A different take on the Titanic

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."

He will give a presentation Saturday morning on the history of the pieces and how they might have fit into the context of the Titanic, then lead visitors paying $100 a ticket on a tour of the gallery.

The outfits are in fine condition, thanks to the late Helen Larson. The Los Angeles historian spent 50 years — from 1946 to 1996 — amassing a private collection of 1,100 vintage garments, including some that date back to 1610, which she archived and preserved in her tract home in Whittier, Jones and Johnson said.

FIDM's Fashion Council is trying to acquire the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection, valued at $2.5 million.

Saturday's event will be a fundraiser for the campaign, said Mima Ransom, a Newport Beach resident and instructor at FIDM O.C. who founded and chairs the Fashion Council.

"We want the people who will be rallying [around the campaign] to see the pieces and see how exquisite they are," Ransom said.

Through the show, Jones has combined his historical expertise on high fashion with a lifelong fascination of the great White Star Line ship's story.

Had she been a passenger in First Class aboard the Titanic, the woman in Lucile's tea-time gown would have dressed in this type of outfit particularly for that occasion — as she would have done for other occasions during her days on the vessel.

For one, ladies traveling in First Class would have worn "boarding" suits as they crossed the gangplank before the ship departed from Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. They would have changed into promenading gowns, hats and gloves before strolling along the ship's decks and would have put on an even more glamorous outfit for dinner, Jones and Johnson explained.

"That is what First Class people were used to," Jones said, referring to the luxuriously appointed First Class cabins and common areas. "It was an everyday aspect of their life, and the same thing with their clothing."

Other examples in "adDRESSING Titanic" include a pair of dinner gowns made respectively by Beer and Doucet, two French haute couture designers from the period.

"It's so rare to have a collection of this magnitude and importance that has not been absorbed by other institutions already, so to have the opportunity to acquire this is very exciting for us," Jones said.


Twitter: @ImranVittachi

If You Go

What: "adDRESSING Titanic," a lecture by Kevin Jones on garments that were fashionable around 1912, followed by a tour of a gallery showing women's original ensembles from the period, and a champagne reception

When: 10 a.m. till noon Saturday

Where: FIDM Orange County, 17590 Gillette Ave., Irvine

How much: $100

For tickets: Visit http://www.fidmmuseumshop.org

More information: At other times through August, the public can see the exhibit at no charge. The gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays and, by appointment, by contacting Jim Nemmert at (949) 851-6200.

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