‘This is a world known only to fashion insiders’
As I smoothed my embellished, one shoulder feathertrimmed dress into a plush sofa in the Champagne Bar, two women sitting on either side of me raised their delicate Waterford Crystal flutes in a spontaneous toast.
“To the golden age of cruise travel,” said one, her diamond necklace shimmering in the soft evening sunshine. Her friend, wearing silk organza, her silver hair piled loosely on top of her head, told me that they cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 every year, but this was the first time they had experienced Cunard’s Transatlantic Fashion Week cruise.
“There’s no better way to re-live the heyday of cruising than on a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary,” she said. “And if there’s going to be a fashion week cruise event it makes complete sense for it to be on this voyage.”
It was day two of Cunard’s seven-night eastbound journey from Southampton to New York, timed to arrive in the city for New York Fashion Week. My new friends, along with the tuxedoed men and elegant women in taffeta gowns wafting down the impressive double staircase, served as a reminder that ocean liners were once the epitome of glamour.
At the turn of the century, such luxuries as champagne bars, lavish ballroom parties and fine dining lured the leisured classes to sea, with film stars including Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall joining voyages – sometimes cruises From Grammy Award-winning jazz artist Herbie Hancock to Eighties rock band The Cure, the Queen Mary 2 has carried more than her fair share of musicians across the Atlantic.
The late David Bowie, right, would arrive with several books and loved to use the time to read, and Sting performed songs from his Broadway musical on to “nowhere” (those that don’t dock) – with a de rigueur range of extravagant travel accessories, from personalised Goyard trunks to hatboxes, vanity cases and garment bags overflowing with haute-couture finery, fur coats, tiaras and precious jewels. Dietrich in particular frequently crossed the Atlantic and was often photographed wearing the latest fashions.
Daywear, in turn, led to the birth of the cruise collection, a concept originally created for those in need of a wardrobe for their mid-season travels. High fashion houses including Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Ralph Lauren now use it as an opportunity to introduce a must-have mid-season collection into the market.
The berets, Mary Jane flats, stripy high-waisted trousers and crop tops shown in Paris last month by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, were modelled against a life-sized ship built inside the city’s iconic Grand Palais (sound effects included seagulls and creaking ropes). After the show, guests including Margot Robbie, Kristen Stewart and Lily-Rose Depp crossed gangplanks to party inside a mock ballroom complete with grand piano, swimming pool and caviar bar. “It was like the set of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but with better clothes,” said a Telegraph fashion reporter.
Although formal wear is no longer essential on board the QM2 the Cunard passenger’s predilection for dolling up is still on point. “Shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps should be banned,” sniffed Doreen, a petite 80-something, from behind her menu at the ship’s Britannia Club Restaurant.
Part of the cruise line’s special “event cruises” – for which other themes include the Genealogy Cruise and The National Symphony Orchestra – Transatlantic Fashion Week is now an annual affair. Curated by Gail Sackloff, former London-based merchandise director of Saks Fifth Avenue, and historian and style commentator Colin McDowell MBE, the event combines fashion shows and “audiences with special guests”… an intriguing proposition that left me with mild wardrobe anxiety.
I needn’t have worried. It soon became apparent that this voyage – as with the cruise line’s other themed events – is masterminded with the Cunard passenger in mind: an experience that embraces their interests, such as a fondness for a sense of occasion, while bringing something different to the table.
“There’s no doubt that Cunard guests take great pride and interest in fashion – especially during our
− the staircase down which first-class passengers would make an entrance before sitting down to dinner. This part of the exhibition also houses a “pool” in which models pose in swimsuits and bikinis.
Among those on show is a knitted wool swim suit from the late 1920s, along with others created in the Fifties by American company Jantzen, which played to the sought-after hourglass figure. Nearby is that heavily
Cruise ship atriums are still a thing. Glittering crystal staircases are found on five of MSC Cruises’ ships. Each Swarovski-inlaid step costs £13,000 a pop. The atrium on P&O Cruises’ Britannia has a memorable
sculpture. At the ship’s launch party actor Rob Brydon dubbed it “Beyoncé’s earring.”
Ocean Liners: Speed and Style runs until June 17, 2018 (vam.ac.uk).
Dress, main, by Julien Macdonald, below left; cruising Twenties style, below