When the Titanic set out on its maiden voyage, the ship carried 324 first-class passengers. These were members of British and American high society, and 145 of them were women. They were of an upper class that lived a life of leisure and were aware of conspicuous consumption, or buying goods mainly for displaying wealth.
With 2012 marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, Liberty Hall Historic Site will be exhibiting several of the gowns that belonged to the Brown family during this era and show how a woman of society from Frankfort would have dressed, particularly on their own ocean sailing trips to Europe, in “Elegance & Opulence: Fashions of the Titanic Era” from the Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections.
Knowing your place in society
Mary Yoder Brown Scott, John and Margaretta Brown’s granddaughter, visited Europe in 1908 and in 1911. Her daughter, Mary Mason Scott, traveled with her in 1911. Both of these women were excited for the cultural and historic sites that they were about to see, but they were also eager to socialize, shop, and enjoy some fine dining.
In 1908, Mary Yoder Brown Scott traveled with her niece, Lillian Mason Brown. She wrote several letters back home discussing her shopping excursions, sight seeing, and the latest gossip. Before boarding the ship, Mrs. Scott visited family in New York City and stayed at The Waldorf Astoria and the Park Avenue Hotel.
She wrote to her sisters at Liberty Hall and said, “There are only 80 first-class passengers so I don’t doubt I will get a room to myself.”
Mrs. Scott was aware of her status as a first-class passenger. Before departing, she wrote to her daughter:
“While I was at dinner Eben[ezer] came in to tell me there was a letter for me in my room telling me a double room was at my disposal or disposition, which ever it is. Wasn’t it nice of him. And the captain is to take care of me at every stopping place. So you see that Lillian and I are to be very comfortable indeed, as people of distinction (so Eben said) should be.”
Mrs. Scott and Lillian crossed the Atlantic on the SS Dampfers, a steamship operated by the Hamburg-American Line. The ladies visited several countries including Spain, France, and Italy. Mrs. Scott wrote a great deal about what people she socialized with, what people were wearing, and what she purchased.
She wrote about buying a dress in Italy in May 1908: “I committed the indiscretion a week ago of having – or rather beginning to have – a white linen dress made. Lil is also having one so we go together for the fittings & oh the worry of it for they are never ready and our precious time is wasted…”
Mary Yoder Brown Scott traveled back to New York from Liverpool in July 1908 aboard the White Star Line SS Baltic. The Baltic sailed between 1904 and 1933. It was the largest ship in the world until 1905.
Perhaps the most famous White Star Line ship is the Titanic.
Icebergs and entertainment
Mrs. Scott returned to Europe in 1911, this time with her daughter, Mary Mason “Mame” Scott. Our knowledge of this trip comes from a journal kept by Mame. Before their departure on Aug. 5, 1911, Mrs. Scott and Mame enjoy breakfast and lunch at the Waldorf and a trip to Tiffany’s diamond and china. They board the SS California and set sail for Europe.
Mame was eager for her journey and wrote, “The Columbia’s collision with iceberg on 4th raises hopes of seeing one of these bergs.” The anchor liner Columbia had struck an iceberg just before the Scotts’ trip, twisting the ship’s bow, but no passengers were endangered, and the ship arrived safely in New York.
Transatlantic liners were warned to proceed with caution, but Mame holds out hope of seeing an iceberg. She does see one on Aug. 8, 1911: “Fog very heavy in evening, passed spot where Columbia rammed ice-berg.”
Mame makes notes of what she observes while on the California. She sees several other steamboats and sailing ships, whales, porpoises, birds, and of course, more icebergs. She even notes the ship’s coordinates. She learns to play shuffleboard while on board, makes several new friends, and loves spending time on the deck.
As previously mentioned, transatlantic trips were opportunities for socializing. Mary Mason Scott made many notes in her journal about what she did on board the SS California, including this entry from Aug. 12, 1911:
“Last game of Shuffle board in afternoon with Misses Boldt and Sooy and Curley. Miss Sooy drenched by unexpected wave to amusement of all. Bridge tournament won by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey. This eating on an Atlantic liner is amazing. Breakfast at 8 A.M. – Bouillon on deck at 11 A.M. – Lunch at 1:30 P.M. – Tea on deck 4 P.M. – Dinner 6:30 P.M – Supper 9 P.M. […] Fletcher wins pool.”
Mrs. Scott and Mame travel throughout Europe visiting England, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. They stop at all of the major tourist destinations. Mame’s favorite city is Paris, and she visits the Louvre three times. The ladies enjoyed meals at the finest hotels, attend the opera, and, of course, do some shopping.
Fashion important in first class
Even though first class guests might have come from unique backgrounds, a majority of the passengers would have agreed with the social expectations of the time. These ideas had been passed down from the stern Victorian era, which was just starting to break apart. Clothing played a vital role in this social framework and was critical for proper etiquette.
Women’s clothing from this time is not only elegant, but the garments make a statement about a woman’s place in society. Ocean liners were opportunities for socializing in formal environments. One’s appearance and behavior was important. These trips were not just a boat ride, but also a social event where passengers would display their wealth and status.
Brown family fashions at Liberty Hall
I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of people here at Liberty Hall Historic Site, and it has come to my attention that there are certain “expectations” visitors have of the houses and the residents that lived here. One of those expectations relates to the clothing what members of the Brown family, particularly the women, wore. It seems that corsets and cage crinolines are what many visitors expect to see as they tour Liberty Hall and the Orlando Brown House.
If you had the opportunity to visit Liberty Hall Historic Site’s “Beautiful Brides” exhibit last summer, which featured five 19th-century bridal gowns, you probably remember the cinched waists on three of the five dresses displayed. But, this tiny waist with an exaggerated skirt wasn’t the normal style for some of the Brown family women, including the first and the last generation to live here.
Brown family women lived here on the property from 1801 through 1955. Needless to say, the four generations had different definitions of what constituted “fashionable.” When Margaretta Brown first arrived at Liberty Hall in 1801, she would have favored neoclassical inspired gowns with a high waistline. Her daughter-in-laws and granddaughters would have appreciated corsets, crinolines, and bustles.
The third and fourth generations of Brown Family women, including the final resident of Liberty Hall, Mary Mason Scott, saw the rejection of restrictive garments. By 1910, wealthier women were bidding farewell to form-fitting clothing and welcoming Parisian haute couture, French for “high sewing” or “high dressmaking.”
These gowns featured a straighter line and were more exotic in both cut and decoration. It is during this era that women also began sporting tailored suits consisting of a matching jacket and skirt for travel and city wear. These types of fashions are familiar in films, such as Titanic, or the British television drama, Downtown Abbey.
Ladies of society
The last women to live at Liberty Hall included Sen. John Brown’s three granddaughters: Margaretta Mason Brown Barret, Mary Yoder Brown Scott, and Eliza Eloise Brown Baily. Each woman had married and hoped to live long happy lives with their husbands, but each was left widowed within 10 years of their respective wedding days. They resided together in Liberty Hall.
Mary Yoder Brown Scott had a daughter named Mary Mason Scott (1867-1934) who, in addition to being the last Brown family descendent to live in Liberty Hall, lived a very interesting, artistic life and had a close relationship to her mother and her two aunts. Mary Mason Scott, known affectionately as “Mame,” never married.
These ladies enjoyed traveling, entertaining, and fashion. They regularly visited family and welcomed guests to Liberty Hall. The names of the Brown Family women frequently graced the society pages of the local newspapers.
There are several gowns from the early 20th-century in the Liberty Hall Historic Site collection that are of high style and reveal the level of sophistication of the women that wore them. One of the dresses of particular interest that is on exhibit in “Elegance & Opulence” is a gown by the House of Worth.
Charles Frederick Worth and haute couture
Charles Frederick Worth (1826-1895) is known as the father of haute couture. Early in his career, Worth apprenticed under two London textile merchants. He gained knowledge of fabrics and dressmaking. In his spare time, he visited the National Gallery and other museums to analyze portraits. The sitters’ costumes provided inspiration for his later creations.
Worth moved to Paris in 1845. He found work with Gagelin and Opigez, a prominent Parisian firm. Worth became a leading salesman and opened a small dressmaking department for the company. Soon, he opened his own firm with a business partner in 1858.
He changed the face of dressmaking by shifting its course from artisanal to artistic production. In other words, dressmaking became an art rather than a craft.
Dressmaking up to this point had been couture à façon, or dressmaking for the individual. Clients would pick a fabric and design and hire a dressmaker to create a gown to their specifications. Worth was involved with every stage of the development of his gowns.
Mary Mason Scott purchased a Worth gown in 1906. The dress had a different silhouette than visitors will see in “Elegance & Opulence,” because Mame had the dress reconstructed in the second decade of the 20th-century to keep up with the changing fashion trends. This shows evidence of Mame’s taste for high fashion and sensibility.
Liberty Hall Historic Site includes Liberty Hall and the Orlando Brown House, both located on Wilkinson Street. The houses are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Tours of Liberty Hall start at noon, 1:30, and 3, leaving from the Orlando Brown House. Admission to the Orlando Brown House is free; there is a small charge for tours of Liberty Hall.
For a complete schedule of hours of operation, upcoming events and programs, or to register for programs visit www.libertyhall.org or call 227-2560.