Ocean Liners: Speed and Style | Full Steam Ahead at the V&A

Empress of Britain, poster for Canadian Pacific Railways, 1920, credit V&A London

Judith Schrut jumps aboard the V&A’s latest show, exploring the glitz, glamour and golden age of the ocean liner.

My late grandmother Freda grew up in a simple rural village in pre-Soviet Russia and, like millions of refugees fleeing Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, travelled en masse to America in the unjolly bowels of a huge ocean liner.  This was known as ‘steerage’ or, as my grandmother put it, “not first class, not second class, not third class, but junk class.”  She dreamt of returning to Europe one day as a tourist on a luxury liner.  And so she was able to do, joining a cruise on the Queen Mary some years later.  A treasured family photograph shows her on board, wearing a slinky pink ballgown and dancing with the ship’s captain.

Now you too can relive the ‘Golden Age’ of ocean travel at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s  2018 opening exhibition,  Ocean Liners: Speed and Style.

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Althought the V&A has been collecting ship-related material for over a century,  this is the  world’s first exhibition to explore the theme of international liners. It’s a dazzling display of paintings, furniture, fashion, lifestyle, technology and photographs, from the early steamships of Victorian Britain through the heady decades of luxury cruise liners like the Titanic, Queen Mary, QE2 and other ‘floating palaces.’

I was invited to the show’s press preview, where organisers were keen to point out this was not merely a display of nostalgia, but a multi-faceted look at the liner’s social, historical and cultural impact. Ocean liners fired up the public imagination, revolutionised travel and connected people and places like never before.  They were at once symbols of national pride and 20th century progress, showed off the cutting edge of engineering and were the epitome of luxury, romance and style.

Fascinating highlights include bespoke textiles, china and glassware,  jewel-encrusted gowns, luxury luggage and a children’s playroom, a diamond tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, a panel from the Titanic’s first class lounge  and  clips from famous ship-themed movies.

First class onboard nursery playroom

And you’re likely to ooh and aah at the show’s magical centre gallery,  complete with lifesize shipdeck, pool and stylish bathers, starry ceiling and recreation of  ‘la grande descente’,  the nightly ritual of first class passengers parading the latest fashions as they descend the ship’s grand staircase for the evening’s dinner, dancing and entertainment.

From South Kensington, the show sets sail for Dundee, where it will open Scotland’s first design museum in September 2018.

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Ocean Liners: Speed and Style runs from 3 February until 17 June 2018 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road London SW7 2RL. Free museum entry;  exhibition tickets £15-18, free for members and children under 12.  Find out more at vam.ac.uk/oceanliners.

About Judith Schrut

Judith is a writer and journalist who writes about people, places, food, the arts and more. Born and raised in California, Judith has lived in her favourite city-- London-- for over 30 years. She writes and blogs regularly for Tikichris and American in Britain Magazine, creating enjoyable-to-read features, previews, reviews and interviews. In her parallel life as a lawyer, Judith pens a plethora of policies, contracts, legal briefs and witness statements. She's also an experienced editor and researcher.
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