On the Titanic, Defined by What They Wore

A surprising amount of ephemera defied logic to survive the sinking of the unsinkable ocean liner that went to the bottom 100 years ago on April 15.

Most astonishing of all the recovered items, it would seem, were the articles of clothing either carried or worn by passengers before the 882-foot-long liner sank in icy water. The ship broke apart and shot to the bottom; its contents fell more slowly, fluttering to the depths like grim leaf fall.

And there, in the lightless saline netherworld, a vest, a trilby hat, a pair of laced boots, a belted valise and an alligator bag (along with a huge range of artifacts) lay scattered across a broad apron of remnants.

The wreck was discovered in 1985 and the objects were brought to the surface over the course of seven expeditions. Perhaps more than the teacups or perfume flacons, the garments eerily conjure lives lost that clear April night, so much so that when the Academy Award-winning designer Deborah L. Scott prepared to create costumes for James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 film “Titanic,” she covered her office walls with photographs of the Titanic’s passengers to absorb the sartorial elements that enliven character.

The removable celluloid collars with laundry marks inside, the man’s vest with a single vertical buttonhole for a watch chain and fob, the homespun finery packed away by village girls as a trousseau for an imaginary future: these sorts of detail were employed by Ms. Scott to summon the beings who once inhabited garments that in some cases, though it is hard to imagine, survived their owners.

Consider, for instance, Marion Meanwell’s handbag.

Using public records, newspaper accounts at the time and the recollections of survivors, historians like Richard Davenport-Hines, author of “Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From,” have pieced together fragmentary biographies of victims like Mrs. Meanwell (nee Ogden), a British milliner traveling aboard the Titanic on a third-class ticket.

As was true of many ocean voyagers of the time, Mrs. Meanwell was on a passage intended to be a momentous alteration of a settled life. First chartered to sail on the liner Majestic, Mrs. Meanwell rebooked on the Titanic after that vessel was removed from regular service. Tucked into her handbag were a number of documents, among them a letter from the London landlords Wheeler Sons Co.

This innocuous note, stating blandly that “we have always found Meanwell a good tenant and prompt in payment of her rent,” carried an extra freight of meaning for an immigrant hoping to build a new life.

“If you were coming over without credentials or with no prospect of work,” Mr. Davenport-Hines said, it was not uncommon for examiners at Ellis Island to refuse entry to new arrivals and to send them home as “vagrants or tramps.”

Then as now, an alligator bag was a luxury item, a satchel of substance carried by a woman whose own social authority it advertised. Mrs. Meanwell was parted from her alligator bag on the night the Titanic sank and, while she perished, her purse did not.

“Inside it was her marriage license, as well as her parents’ wedding license,” said David Galusha, a conservator for Premier Exhibition, the Atlanta-based company that sold the Titanic relics, along with the video archives of its salvage expeditions and the intellectual rights to create objects using the R.M.S. Titanic “brand.”

“She had sold everything, was a widow and was moving to the United States to be with her daughter, who had two children, to assist with them,” Mr. Galusha said of Mrs. Meanwell.

That the bag survived was owed in part to the fact that the objects scattered from the wreck spent the last century, “two miles down, in an environment with no light, and hardly any oxygen,” the conservator said. There was something else. “The thickness of the alligator skin, the quality, is no comparison to what you would find today,” Mr. Galusha said. “There was a general attitude at the time of making things durable, things that would stand the test of time.”



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