Monday, February 05, 2018

Ocean Liners: Romance on Board

Earlier this week I was invited to the preview of the new blockbuster exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum: Ocean Liners: Speed and Style. If you want a bit of luxury and glamour – and who doesn’t? - this is a must see exhibition.

Cunard poster

It struck me that being on board a 1930s ocean liner as a first class passenger was the 20th century equivalent to being one of the ton in Prinny’s Brighton in about 1820. And, to prove my point, I’m inviting you to come with me back to the glory days of the Ocean Liner and let me take you on a luxury five day London to New York trip – no expense spared.

We are travelling First Class – naturally – with one of the top shipping lines for speed, comfort and attention to detail; perhaps Cunard, or maybe we are on the French liner Normandie, who prided herself on being even faster than the Queen Mary.


A model of the Conte di Savoia, showing the new gyrostabilisers deep in the hull of the ship

We are travelling after 1930 – and this is a must. It was in 1930 that the Conte di Savoia first introduced gyrostabilisers which made travel a whole lot more comfortable; no more being sea-sick, or watching your meals sliding off the tables in the dining room.


The bellboy looks after the first class passengers: nothing is too much trouble

We are greeted on deck by a bellboy who looks about fifteen – and probably is. His job is to make sure Madame or Mademoiselle has a deckchair and, if it is chilly, a warm woollen blanket to put over your knees. Naturally, he will also fetch you a cocktail. The bellboy above is wearing a French uniform, and the deckchair next to him dates to 1935. 

Marlene Dietrich’s day suit by Christian Dior, 1949

We must keep our eyes peeled to see who else is aboard. Marlene Dietrich is a frequent traveller, or we might be lucky enough to meet the handsome and dashing U.S. diplomat, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle Junior, famous for his style.


The dashing U.S. diplomat in his 1940s day suit.

Here he is, gazing out to sea – and being careful to stand in the sort of pose which says: I know that I am an attractive (and wealthy) man and I am well aware that women will look at me. Who knows, I may meet you at dinner.

In Regency times, a young girl would have to be properly introduced to a suitable gentleman – and he would have been thoroughly vetted first by her Mama or chaperone. In the 1930s, things would have been a bit more relaxed: if you had the money, you could buy a first class ticket for the voyage. There’s plenty of scope for the villain to slide on board – his eye on the lovely Lady Mary’s diamonds – or her heart.

Luxury suitcases from the 1940s.

However, you are now in your luxury cabin and your luggage has arrived which a maid is unpacking for you. The set of suitcases in the photo above dates from the 1940s and belongs to the Duke of Windsor who frequently crosses the Atlantic, often with as many as 100 pieces of luggage!


French furniture and wall panelling, 1927

So, let’s look around the ship. In the 1920s and 30s, Art Deco was the prevailing fashion, and luxury liners underwent frequent redecoration to keep them up to date. Above we see some wooden wall panelling from the Beauvais suite on the Ile de France, 1927. It is made of different-coloured marquetry in a floral design. The centre of the panel has a Lalique light which simulated rays of sunlight. It is very much in the French grand style. The two chairs are also French. Very classy, I think you’ll agree – though I’m not sure they look very comfortable.

Still, a gentleman could always invite a lady to take a stroll with him on deck.


Silk georgette and glass beaded ‘Salambo’ dress by Jeanne Lanvin, 1925, worn by Miss Emilie Grigsby.

It is time to dress for dinner. What will you wear? Your maid whispers that some fashionable travellers buy a completely new wardrobe just for the voyage. Everyone is wondering what the Kentucky-born beauty and socialite, Emilie Grigsby, will be wearing. It’s bound to be something both daring and fashionable.  
Nothing changes here. The 1820s young lady, if she’s particularly daring might dampen her petticoat to make her dress cling more closely to her figure.

Silk crepe evening dress by Lucian Lelong

If the spectacular Jeanne Lanvin evening dress is a step too far for you, what about the silk crepe red dress (Lucien Lelong, Paris, 1935) worn by Mme Bernadette Armal on the maiden voyage of the Normandie. I love this dress; cut on the cross, its folds cling to the body sensuously. Many French couture houses sent representatives for an on-board show for this trip, where they each showed a garden party dress, a tailored ensemble and three evening gowns. It is the perfect venue: A-list guests and a captive audience for five days. ‘What else is there to do on the voyage, my dear, but spend money?’

Panel from ‘The Rape of Europa’ from the Normandie.

The Normandie is famous for its top quality Art Deco style. It has a spectacular 140 metre long Grand Salon with a giant glass mural of over 400 panels, predominantly in black and gold and reverse-painted on mirrored glass. It is undoubtedly impressive but I’m not sure I like it.

Surely, the Regency equivalent here is the Brighton Pavilion itself, finally completed in 1820.


Toiletries case by Louis Vuitton. 1934

You have decided what to wear and your maid has artfully attended to your makeup and hair, and eased you into your chosen evening dress. The contents of your Louis Vuitton toiletries case, hand-made in Morocco leather, brass, wood, crystal, silver, ivory and glass, give you confidence. Will that connoisseur of beautiful and well-dress women, Mr Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Junior, be there? And will he notice you?


The Grande Descente

This is the ceremony where first class passengers descend the beautifully curved staircase to the first class dining-room, which shows off their every move. There is the shimmer of silk as the ladies sashay down the stairs. Passengers from the lower classes watch and applaud, but they do not, of course, join in. (The background shows a film of the famous Grande Descente.) Mr Drexel Biddle, Junior, is indeed there, on the stairs, dressed in the fashionable evening wear of the day. His eyes turn towards you; he likes what he sees.

Fans of Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (1932) will remember the scene in the 1830s Assembly Rooms in Godmere where Elfine, now transformed into a Beauty, descends the red-carpeted staircase to the ballroom where she is greeted by ‘a low hum of admiration, the most delightful sound in the world that a woman’s ears can receive.’  As Flora’s mentor, the Abbé Faussse-Maigre, puts it: Lost is that man who sees a beautiful woman descending a noble staircase. I rest my case.


Tableware from the Normandie, 1934.

Back on board the Normandie, Mr Drexel Biddle, Junior, smiles and offers you his arm and, together, you move towards the best dining table. Other women watch you enviously. Time passes….


The ship’s first class swimming pool

Before you part, he asks you to meet him by the swimming pool the following morning. Here we see a variety of swimwear. The lady seated at the back left is wearing a 1968 bikini; the lady standing knee deep in the water with a white swimming cap, sports a red and black 1925-9 swimming costume. The man standing on the side at the back, right, wears a 1926 man’s swim suit; and the lady doing a handstand in the water wears a mustard-yellow two-piece swim suit, 1937-9. Who will you choose to be?
Our voyage is over and we must return to real life. My moral here is that Ocean Liners of the 1930s have much to offer a romantic historical novelist.
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style, sponsored by Viking Cruises, is on until 17th June, 2018. I thoroughly recommend it.
Elizabeth Hawksley


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