It’s been 100 years since the Titanic sank in freezing North Atlantic waters, resulting in one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Now, a new generation is discovering the the Titanic – in part because of the centennial anniversary, museums and exhibits around the country, but also because of the 3-D release of Jame’s Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
To Genna Reeves-DeArmond, a doctoral student at Oregon State, one of the ways people can appreciate the Titanic’s history is through the clothes people wore on the ship. In fact, Reeves-DeArmond’s dissertation is on the role of dress in the Titanic.
“The ship itself is the icon,” said Genna Reeves-DeArmond, whose studies focus on historic and cultural dress. “But the attraction goes beyond the sinking; it is more than the ship’s demise. The Titanic is representative of a historical moment and clothing is a tangible marker of that moment. The clothes that the passengers wore add a rich layer to the historical knowledge and provide cultural context for museum visitors.”
“The clothing personalizes the history,” she added, “because people today can relate to it. It is a common thread between people of today and a hundred years ago, even though styles have changed.”
In her studies, Reeves-DeArmond is exploring the display of dress artifacts and costumes in Titanic museum exhibits, in the popular film by James Cameron, and in other representations. A self-described “Titaniac,” she became interested in the history of the ship as a young girl, and then fascinated as an eighth-grader in 1997 when Cameron’s “Titanic” came out and would go on to sweep most of the major Academy Awards the following year.
Whether on film or in museums, the role of dress and costumes is important in how people learn about the event, the OSU grad student notes. She has traveled to Titanic museum exhibits in Branson, Mo., Las Vegas, Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla., to study the displays and how people interact with them.
“Through both observations and interviews, it is apparent that people identify with passengers that may be closest to them in terms of social status or occupation,” Reeves-DeArmond said. “And that connection is often made by the clothes the passengers wore. The first-class passengers dressed much differently than the third-class passengers.
“Clothing frequently reveals a lot about a particular time in history,” added Reeves-DeArmond, whose studies are based in Oregon State’s Department of Design and Human Environment. “Class differences obviously still exist, but they were much more evident from clothing then. And clothes can reveal other facets of cultural history, such as the length of a dress and the women’s
One little-known historical tidbit, Reeves-DeArmond said, is that one of the fashion designers responsible for ridding the corset from women’s wear – “Lucile” Lady Duff Gordon – was aboard the Titanic.
The actual history of the Titanic may be forever mingled with its depiction in print and on film, and for her study Reeves-DeArmond has interviewed museum visitors ranging in age from 20 to 84, some who have seen the film and others who have not. One facet of her dissertation is to explore how viewing “Titanic” contributes to the museum experience.
It can confuse some visitors to museums and exhibits, Reeves-DeArmond pointed out. Cameron’s film, for example, focuses on the love story between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), who were fictional characters, but were based on composites of several real passengers.
“They were representative of different classes and that was reflected in their clothing,” Reeves-DeArmond said. “James Cameron’s attention to detail was incredible. But likewise, many of the museums and exhibits have clothing and artifacts that really bring the history alive. The museum in Las Vegas has a pair of men’s pants and shoes that survived under the ocean for decades.”
Films, museums and exhibits increasingly are how many people foster an appreciation of science and history, and Oregon State is a leader in the understanding of this phenomenon, called “free-choice learning.” Reeves-DeArmond says the concept could be enhanced even more if curators of the displays would incorporate more of the clothing, even if it is a replica.
“Clothing is often overlooked in these exhibits,” she said. “One of the Titanic museums I visited had a Marconi replica room, and while it was neat to see the equipment, several visitors told me they would have liked to have seen a uniform – to connect with the person who may have been working in there.”
“Dress is a visual language,” she added, “and it is particularly important in the context of the Titanic. It helps take you back 100 years and visualize the people who survived or perished.”