one. You have until May 13, 2018. And I’m showing here fewer than half of the costumes on view, so if this is your thing, you won’t be disappointed.

First I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the movie, which I’ve seen only once, way back in 1998. I didn’t hate it, but I’m not a fan of tragic endings. Also, I’m not as well-versed in pre-1915 fashion as I’d like to be, so feel free to disagree with any of my observations and opinions. And keep in mind that these are movie costumes, and as such have to portray more than just historical accuracy.

The exhibition started with the above suit, worn by Kate Winslet as Rose Dewitt Bukater as she boarded the Titanic. This is one of my favorites, and it seems to me to be one of the best as far as what a young rich woman would have actually worn in the situation. There is, in fact, a photograph of a very similar suit in a 1912 Les Modes fashion publication, which must have been designer Deborah L. Scott’s inspiration for this suit.

A quick note about accessories: some of the ones you’ll see in my photos are the ones used in the movie, like Rose’s parasol. The gloves, however are different, with the movie ones being short little gauntlets that turned back to reveal a purple lining. It’s a very charming detail, and shows just how much thought was put into the overall look.  Liza of Better Dresses Vintage, who was with me on this visit, thinks the hat is different as well.

Many of the clothes in the exhibition were the ones worn by Winslet, but you also get a good look at those worn by minor characters, including the men. That’s Captain Smith on the right, with the Countess of Rothes. Note the way the skirt drapes into that center piece. A couple of other dresses had the same treatment, which I thought was interesting. I did find a similar dress by Lucile (who was on the Titanic), though that center piece was not so prominent.

This dress was worn by Kathy Bates as Molly Brown (before she became unsinkable). In 1912 the trend was toward a slightly above the natural waist waistline, which is seen here, and in most of the dresses in the exhibition. I thought the skirt looked a bit full to be the height of fashion in 1912. At the time of the sinking, Brown was 44 years old, and photos of her after the sinking show her wearing a skirt with a similar silhouette. And according to photographs, she seemed to be partial to black.

This is another Molly Brown costume. Surely she didn’t wear black all the time, and I could not find if she was in mourning at the time. I think the fullish skirt looks odd.

More black, this time worn by, I think, an extra. I have a few questions. Was there really that much emphasis on the center front of the skirt? Wasn’t 1912 a bit early to be seeing so much black in women’s gowns? Shouldn’t this skirt be slimmer?

This costume was worn by Rosalind Ayers as Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile), so I guess it could be assumed that this is meant to be one of Lucile’s own creations. I did find a similar 1912 Lucile dress, but without the weird skirt detail, and without the train. And also without all the black.

Click to enlarge

All these dresses were worn by extras. According to interviews with  Deborah L. Scott, most of the costumes for the main actors were designed and made by her team, but many of the extras wore actual period clothing. They also sourced vintage fabrics and trims and incorporated them into the newly made costumes. These dresses could be made of old fabrics, as they sure looked right to me.

There were two outerwear pieces worn by Frances Fisher as Ruth Dewitt Bukater. One of the strengths of the exhibitions that have been at the Biltmore Estate is the setting. The clothes just looked so right in this Belle Epoque house with all its fanciness.

Others are not so fortunate, having been put in Plexiglas cages placed in the visitors center and the estate hotels. This cape seems to have been made with a combination of new and old materials. In the movie it is seen with the muff and hat seen in the previous photo.

But back to Rose. Again we are faced with quite a bit of black. This was a beautiful dress, though, and it’s no wonder Jack fell for Rose while she was wearing it.

If memory serves me correctly, this dress was worn by Rose in a dream, and was the white version of a black and red one she wore to a dance.

The one dress that was pretty much made just for effect was this one, the dress Rose wore when she and Jack went into the water. It was important for the dress to flow and float attractively.

The day we saw this exhibition was a warm and breezy one, and the staff had opened many of the windows. That allowed a nice breeze in some of the rooms, and gave movement to many of the costumes. This one was especially pretty with the motion. An unexpected result was that the shoes, which were just placed on the floor under the dresses were in full view. With these I could even see the (modern) label!

I know this photo is really bad, but it’s important that I show the context. The wind was blowing back the dress so that the shoes, which were meant to only peek out a tiny bit, were in full ugly view.

Something else that really surprises me about the Biltmore exhibitions is that they have always used the ugly plywood platforms you can see above. A little dark neutral paint would look a lot nicer. I mean, really! Plywood in a Belle Epoque mansion?

One of the great parts of the Biltmore Estate tour is that it includes the downstairs. For the exhibition they placed the clothes of the lower class passengers in a recreation of the dance party scene in the servants area.

This is I suppose, a dressing gown. It was worn by Rose, and a chair where she deposited it. I just can’t see this as a late Edwardian garment, though it does give a nod to the popularity of “Oriental” themes. And the robe itself looks cheap in reality. I am not a fan.

I really think Rose’s clothing should have been a bit lighter, though artists like Coles Phillips did portray young women in black in 1912.

Some of the costumes have been on display before, but I read that this is the largest Titanic costume show yet presented. Now that it has been organized, it might possibly be seen elsewhere in the future.

The lengths we go to in order to get the good photo.

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New York Styles, Spring & Summer, 1912

This 1912 catalog is a bit early to be a reference for most of the things in my clothing collection, but after spotting it at a market recently I decided to buy it anyway.  First of all, it was quite cheap.  But more importantly, it is on the cusp of where my collecting starts, around 1915.  It never hurts to know about what came before the eras that interest one most.

I’m unfamiliar with the Greenhut – Siegel Cooper Company of New York, but just from looking at the catalog it appears that they sold nice mid-range clothing, primarily for women, but with a smaller selection for children and men.  A quick internet search was very enlightening.

I learned that Siegel-Cooper was a huge New York City department store, opening in 1896 on Sixth Avenue as part of the famous Ladies Mile shopping area.  In 1904 the business was sold to Joseph Greenhut, but the shopping district was moving uptown, and  Greenhut – Siegel Cooper was never really successful.  The business folded in 1918.  The large building was then appropriated for use as a military hospital.  Over the years the building was converted to loft space, but today it still stands and is again home to retail establishments.

The fashions of 1912 are very different from the WWI era clothing of just a few years later.  It was the era of the narrow-hemmed “hobble skirts”, a fashion hoisted upon the world by Paris designer Paul Poiret.  While the skirts above are not very extreme in the style, you can see how an almost floor-length skirt might need to be a bit fuller in order to actually walk in it.

The dresses on this page are for teen girls and very young women, and so the hems are a bit shorter.

To me, the most striking aspect of these fashions are the hats worn with them.  The “Most Stylish and Becoming Dress Hat” seen above is large enough to do double duty a a bed for a small dog.  I’ve not pictured them, but there were several pages of  “hair goods” which were designed to beef up the wearer’s own hair so the hats would not flop over.  The buyer had to send in a sample of her hair to ensure a proper match.

This was also the era of the lingerie dress.  Dresses offered ranged from $1.98 ($46.94 today) to $12.98 ($307.75).  The more elaborate the dress, the greater the cost.  The third dress from the left was made of embroidered net and was the most expensive lingerie dress in this catalog.

There was a page of bathing suits, some of wool, and others of cotton.  Not seen are the bloomers that were included with each dress.

While there was no mention of sports dresses or skirts, there were illustrations that suggested that certain styles were suitable for tennis and golf.

This great weskit or vest was not offered for sale at all.

There was a page of sweaters for sale.  Note the golf clubs and the tennis racquet.  These sweaters were considered to be a very casual style, suitable for sports and outings.  Today it is nearly impossible to find knitwear from this era.

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A Young Man’s Fancy by Coles Phillips, 1912

Last summer I posted two photos of art by Coles Phillips that I discovered at an antiques show.  And while I loved the prints, there were a bit pricey, so I promptly forgot about Mr. Phillips and his pretty girl art.

Yesterday I decided to visit one of my (formerly) favorite places to find vintage treasures.  What was five years ago a thriving and exciting antiques market is now pretty much not worth the two hour drive.  In a town that once had six great antique stores and malls, one has closed, two are selling a great deal of reproductions, and one is barely clinging to life.

After four hours of “shopping” I’d found nothing to buy and little to even photograph to share here.  I was about to skip the barely clinging to life mall, then thought I’d might as well waste another twenty minutes.  This is a place that once had antiques and vintage items over three floors of an old department store, and now there are just a few booths left.

I spotted a rack of books, and an old, beat up, plain volume caught my eye,  A Young Man’s Fancy by Coles Phillips.  I couldn’t place the name, but I knew I’d encountered it somewhere, so I picked up the book and opened it.  The first print reminded me of the ones I’ve loved so much last summer.  And the price was more than reasonable.  Suddenly the trip didn’t seem wasted any longer.

The book is a series of sappy poems, or maybe it is just one long poem, but that is not what is important.  The prints are incredible, and there is a brief biographical sketch in the book that explains Phillips’s technique, which he called the Fadeaway Girl.  He usually used his wife as his model and the book is dedicated to her.

Phillips developed this technique after observing how the figure of a musician friend, dressed in black in a darkened room, seemed to be just suggested by his face, hands, and white shirt while his body faded into the room.  He worked on the concept in black and white, and then in 1908  did his first fadeaway in color for a magazine cover.  It was a huge success, and Phillips became a highly sought after commercial artist.  He did numerous magazine covers and he also designed ads for magazines.  You can read more about Coles Phillips and see more of his work at American Art Archives.

Many of the illustrations in my book appeared first in ads or on magazine covers. Not all use the fadeaway technique, but the fadeaways are my favorites.

The book sells online for $70 up, but my copy is in terrible shape, so the real value is in the prints.  I will most likely have my favorites framed.

The small pictures on the screen in this print are tiny reproductions of the other prints in the book.

Proof that you really cannot judge a book by its cover.

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