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Titanic in dry dock, c.1911. © Getty Images

Ocean Liner Glamour

The V&A is this month launching its own celebration of the golden age of ocean travel with its appropriately stylish exhibition ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’
Marlene Dietrich wearing a day suit by Christian Dior onboard Queen Elizabeth, arriving in New York, 21 December 1950 © Getty Images

"Highlights include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915"

There was a time, almost a century ago, when people travelled in style.


Whether by car, boat, or plane, travel demanded its own sartorial statements. And nowhere was this more obvious than if one were aboard the grand ocean liners of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. To celebrate the inimitable style of those who could afford to sail the seven seas with matching luggage, the V&A is this month launching its own celebration of that golden age of ocean travel with its appropriately stylish exhibition ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’.

Organised by the V&A and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, this glorious exhibition explores all aspects of ship design from groundbreaking engineering, architecture and interiors to the fashion and lifestyle aboard these floating palaces. However, as well as focusing on the sheer glamour of ocean voyaging (compared to today’s floating tower blocks), it also highlights the political shifts and international rivalry which used these liners to showcase national ingenuity.

Detail of 'Riveters' from the series Shipbuilding on the Clyde, Stanley Spencer, United Kingdom,  1941 © Imperial War Museums


Not surprisingly, most of us are familiar with the allure of the ocean liner, thanks to its appropriation into pop-culture via such cinematic juggernauts as Ronald Neame’s ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (1972) and James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’. But intriguingly – almost tantalisingly so – the exhibition also examines the sociology of cruising and shifting class structures, as well as the democratisation of 20th century travel. Spectacularly showcasing more than 250 objects, including paintings, sculpture, and ship models, alongside objects from shipyards, wall panels, furniture, fashion, textiles, photographs, posters and film, it also boasts exhibits not seen together since they were first fitted aboard these style behemoths.

Highlights include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, as well as a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first class lounge, returned to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. Others include a stunning interior panel from the smoking room of the French liner, Normandie, created by leading art deco lacquer artist Jean Dunand, and Stanley Spencer’s painting ‘Riveters’ from the 1941 series ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’. The Duke of Windsor’s sumptuous 1940s Goyard luggage also features, on display in Europe for the first time since leaving the Windsor Estate. As the largest machines of their age, ocean liners inevitably became powerful symbols of progress and 20th century modernity and as such the exhibition also includes groundbreaking works by modernist artists, designers and architects inspired by liners such Le Corbusier, Albert Gleizes, Charles Demuth and Eileen Gray.

Beginning with Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern of 1859, the V&A traces the design stories behind some of the world’s most luxurious liners, from the Beaux-arts interiors of Kronprinz Wilhelm, Titanic and its sister ship, Olympic, to the art deco of Queen Mary and Normandie, and the streamlined modernism of SS United States and QE2. It throws light on the famous passengers and the great couturiers who looked to ocean travel to promote their designs.

For instance, on display is the Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich as she arrived in New York aboard the Queen Mary in 1950, and a striking Lucien Lelong couture gown worn for the maiden voyage of Normandie in 1935. Also look out for one of the most important flapper dresses in the V&A’s collection – Jeanne Lanvin’s ‘Salambo’ dress – a version of which was displayed at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The dress belonged to Emilie Grigsby, a renowned wealthy American beauty, who regularly travelled between the UK and New York aboard the Aquitania, Olympic and Lusitania throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

According to Ghislaine Wood, exhibition curator: “The great age of ocean liners has long passed but no form of transport has been so romantic or so remarkable. Three years in the making, this exhibition will show how liners have shaped the modern world in many ways.”


Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is at the V&A until 17 June


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