Ocean Liners: Speed & Style at V&A London

The golden age of ocean travel is joyously celebrated at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London with Ocean Liners: Speed and Style. The exhibition is also in collaboration with the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and is the first time that an exploration of design and cultural impact of the ocean liner has been presented. The exhibition investigates the many aspects of liners from the architecture, engineering, and interiors to the chic lifestyle and fashion that was – in the early days of cruising – so much a part of life onboard.

Empress of Britain colour lithograph poster for Canadian Pacific Railways, J.R. Tooby, 1920-31 Victoria &Albert Museum

Included in the presentation is a poster of the Empress of Britain – a colour lithograph of the wondrous ship constructed at John Brown & Co. on Clydebank and launched in 1930. The Empress of Britain was the fastest and most luxurious ship of her time operating between Britain and Canada. This poster advertising Canadian Pacific Railways liner demonstrates how companies diversified transport networks and developed the seamless experience of modern travel. The imposing view of a looming hull in movement with its trailing smoke dramatises the sense of scale and speed, with the extreme stylisation typical of Art Deco.

Marlene Dietrich wearing a day suit by Christian Dior on-board Queen Elizabeth, arriving in New York, 21st December 1950. Getty Images

The German born actress, Marlene Dietrich, was one of the famous stars of the age and frequently crossed the Atlantic on liners. She was see wearing Dior’s “New Look” suit arriving in New York on the Queen Elizabeth. Liner companies were quick to publicise stars travelling on board, and Dietrich was often photographed wearing the very latest fashions.

Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor, Maison Goyard, 1940’s Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California

With the many travel restrictions that exist today – whether by air, land or sea – the emphasis of a different era is highlighted by the luggage that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to take on their travels. The elegant couple frequently travelled on liners between their adoptive homes in France and the United States, and travelled with astonishing quantities of luggage. They once boarded the SS United States with 100 pieces. The Duke’s bags were personalised with his title and yellow and red stripes.

Silk crêpe dress worn by Bernadette Arnal on the maiden voyage of Normandie, Lucien Lelong, France, 1935 Paris, Les Arts Décoratifs

The exclusive – and historic opportunity to see the latest fashions – formed an important part of celebrations during the maiden voyage. Leading French couture houses sent representatives for an on-board show, including Lelong, Callot Soeurs, Jeanne Lanvin, Madeleine Vionnet and Charles Frederick Worth. Each showed a garden party dress, a tailored ensemble and three evening gowns. The faultlessly draped red dress above was worn by Bernadette Arnal, the wife of a partner in the shipping company, Worms & Cie, on the maiden voyage of The Normandie. She was a regular client of Lelong and ordered dresses for the crossing in red, white and blue.

Silk georgette and glass beaded ‘Salambo’ dress, Jeanne Lanvin, Paris 1925. Previously owned by Miss Emilie Grigsby. Given by Lord Southborough Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Dining and dancing in the fabulous restaurants onboard was an elegant and nightly pleasure, and women dressed in resplendent couture fashion. The exquisitely beaded flapper dress above belonged to Miss Emilie Grigsby, a Kentucky-born beauty. She became a wealthy New York socialite, and regularly travelled between Europe and New York on the Olympic, Aquitania and Lusitania. An adventurous and fashionable dresser, she patronised the greatest French couturiers and was a regular client of both Paul Poiret and Jeanne Lanvin. Named ‘Salambo’, this dress evokes the exoticism of Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel, Salambô, and reflects the wider trend for exotic themes in the 1920’s.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style sponsored by Viking Cruises, is a remarkable journey of a truly amazing age of travel. At the V&A through 17th June, and then the exhibition continues at V&A Dundee from 15th September to 24th February 2019. www.vam.ac.uk/oceanliners JG