One of the women who put glamour into travel, Marlene Dietrich.
The man who put the grit into steam, I.K. Brunel.
Children’s chair from the first-class playroom on the Normandie, about 1934, France. © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California.
Empress of Britain colour lithograph poster for Canadian Pacific Railways, 1920 - 31. Museum no. E.2215-1931. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Silk georgette and glass beaded ‘Salambo’ dress by Jeanne Lanvin, 1925, France. Museum no. T.151&A-1967. Given by Lord Southborough. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Wooden panel fragment from the a-class lounge on the Titanic, about 1911. © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912.

The constant need to reach our destination as fast as possible has perhaps obscured the real joy of travel. As the old saying goes, with the correct use of ‘hopefully’, “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” Apart from a few cases, such as the Titanic, the great ocean liners of the past did arrive, and the journey was a pleasure for those on board, unless they happened to be in DiCaprio’s class.

If anything should be an impossible challenge for museum curators to reproduce, this experience would have to rank alongside other bygone means of travel, such as walking with boots that didn’t differentiate between right and left feet. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has pulled of a maritime feat on dry land.

As the world’s leading museum of design, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’ is just one of its recent triumphs. Exhibitions about opera, the Sixties and Winnie the Pooh have all generated unexpected excitement on the part of visitors. The only disappointment for this writer was an entire exhibition dedicated to Pink Floyd. Did the rock dinosaurs deserve it? The length of the queues would suggest so, unless they were just sheep queuing to be slaughtered to the tune of RM100 for the privilege of seeing and hearing the sort of music that never gets played on the radio any more. The most interesting thing about Pink Floyd would have been the Malaysian connection with the famous Battersea Power Station. Instead, the emphasis was on the giant inflatable pig that got out of control and had to be shot down.

‘Ocean Liners’ is altogether more refined. A haven of comfort in the snowy wastes of a London March. Anyone under 60 rarely contemplates cruises. You need a lot of time on your hands and a fair amount of money. In the past, it was an inevitable part of getting from A to B and was done with levels of graciousness that corresponded with the traveller’s budget. Nowadays, when we hear from our captain on the plane, we know that his weather report will be the full extent of communication. Sea captains had to sit with their customers, day after day, and listen to their complaints and compliments.

Diamond and pearl tiara saved from the Lusitania, Cartier, 1909, France. Marian Gerard, Cartier Collection. © Cartier.

Personification of style

From the moment visitors leave the dark and draughty corridor of the V&A’s east wing on their way into the exhibition, they enter a different world. Not the one that Harrods up the road promises. This is a world that doesn’t exist these days although the main sponsor of the exhibition, Viking Cruises, does a good job pretending that their vessels are the heirs to what were, at the time, the largest man-made constructions in existence.

Ocean liners weren’t all about deck quoits and furtive romances. They were the personification of style. They were floating fashion shows in which most of the female passengers tried to compete with others on these borderless meeting places of the world’s Beautiful People. Just to keep us grounded though, the curators of the exhibition give us some videos of Adolf Hitler too. He seems to have been very proud of the German achievement in ocean-going luxury and technology, even if history has largely forgotten this part of Nazi folklore. The airborne version of it is visible in Indiana Jones III.

There are videos all over the place, including an enormous screen of a ship that does nothing but glide effortlessly before our eyes before disappearing and reappearing on the other side. These steel beasts were not just massive but graceful too. The one effect that the exhibition doesn’t re-create is choppy water. There are still disasters aplenty. The Titanic features prominently, of course. In a masterful piece of display, a piece of wood paneling from the first-class lounge appears to float on projected water. Something similar is done with passengers in a swimming pool but somehow this one looks less convincing. Maybe the mannequins are just too glamorous for the intended purpose.

Undoubtedly A-list glam passengers used these ships. There are numerous photos of the likes of Marlene Dietrich arriving in New York clad in Christian Dior. There wouldn’t have been any other way of getting there, but she could have gone incognito. That was not the spirit of the time, however. Excess was all around. A Cartier diamond tiara was one of the items recovered from the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans in the First World War.

No mistaking which frequent traveller this luggage belonged to © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California.

A theatrical experience

More important even than clothes and jewellery was the ocean liner’s contribution to design. Many of the great pioneers of 20th century style shaped the look of these ships, which in turn influenced the interior design of homes and hotels around the world. No less a figure than the architect Le Corbusier owed a debt to these floating palaces that competed with each other to be more than just the best.

They dictated taste and brought the world together. I wish there had been a bit more bringing Southeast Asia into the picture, but the emphasis is very much on transatlantic routes. A pipe-smoking planter in pursuit of a ‘stengah’ does not convey the same magic as Wallis Simpson sipping a Cosmopolitan. The Duke of Windsor’s luggage is part of the display package and like other travellers of the time, he didn’t have to worry about grumpy security guards or sniffer dogs.

This exhibition is an almost theatrical experience much like those transatlantic crossings of the past. Anyone who has marveled at the Emirates business class bar will be astounded when they see how much more there was on offer in the past.

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