April is a time when we remember one of the most tragic events during the Edwardian era, the sinking of the Titanic. My local costume society holds an annual Titanic Tea to remember the day, the passengers, and wear the clothing of the year 1912. It is one of the first costume events of the year, and one I thoroughly look forward to making something new for each event. By making something new, I don’t mean sew it from scratch. Goodness knows with three young kids I don’t have the time. Besides, Edwardian / Titanic era clothing from about 1910-1915 is one of the easiest styles of clothing to DIY into a Titanic costume.
Years ago I made a video and article on how to create a Titanic Dress on a Budget using the 1997 Titanic movie’s “swim dress” as inspiration. Since then, I have had more requests for more ideas for both upper, middle, and lower class dresses. This week I took to my closet, found a few more pieces at my local thrift store, and came up with these easy Edwardian Titanic era costumes:
Middle Class Titanic Dress
For starters, I created a basic dress appropriate for the second class passenger who was into the latest fashion style for straight-line dresses but without all the expensive layers, trim, and accessories.
It begins with a simple straight line fitting dress with a modest neckline and short sleeves. Ideally, it would have long sleeves. You could add a lace or sheer long sleeve top to go under it to be more historically accurate. I like the small print on this too (polka dots), but any small print would be ideal for a daytime or informal evening dress. To take it from modern back to 1912 I used a plain lightweight scarf as a sash just under the bust. This creates an empire waist which was the fashion silhouette from 1910 to 1915. This little detail is all you need to transform almost any modern dress back to the mid-Edwardiantime period.
For accessories, I chose a large wide brim hat that complimented the sash color. A middle-class woman would have worn the fanciest hat she could afford, which for many may have been smaller than this and less decorated. I also added a pair of sensible multi-strap Gibson shoes. For a less fancy option, a pair of mid heel lace up Oxfords, slip on pumps, or boots for day wear would have been appropriate. Shop more Edwardian era shoes.
Titanic Tea Dresses
Taking afternoon tea on the Titanic was a welcome breather for first class women to get out of corsets and into something looser, and yes, usually they were white. Middle and lower classes would have had a white tea dress if they could afford it, otherwise they would wear whatever afternoon dress or suit they had already been wearing.
For this look, I found an ivory polyester 1980s dress at the thrift store. It buttoned up the front, so I turned it around so that the top was just the lace inset. I loved that it has longer sleeves (gathered with an elastic band) and an elastic waistband, which I covered with the same sash I used above plus a large silk flower pinned to the center. The overall look is light, loose, and drapey — perfect for an afternoon tea.
I wanted to show you two different ways you can wear this same dress. The left look is ideal for an afternoon tea. It is paired with a smaller felt hat with flower and feather trim, a fancy brooch at the neck, lace gloves, and simple single strap Mary Jane shoes in ivory. The left look is a fancier version ready for evening wear. I used a long lace skirt underneath the dress and gathered up the front of the dress into a ball and secured with with a piece of lace ribbon. The shoes are a bit more detailed with multiple straps also in ivory. The layering plus front gather was a common detail among many first class dresses.
Accessories for the second look could include longer white gloves and some type of decoration for the hair. A large ostrich feather clipped to the back is what I used. A strand of pearls, a drapey sash or pretty hair comb could have been worn as well.
If you dream of something white and lacey you can find plenty of those dresses online. I look for modest white dresses and sometimes I find them in Victorian nightgowns. White tea dresses may only need a sash band and accessories to take them back in time.
Here is another outfit I made for one of my first Titanic events. I used a silver prom dress and added a silk floral lingerie robe on top. A silky purple scarf became the waistband. Easy and cheap!
Titanic Dinner Dresses
Layering dresses over skirts or other dresses is the easiest way to create the layered look popular with 1910-1912 dresses. Just like the formal tea dress above the following looks use the same overdress and underdress to create unique dresses. The overdress here is a thrifted poly satin 1990s dress with mid length sleeves, a high neckline, and a long enough skirt to have some fun with. The underdress is a semi-sheer straight lace dress over a long slip. Ideally, both layers would be the same color/material; however, there are many examples of mixing colors, too.
The top and bottom dress on the left don’t alter the overdress. Instead, they each use a sash in different ways. The top sash is a long fringe scarf tied at the high waist and left to hang long down the center. I saw this on an original 1911 dress and thought it was an easy and different way to wear a sash. The bottom sash I made by pleating some fabric and gluing to a piece of craft foam to create a stiff front. Using buckram would be a more professional choice of stiffener, but craft foam is what I had on hand and it works! I also made two flowers out of wire ribbon and glued them to the center. This was inspired by one of Rose’s day dresses from the 1997 Titanic movie.
The center look is my favorite. All I did was gather the sides of the overdress up a little and softy pin them in place. Easy! The top and bottom right were also simple gathers. The top dress was gathered in the center and the bottom one was gathered all the way around to create a short peplum. These techniques can be used on any dress you have in your closet. You can even use several layers of thin skirts to create multiple drapes underneath your overdress. Look at pictures of Titanic era dresses, and use your imagination to unraveled them into potential layers. If you find a dress that is too low cut simply layer another dress or blouse under it. The possibilities are endless!
These layered dresses are a first class passenger style appropriate for fancy afternoon or dinner wear. Accessories should include a nice pair of heeled pumps, single or multi-strap shoes. Plain shoes were often decorated with a fancy shoe clip, beading or gems. You can up the fancy on plain shoes by adding sticker rhinestones I find in scrap-booking supplies. Learn how here. A nice necklace, light shawl, fan and long gloves are always great additions, too. For daywear, consider adding a flower, feather, and ribbon topped hat. Learn about hat styles here.
The dress above is another one of my layered creations that I wore to a few events and received many compliments on. I found a short lace inset dress that has three layers of sheer chiffon. I layered that short dress over a lace slip dress and added a scarf as my sash. It is probably one of my favorite creations!
The above dress is the Nataya Titanic tea dress that I dressed up for an early 1920s style; however, these can easily be dresses for any late Edwardian / Titanic era event. Remember Downton Abbey season one was set in 1912, the day the Titanic sank!
If all this creative DIY thrifty-ness is too much for you and you want some ready to wear dresses look at this page here. Most of these daytime and evening dresses already embrace the silhouette or style details of the 1910-1919 time period. To complete the look, you just need a few key accessories like gloves, jewelry, shoes, and hat.
Titanic Evening Dress
Besides a tea dress, the next most popular Titanic themed event is an evening dance or gala party. This requires ladies to dress in the finest formal evening gowns trimmed in beading, lace, and embroidery. While it is not impossible to DIY an evening gown, I prefer to buy a modern evening dress and embellish it with additional trim. I look for empire-waist gowns, beaded column gowns, and flowing chiffon dresses that can be dressed up for evening wear. Since most modern evening gowns are sleeveless I will layer on a shawl or find a lace/sheer thin sleeved top to wear under the dress. Adding over the elbow length long gloves keeps the look modest yet elegant.
Accessories for evening dress include jewelry such as a very long faceted bead necklace or a velvet choker necklace. Simple short pendant necklaces were also popular. Jewelry was small and thin so not to distract from the gown. Shop jewelry.
A handfan is a pretty accessory to carry as well as a small beaded purse to hide your cell phone. Evening shoes were basic pumps, often with buckles, clips or flat bows on the toe box. For the hair, a ribbon headband or strands of pearls draped over the crowns was very elegant. A tall single feather often clipped in front or to one side towered over ladies heads.
If you need help modifying or accessorizing your modern evening gowns- please don’t hesitate to ask me for help.
Titanic Movie Dresses
My first article on Titanic dress costumes used the layered technique but with silky robes to create varieties on the upper half of the body. The 1997 Titanic movie dresses were all variations of this. I used the same underdress and peplum overdress as I had above, but this time I added a silk bathrobe before securing with the wide flower band I made. This robe was a lucky find to have pretty floral embroidery on it just like the “Flying” dress in the movie. I have used all sorts of solid and patterned silky bathrobes to layer new creations.
For the costume on the right, I used a velour bathrobe as a coat. It is a beautiful purple robe with a unique crumbled shawl collar that reminded me of this era. I wore it over my Nataya Titanic Tea Dress with a jeweled clasp to keep it closed. I LOVE this costume. My only complaint is a heavy bathrobe is quite warm to wear in spring/summer.
In the dress below, I used a vintage lace top lounge robe as my overlayer on top of a 1960s pink and lace gown. It is another favorite Titanic costume of mine.
Second and Third Class Costumes
Third Class Costumes
So far, all of my examples have been for the upper classes. The first-day dress could have been worn by third class passengers but unlikely. For these poorer passengers, a two or three-piece walking suit was worn for most day or evening occasions. The look was also behind in fashion 5 to 10 years, which means skirts were fuller, jackets shorter, and belts often bigger. See more ideas here.
For these costumes, I started with a wool A-line skirt that was full not narrow. (I should have placed a ruffled petticoat or other full skirts under the skirt to give them more volume) Next, I added an ivory blouse with high neck, long sleeves, and buttons up the back. I then found a very wide belt to connect the top and bottom. For the center look, I paired it with a simple wide brim straw hat without any decoration. The other two hats are an asymmetrically shaped velvet hat with matching bow. Minimally they look perfect for a lower class look.
The left outfit I added a blue wool shawl. On the right I used a vintage 1980s coat that was inspired by the Edwardian era. It came with a matching skirt but in a style a few years ahead. The skirts and coats did not have to match. For shoes, all three looks would have worn lace up or button up heeled boots.
There you have it. A variety of costumes for can make with no sewing skills and a minimal budget for each of the classes.
More DIY costumes:
Victorian DIY costumes – 1840-1900 clothing
1920s costumes – inspired by Downton Abbey
Titanic Costumes/ Dresses
Most of these dresses are modern but in the correct silhouette of the Titanic era. Using the tips in this article can you see how to modify, layer, and accessorize them into 1912 perfection? I hope so.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.