Opulence and Elegance of the Ocean Liner

This month a fabulous new exhibition opened at the V&A celebrating the romantic and remarkable age of ocean travel. 

The concept of an ocean voyage as a desirable leisure activity, rather than an uncomfortable and dangerous necessity, came about when the US began to clamp down on mass immigration in the 19th century, and shipping companies had to find new ways to fill vessels.

Interior of the Lusitania 

Interior of the Lusitania 

For wealthy Americans, travel in Europe was a mark of status. In the early 1900s, passenger ships catered to these customers by providing extravagant spaces at sea on a par with fine hotels and restaurants. Britain, Germany, and France competed to create showpiece “ships of state,” and new steamers appeared every few years that could lay claim to being more spacious, more luxurious, swifter, and safer than anything that had sailed before. The White Star Line was described as “the only choice for discerning travellers”.  


Shipping companies employed some of the most renowned designers of the day, with the V&A collection including ceramics designed by William de Morgan for P&O liners, and lacquer panels from the French liner Normandie by Jean Dunand.

The Winter Garden on board the S.S. Leviathan 

The Winter Garden on board the S.S. Leviathan 

The ships were floating art deco palaces with the cigarette-holder elegance of liners in their 1930s heyday, when rival British, French, German and Italian ships dashed across the Atlantic at average speeds of up to 31 knots (36mph) with their first-class cargoes of celebrated actors, society beauties and millionaires.  Stained-glass ceilings, libraries and string quartets were found on the upper decks along with cinemas and Parisian style boulevards selling luxury brands and services.  

The 'grande descente', or grand staircase, was a classic design feature of the 20th-century ocean liner. For many passengers the highlight of each day at sea was the theatrical descent from the upper decks into the dining room, where they could see and be seen in their most elegant eveningwear.


Passengers travelling first class responded with matching glamour: the exhibition will include a scarlet silk dress worn by Bernadette Arnal on the Normandie’s maiden voyage, for which she ordered a series of gowns in red, white and blue. 

When dining at the captain’s table, the women wore gowns, diamonds, and furs; the men were decked out in bow ties and tuxes.  The so-called cruise collection is equally acceptable on land and at sea. The style, which came into fashion early in the 20th century when women were liberated from corsets, was originally designed for those who had money and time enough to winter in the warm-weather climes. Private train cars and select ships swiftly whisked the well-dressed well-to-do away to the likes of Antibes, Saint-Tropez, and Monte Carlo.

The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson once boarded the liner SS United States with 100 pieces of matching luggage bought from Maison Goyard of Paris which will be on show at the exhibition.


Also on display will be a Christian Dior suit worn by Marlene Dietrich when she arrived in New York in 1950 on the Queen Elizabeth, and a dazzling Lanvin beaded silk dress, worn in 1925 by Emilie Grigsby, a Kentucky heiress who spent almost as much time on Atlantic liners as she did on land in the 1920s and 30s. 


One of the most poignant items on show is perhaps a diamond and pearl tiara designed by Cartier that survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It was worn on board by Lady Allan, wife of a partner in the shipping company, who escaped when the ship was torpedoed together with her two maids and a suite of luggage. Her two daughters were among the 1,198 who died.

Until 17 June 2018