Nearly two decades ago, the love story between Jack and Rose and the ill-fated voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic broke box office records and launched the careers of leads and then-newcomers Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Not only was Titanic heralded for its special effects and iconic soundtrack, but the intricate Edwardian gowns that Winslet donned for the film as Rose earned costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott an Academy Award in 1998. To mark the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, CR caught up with Scott, who revealed the painstaking research that went into crafting Winslet’s dresses and her favorite costume from the film.
How did designing for the first-class passengers differ from those in the third-class?
[Director] Jim Cameron and I wanted it to be as accurate as possible, so I really studied the period and got the nuances of the styles down. When do you wear gloves? Do you wear gloves this time? Literally there are books written about how many times a day you change your clothes. We read a lot about etiquette and tried to figure out the protocol about how you behave at a table, including the manners of dress. I did a lot of dress restoration from real garments and designed our own from restored pieces of fabric, lace, or old beading. In the third class, down below, it was a mix of different ethnic types and immigrants, and we divided it up like in real life. We represented the kinds of people—Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Scandinavians—who would try to get on the boat and hunted down a lot of interesting ethnic clothing from different countries.
What went into designing Rose’s gowns, specifically the red dress she wears in the scene where she first meets Jack?
I knew it was going to be a dress that involved stunts, and typically a very high-fashion dress would be highly beaded. We had to make multiples of them for [Winslet] and the stunt person. Although Jim didn’t dictate what she wore, he very much used and was aware of the garments in the storytelling. Details like when she steps on the fence of the boat, on the railing, and you can hear on the soundtrack the tinkle tinkle of the beads of the dress. He did very clever things like that that came from him noticing what was in the garment, so it gives you this really wonderful atmosphere.
What about the dress Rose wears when the ship is sinking?
That was one of the dresses that Jim was very involved in, because he wanted to make sure it looked good underwater. It couldn’t have been something like that red dress, because it’s tight, how could she move, and it doesn’t flow. So it ended up being a chiffon piece, where the main ornamentation is the dyeing, and he put some shots in the movie where it’s slow-motion and you can see the dress flowing out from behind her. He’s very attuned to using the elements that he has.
Do you have a favorite dress from the film?
The boarding costume—the purple and white suit. The hat was interesting, because Jim was very adamant about the hat being as big as possible because that was of the period. It was a very big symbol of wealth, and so we basically made the hat as big as I could make it and not have it look ridiculous. [Jim] did a brilliant reveal where [Winslet] tipped her head down, tipped her head back, and you slowly see her face. The shot starts on her feet and it goes up her entire body and it’s a real showcase for the suit. That day we went out to shoot, I hadn’t looked at the car that she was going get in. I was like ‘Oh my god. The doorway is so small. I hope the hat fits. What am I going to do if the hat doesn’t fit through the door?’ Luckily it just made it.
Was it difficult designing clothes for the scenes in the water?
It’s miserable. The water was really cold and we built replicas of things for ages because we didn’t want to put real garments in the water. We shot on location, where it was on the ocean—it was really ocean water and some chlorinated water—which is really hard on clothing. It was really miserable for the actors and stunt people. There were a lot of wetsuits and we started making clothes specifically for that use—wool skirts, trousers, coats—that could get damaged and we wouldn’t feel terrible about it.
What might people not know about the wardrobe for the film?
It was a mix of a lot of vintage and made clothing for the most part, and that almost all of the principal garments were made. People are also surprised to find that all of the women had to wear corsets, because it’s important to establish the silhouette. Just like the pointy bras in the ’50s were important and [for] the flappers in the ’20s not wearing bras was important, that time period had a very strict silhouette that had to do with corseting. Every single extra, everybody had a corset on. Kate really wore corsets under all the gowns. It can be very uncomfortable but I think you get used to it.
What went into making the Heart of the Ocean necklace, which Cameron helped design?
There is a very famous blue diamond the jewelry company Asprey & Garrard had made that was gigantic and so we tried to use it in a design to make the necklace ostentatious. It would’ve been like finding the Hope Diamond. Jim used that as a historical reference, and I did research in jewelry. It has that kind of diamond setting around it, which is the Cartier of the period. He wanted it to be a giant, overstated symbol.
You won an Academy Award for your work in this film. Did you anticipate at the time that the costumes would be as famous as they are now?
Not at all. I’m a huge movie buff, and now I’m not as sure as many people see things in a theater, so it might not be able to benefit from the visuals or art department or anything. It was also because the movie was incredibly popular, and so when you have something that captures the imagination of an audience like that, I was just a lucky participant and again really grateful. Movies come and go very quickly and the fact that it’s endured and I can travel around the world and run into people in Egypt who are like “Titanic! I love that movie! Such a beautiful dress.” It’s amazing.
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