Did the Best-Dressed Passengers Survive the Titanic?

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How important were the proper clothes in ensuring passengers a spot on a lifeboat?

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Images of Titanic passengers are projected on a wall in a replica first class cabin / Reuters

Guy Trebay in the New York Times examines the clothing retrieved by salvage dives to the Titanic. Among other things, they don't make alligator bags like they used to a hundred years ago. I have a special interest in top hats, and it's amazing to see that a collapsible one (presumably with the usual spring steel frame) survived a hundred years of the sea. A tip of the hat to the makers as well as the conservators.

There's also evidence of the history of the human body over the 20th century:

[P]eople were generally smaller in 1912, had tidier heads, more-compact torsos, less-capacious lungs.

"Take the trilby," Mr. Galusha, the conservator, said, referring to a felt hat that emerged from conservation in such pristine condition that "it could literally be worn right now," although only by a woman with a small head.

"There's a C.S.I. side of this story," he said. The size of the hat tacitly points to shifts in diet over the last century, to the introduction of antibiotics and vitamins. "On average, the size of our rib cages increases 4 percent per generation," Mr. Galusha said, a claim that would go a long way toward explaining why the contemporary bride can't fit into her grandmother's wedding gown.

I have a vintage silk hat in its original box made in Albany, New York, in 1846, received as a present years ago. Unfortunately, there are few men it would fit today. That's why larger-sized used top hats in England have escalated in value after the manufacture of real silk plush in France was discontinued over 50 years ago.

Less certain is the role of clothing in deciding who lived and died during the evacuation.

There is the tragic noblesse of the first-class passengers, people named Straus and Widener and Guggenheim; the hopeless scrabbling of the businessmen and boys traveling in second class, some kept at gunpoint from entering lifeboats that went off half-filled; and the wretched doom of those nameless victims at the bottom of the social scale.

"They were all judged finally on their clothes and the quality of their clothes," Mr. [Richard] Davenport-Hines said, adding that among the aspects of the story most laden with pathos is the contemporary depiction of bodies frozen into life jackets and hauled from the North Atlantic and sorted by class, largely according to what else they had on.

The structure of the ship certainly favored first-class passengers, who were closest to the lifeboats and had the relatively more stewards helping them. They were also much more likely to have been frequent White Star passengers. (Wikipedia has a good summary here.) But the officers in charge of loading the lifeboats could hardly have acted as nightclub doormen. The evacuation order was given after midnight, when most passengers of all classes were in their cabins and probably preparing for bed. Passengers were wearing bulky life vests. 

So clothing cues might have been hard to read on a moonless night even if officers had wanted to do so. And if signs of income and social background were so important, why did a greater proportion of third-class than of second-class men survive, since any visible clothing distinctions would have been more marked than between first- and second-class men?

The low rate of second-class male survival is still a puzzle. But clothing probably had almost nothing to do with it. The most plausible explanation may be that of Lawrence Beesley (see my previous post here):

[I[f the second-class ladies were not expected to enter a boat from the first class deck, while steerage passengers were allowed access to the second-class deck, it would seem to press rather hardly on the second-class men.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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