Titanic (1997) Corsetry: Historically Accurate?

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So I was noodling around YouTube as one does, and I discovered that Glamour magazine has hired a fashion historian named Raissa Bretaña to create some very slick videos looking at the historical accuracy of the costumes in various films. So far, she’s done Titanic and four Disney movies (Snow White, The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, and Beauty and the Beast). I’ve only watched the one on Titanic — and also grumbled that I should be paid to review the historical accuracy of costume in film, but that’s another story. I overall agreed with her analysis of Titanic, with its gorgeous costumes designed by Deborah Lynn Scott, but I have a nitpick! And isn’t the Internet ALL ABOUT nitpicking? So I thought I’d write a post. (Who knows, maybe I’ll have nitpicks with the others when I get around to watching them!)

Overall, other than the makeup, Bretaña gives a big old thumbs up to Titanic‘s costumes’ historical accuracy. I was nodding along, until she got to Rose’s (played by Kate Winslet) corset, when Bretaña says,

“We see Rose being laced into a corset in one scene of the movie where she has a really important discussion with her mom. The year 1912 specifically was a really interesting time for women and corsets because they were evolving and shaping with the silhouette, but the most modern women started to abandon the corset altogether. This scene perfectly illustrates this push and pull between this more tight-laced past and a more modern future. This is really the beginning of the straightened silhouette that we will see in the 1920s. Just ten years before, the dramatic silhouette was called an S-curve and you can see that in this picture here. Even though the most modern women were already abandoning corsets in 1912, the really rigid traditions of the society in which Rose lives really demanded that she wear one.”

Here’s the video, starting where Bretaña discusses the corsetry:

All of Bretaña’s analysis is 100% correct according to my research… but despite showing an advertisement for a 1912 corset, Bretaña DOESN’T address the historical INaccuracy of the Titanic corset’s CUT (something we mentioned briefly in our really hard trivia quiz!). So, I’m not really disagreeing with her, I’m just expanding on her comments.

Glamour Titanic corsets video

A screenshot from the Glamour video, showing a corset of 1912. Also, Bretaña’s hair is on fleek.

Titanic‘s Corset: Historically Accurate?

In a nutshell: only 50%, from the waist down. First, let’s look at 1911/early 1912 (the Titanic sunk in April 1912) corsets, all from Vogue magazine (Rose is from the extra snooty upper class, so she’d wear the best of the best, probably purchased in Paris, right?):

Corsets 1911-1912 from Vogue Magazine

Various corsets illustrated in Vogue magazine, 1911-early 1912.

And some corsets displayed in a shop window in 1912:

Eugène Atget Window, Corset Shop 1912, MoMA

Window, Corset Shop by Eugène Atget, 1912, Museum of Modern Art

And now let’s look at Rose’s corset in Titanic:

1997 Titanic corset

Rose’s corset in Titanic, designed by Deborah Lynn Scott.

Can you spot the difference?

1997 Titanic corset - Vogue magazine comparison

1997 Titanic corset – Vogue magazine comparison

Corsets of 1912 indeed went low over the hip to smooth out the line, as fashions were fitted and relatively sheath-like. But what they DIDN’T do is cover the bust! In the late 1900s/early 1910s, corsets generally came up just under the bust. Their goal was to smooth out the line of the hip, and contain the figure. This was all based on the “Directoire” silhouette introduced in 1908, a high-waisted, body conscious style compared to earlier Edwardian modes that were more triangular and frilly.

To complicate matters, these weren’t “underbust” corsets either, because the entire bustline was low compared to our modern silhouette. As Vogue reported on Feb. 1, 1911, “The bust is low in keeping with fashion’s decree and the hip portion has the extension which gives the silhouette now in vogue” (emphasis added).

The 1912 Silhouette

There was a big shift in fashion in 1908-09, spearheaded by super body conscious designs introduced by fashion designer Margaine-Lacroix. Margaine-Lacroix’s gowns featured an overall narrower silhouette, more relaxed corsetry, and higher waistline than seen previously. The body-consciousness of the styles, along with the high waistline, was first called “merveilleuse” in reference to the 1790s-1800s French fashionistas who wore comparatively revealing, high-waisted gowns. But the new silhouette quickly became known as “Directoire,” after the pre-Napoleonic period of 1795-99 (during which France was ruled by a government of “Directors”). You can read more about this shift at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea libraries blog, if you’re interested.

Here’s a comparison of 1908 silhouettes with 1909:

1908-09 de Gracieuse

Fashion plates from de Gracieuse magazine, 1908 (left) and 1909 (right). Note the pigeon-breasted silhouette and wider skirts in 1908, and the higher, more fitted waistline and more fitted skirts in 1909.

As the foundation for the clothes that went over it, corsetry shifted as a result. Vogue reminded its readers, “With the great popularity that the high-waisted gowns of the first Empire have reached it should be remembered they are endurable only when all idea of a waist-line is abandoned. There can be nothing more ungainly than such a gown worn by a corseted woman, when the waist and hips are clearly defined below the belt of the gown. The figure, while controlled by a boneless, or knitted silk corset below the waist, and a soutain-gorge above, should appear to be quite corsetless” (Feb. 15, 1911, we’ll talk more about that “soutain-gorge” in a moment). In other words, the emphasis shifted from corsets that nipped the waist, to corsets that smoothed out the hips; in fact, they often were cut with a more relaxed fit at the waist, in order to make the hips look narrower. The French magazine La Vie Parisienne satirized the new silhouette and its corsets:

1908 Dec La Vie parisienne

“The tube-woman,” La Vie Parisienne, December 1908.

Ads for corsets demonstrate that the emphasis was now on narrowing the hips, not nipping the waist. Note that the corset either ends under the bust, or sort of cups the underbust — it’s not a dramatic line, with boobs popping out over the top:

Mar 15, 1912 Vogue magazine 1

“Fashion Demands reduced hips and low bust”: Vogue magazine, Mar. 15, 1912.

Nov 1, 1912 Vogue magazine

“Prominent flesh on thighs below average corset length is perfectly controlled by the La Grecque Thigh Reducer”: Vogue magazine, Nov. 1, 1912.

And as the first ad points, note that the bust point is low, not pushed up:

Feb 15, 1911 Vogue magazine

Vogue, Feb. 15, 1911.

So How Did They Keep Their Boobs Up?

Wait for it: bras. Okay, “brassières” (also sometimes called “bust bodices”), the forerunner to our modern bra. The corset and brassière worked together to smooth the figure and support the bust, as Vogue declared:

“The brassière, even for slight figures, is now becoming almost a necessity, not only because of the scant amount of underclothing which the fashionable French dressmaker allows her patrons to wear, but also because it eliminates that troublesome line of the corset at the top. The brassière makes the extremely low-top corset practical. Without this help the uncorseted figure is likely to be bulging in appearance, and if the bust is at all heavy a support is indispensable, unless the regulation hight [sic] corset is worn” (Nov. 1, 1911).

Brassieres, Vogue magazine, 1911-1912

Brassières, Vogue magazine, 1911-1912.

The brassière was worn overlapping the corset, ending somewhere between the underbust and waistline, where “a tape drawstring holds it down firmly about the waist or immediately below the bust” Vogue, April 1, 1911). There’s conflicting statements about whether they needed to be worn by small-busted women, but they were considered so important to smoothing out “the unsightly corset line” (Vogue, Feb. 1, 1911) that probably most women wore them.

“The Most Modern Women Started to Abandon the Corset Altogether”

Bretaña argues, “The most modern women started to abandon the corset altogether” — something that would probably have appealed to Rose — but notes that “the really rigid traditions of the society in which Rose lives really demanded that she wear one.” 1000% true, but let’s look a little bit more at the “abandonment of the corset.”

One of the most scandalous parts of Margaine-Lacroix’s 1908 designs was the fact that when these first caught the public attention, at the Longchamps races outside Paris, onlookers could tell that the women wearing her designs were NOT wearing corsets. But let’s take a look at those dresses:

Ladies_at_Longchamp_1908

Margaine-Lacroix designs worn at Longchamps, 1908.

As anyone familiar with an uncorseted, ungirdled, unrestricted woman’s body knows, those women may not be wearing conventional boned corsets, but there’s some definite shapewear going on. Here’s another of Margaine-Lacroix’s supposedly “uncorseted” styles:

1908 Oct Les_Modes

Les Modes, October 1908.

As the RBKC libraries blog post notes, Margaine-Lacroix announced that these women were instead wearing “a tight elastic silk jersey,” and that “the outer garment is made to serve as its own corset, the bodice being strengthened with a little whalebone…”

So what might these kind of not-a-corset shapewear thingies look like?

1912 Dec Les_Modes___revue_mensuelle_[...]_bpt6k6144348n_125

“The new KNIT-CORSET of silk,” Les Modes, December.

1908 Nov Les_Mode

“Corset mystère,” Les Modes, November 1908.

Apr 1, 1912 Vogue Magazine

Corsets made of “knitted fabric,” Vogue, April 1, 1912.

So when Vogue declared, “The prevailing straight lines have led to the abolishment of the corset entirely by some women…” (Feb. 15, 1912) — trust me, girl wasn’t walking around all 1970s-like without any shape or support-wear at all.

In fact, this “uncorseted” look had an effect on corsetry as a whole:

“Never before in the history of fashion has the corset been of such paramount importance as it is in the present paradoxically called ‘uncorseted effect,’ for not only must the corset perform its work with even greater and more fundamental results than ever before, but it must accomplish this without even so much as a suggestion of its presence… This does not for an instant mean that the corset has lost favor or has become less of a factor in fashion, or, as has already been said, this article of feminine apparel has never before been of such paramount importance… ” (Vogue, Nov. 1, 1911).

What Would Titanic Look Like With Historically Accurate Corsetry?

Aka, fun with (bad) PhotoShop!

Titanic (1997)

Rose wearing a corset (left), and then a corset with a brassière over it (right); both drawings from Vogue magazine.

Let’s look in-depth at the “boarding suit,” which as Bretaña correctly notes in her video, was directly inspired by a period photograph:

Titanic (1997)

On the left: suit by British designer Linker & Co., Les Modes magazine, January 1912.

Titanic (1997)

Note the difference in where the bust point lies (red line) as well as the width of the bust, and the waistline (green line).

Titanic (1997)

Using PhotoShop, I altered the original (left) image to lower the waistline, lower the bust point, and widen the bust (right).

Would audiences have found this wider, lower bust attractive?

Titanic (1997)

Again, using PhotoShop I altered the original image (left) to lower the bust point, widen the bust, and lower the waist (right).

Probably not, so you can see why the filmmakers went with the silhouette that they used. But it’s interesting to see the differences, and to know more about the real history!

Titanic (1997)

Thirded: original (left), right-hand image altered for a lower bust point, wider bust and waist.

What do you think: historically accurate corsetry and a lower, wider bust on Titanic’s costume designs: yea or nay?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

14 Responses

  1. Amanda

    I have a hate/love/hate relationship with Glamour’s “fact checking” videos. I watched one about Belle, which was done by a different fashion expert and I found the analysis pretty much acurate overall but I had some SERIOUS issues with the Snow White fact check. I would be curious to see your take on the other Glamour Fact checks. I know there were a lot of very disgruntled Norwegian people in the comments of the one for Frozen.

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      (1) I find it weird that Edwardians tried to popularize their health corsets as a healthier alternative to earlier corsets,but the corset covering the hips doesn’t seem mobility friendly(but I have never worn a corset,so I am open to more information by someone who has actually worn both).
      (2) The illustrations for the Glamour series are laughably atrocious.They spend money in hiring learned fashion historians,but whatever illustrations they come up with seem like no attention was paid to the person judging the costumes.They painstakingly mention about the different styles of the entire century,but the illustration ends up like a game of permutation and combination of hairstyle,makeup,sleeves,skirt and bodice silhouette.And “structure” gets depicted as a slouching mess that would make Keira Knightley cringe.
      The costuming in Titanic was so beautiful,I had forgotten how inaccurate the bust silhouette was.Not ugly,but didn’t strike me as anything remotely,vaguely Edwardian on Kate Winslet.They fared better on the supporting characters,but Rose seemed to have been the basis of compromise on the positioning of the bust.I couldn’t find any of those interviews with the director or the costuming team proudly declaring their “cReAtIvE_LiBeRtY” and I find it weird that they chose this specific silhouette on Kate when it wasn’t even popular in the 90s(as far as I remember).The Edwardian fashion is perhaps the most dramatically shaped fashion eras,I wonder the reason for ditching the brassier?bust bodice?ruffly corset cover?,which is infact the yin to the yang of Edwardian corsets.The Edwardian silhouette had been meticulously recreated in many Merchant Ivory films with smaller budgets,so Titanic was a bit weird when it comes to silhouette.Otherwise patterns,fitting,textures,colours,and accessories were on point throughout for the eyes to feast upon.

      Reply
      • Shashwat

        Oops,it wasn’t meant as a reply.Where art thou edit board when I need thee most.

        Reply
  2. Saraquill

    As usual, I take umbrage with the idea that tight foundation garments (Edwardian corsets in this case) equals oppression. Pressure to alter my body via Sisyphean diet and exercise is not freer than wearing extra underwear.

    On a related note, thanks for the pre-Spanx Spanx images.

    Reply
      • ktkittentoes

        If I have to choose between the cruel, vicious oppression of shapewear to make my body conform to whatever shape is in fashion, and the glorious freedom of constant diet and workout to obtain whatever shape is in fashion, I know what I’m picking. Pass the corsets and that plate of sandwiches, please.

        Reply
  3. RLB

    Thanks for the edited crops from the films. They finally make clear to me why women that don’t have the correct “shape” in historical films, do not look like women from the correct period. The dropped bustline does everything.

    Reply
  4. Roxana

    I love the fantasy advert drawings implying hips can be magically reduced to practically nothing by magical corsetry.

    Reply
  5. Orian Hutton

    Interestingly, I prefer the appearance of the lower, wider bust. It just looks more natural. Perhaps, as I age, I am not so keen on a ‘perky’ bust line. :-D

    Reply
  6. Charity

    This scene always bugged me, because it was very obvious in the next scene that she was NOT wearing that ridiculous corset underneath her dress. The weird padded poof up at the top would have shown both in the outline of her Sunday gown and interfered with her cleavage in the later gowns.

    Reply

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