Sunday, April 15, 2012

Style: Titanic Passengers in Fashion Remembered 100 Years Later

As you may know, today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage to New York City. Many groups across the world have found a variety of different ways to remember and reflect on this tragic event and the 1,514 passengers who lost their lives. In keeping with this sentiment, I've decided to share with you a brief reflection on a particular group of passengers aboard the fated ocean liner, those who devoted their careers to the fashion industry. While some of these names may found familiar, I am sure there are some you have never heard of before. I hope you enjoy hearing the stories of these turn-of-the-century famed fashion entrepreneurs.

The most well-known passenger to fall under this category was Isidor Straus. Starting in 1896 he and his brother had full ownership of Macy's Department Stores. Isidor Straus was previously a member of the US House of Representatives, 1894-1895.  By the time they traveled aboard the Titanic, Isidor Straus had been married to his wife, Ida, for over 40 years. They were inseparable, celebrating their birthdays on the same day, even though their actual birthdays were far apart, and writing letters to each other every day that they were not together. So, when Ida was given the opportunity to hop aboard one of the Titanic's lifeboats, she refused, as she did not want to part with her husband. They both gave up their opportunities to escape, offering their spots on lifeboats to younger passengers. Ultimately, they both died aboard the ocean liner at ages 67 and 63. Their funeral drew over 6,000 mourners to Carnegie Hall. Store employees donated what little they had to create a bronze memorial plaque for the couple to be hung in Macy's 34th Street Flagship Store. However, due to building renovations which are set to end in 2015, the plaque has not been on display to the public in the last 10 years.

Another famed passenger at the time was Lucy Christiana, Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Gordon was a leading fashion designer in 1863-1935 who went by the professional name "Lucile". She was the first English designer to receive international acclaim and was especially talented in couture designs and fashion industry public relations. Lucile developed an interest in fashion at an early age by playing with dolls, admiring women's gowns in her family paintings, and making clothes for herself and her sister. She opened her original fashion house in London (1894) and  others later in New York City, Paris, and Chicago (1910-1915). Her client list included royals, nobles, and film and stage personalities - and she even did a lower-priced line for the Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue! She frequently wrote fashion columns for Hearst newspapers, Harper's Baazar, and Good Housekeeping. She also trained the first professional models and staged the first runway / catwalk shows. She took risks with her designs by creating liberating styles for women with "slit skirts", "low necklines", "less restrictive corsets", and "alluring, pared-down lingerie". Lucile (age 48) and her husband, Cosmo, were able to board Titanic's Lifeboat 1.  The boat was capable of holding 40 passengers but only carried 12. There was much controversy at the time about a rumor that Cosmo may have paid off the ship's staff to not return to the wreckage to pick up survivors. However, it is also rumored that Cosmo's payments may have been a gift to the crew, as they discussed with him aboard the lifeboat how they had lost nearly everything when the ship sank. The inquiry's final report concluded that the Duffs did nothing to deter the crew from picking up survivors. Lucile had several close calls. Not only was she aboard the Titanic, but she also survived another shipwreck off Jersey as a child and was booked to travel on the Lusitania's final voyage but cancelled her ticket! One of Lucile's pieces is housed in the permanent collections of London's Victoria & Albert Museum (above left: a Lucile evening dress from 1913) and others have been displayed in a variety of exhibitions in New York. This year her great-granddaughter, Camilla Blois, has re-launched the Lucile brand at

Yet another famous woman aboard was Helen Churchill Candee.  Candee was a feminist and journalist, but was perhaps best known as one of the first acclaimed interior decorators. She had many illustrious clients including President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. She also published a book in 1906 entitled "Decorative Styles and Periods". Candee, age 53, was traveling back to America on the Titanic because she received an important telegram while performing research in Europe for "The Tapestry Book". The telegram informed her that her son had been injured in a car accident. She escaped on Titanic's Lifeboat 6 after falling and fracturing her ankle. She produced one of the first eyewitness accounts in a major magazine and parts of her story are thought to be the inspiration for several key scenes in James Cameron's film.

Finally, there was Adolphe Saalfeld. Saalfeld was a 47-year-old perfume maker from Manchester, England, who brought along 65 vials of perfume samples with him aboard the Titanic. He planned to start his perfume business in New York by displaying these samples to a variety of department stores. Although Saalfeld escaped in one of Titanic's lifeboats, his dreams sank with the ship. With the loss of his precious vials, he came back to England and continued his work as a chemist, never making another attempt at the perfume business. He died 14 years later, a tormented man shunned by society because he was one of the few male survivors. In 2000 his leather satchel filled with 65 perfume vials was recovered from the ship's wreckage by the Mir 1 submersible. Saalfeld's great-great niece, Astra Burka, a Toronto-based filmmaker and architect, took a great interest in the discovery of the vials. In response, she created a 6 minute animated short film entitled "My Titanic Uncle" (2012). The film features the narrative of an actual letter Saalfeld sent to his wife when the Titanic docked in Queenstown, Ireland. It's such a wonderfully creative short film and you can view it below:

Although Benjamin Guggenheim was not exactly involved in the fashion industry, he was arguably the most famous passenger on the ship. The wealthy businessman and his secretary were reported to have spent the night of April 15, 1912 assisting women and children with getting onto the lifeboats. Guggenheim did this while dressed in his finest attire and said, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." Thus, fashion brought an air of dignity to Guggenheim's tragic yet honorable end.

Out of the Titanic's 2,223 passengers, it is amazing to learn that among them were a department store tycoon, a fashion designer, an interior decorator, and a perfume maker. At the time, these industries were certainly not as large or illustrious as they are today. Men and women like Isidor Straus and Lady Duff Gordon really paved the way for those that work in the industry today and should be remembered warmly on this historically significant day!


  1. Beautifully written article, love that Lucile dress you have chosen! Camilla.

  2. nice article and very helpfull information for me, thank you :)

  3. Beautiful post! I love all the photos you have shared here too. Thank you.


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