Titanic – Jack Dawson’s Steerage Style
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, charismatic American artist
North Atlantic Ocean, April 1912
Release Date: December 19, 1997
Director: James Cameron
Costume Designer: Deborah Lynn Scott
Tailor: Dominic Gherardi
110 years ago today, the sinking of the RMS Titanic resulted in the deaths of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. The global mourning and focus on transportation safety in the tragedy’s aftermath was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so to speak, as the disaster and those involved have continued to be mythologized in countless books, movies, plays, songs, and more.
For many recent generations, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic was their entry point for learning about the lavish ship and its fateful maiden voyage… though it’s been reported that there’s a distressing amount of people who believe the movie—and the eponymous liner—was entirely fictionalized.
Cameron went to painstaking lengths to recreate the ship and the events of its sinking as accurately as possible, though he knew that even this technological marvel of filmmaking wouldn’t be enough to draw the audiences that would make his passion project financially viable, so he centered the narrative on a fictionalized love story between Philadelphia socialite Rose DeWitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet) and the charming teenage drifter Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-described “tumbleweed blowin’ in the wind” whose poker hand landed him a third-class ticket on Titanic.
While I had once taken serious issue with this framing device, I’ve since come around to appreciate a) the need for such an angle to make the movie more marketable and b) the additional opportunities that Jack and Rose’s star-crossed love gave to editorialize on the dangers of social hierarchy, as plainly illustrated when comparing the survival rate of first-class passengers like Rose against the oft-neglected steerage class like Jack. (Don’t worry, you won’t forget his name; Rose says it at least 80 times during their 48 hours of acquaintanceship.)
The movie’s ostensible villain, Rose’s abusive fiancé—her fiancé!—Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) is certain to remind us of this, smugly assuring his romantic foil that “I always win, Jack,” but it’s Jack who gets the last laugh. Once relegated to existing only in Rose’s memory, the Leomania that followed Titanic‘s release led to the discovery that there was indeed a “J. Dawson” aboard the Titanic, and his grave at Halifax remains one of the most visited among all who perished during the disaster. However, just as our fictional Chippewa Falls-born protagonist claimed no relation to the “Boston Dawsons”, evidently no one involved in making Titanic was aware of the existence of the Irish-born trimmer Joseph Dawson who was barely out of his teens when he died in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912.
What’d He Wear?
Titanic received the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, one of its 11 wins from 14 total nominations, recognizing the painstakingly researched and crafted work of costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott and her team. In addition to accurately dressing masses of people across two eras—don’t forget that the movie is framed by a “present day” deep-sea exploration!—Scott’s work aboard the Titanic included dressing the crew and the three passenger classes differentiated by wealth and status.
Among the challenges faced by Scott’s team was the fact that only the starboard side of Cameron’s full-size Titanic replica had been built to completion (due to the wind-blowing direction), so the scenes set at Southampton where the passengers boarded her port side had to be “flipped” in post-production, meaning that everything—sets, props, hair, and costumes—needed to be built as a mirror image to how it would have looked in real life; for costumes, this meant duplicate costumes with men’s buttons positioned on the left instead of right.
Costume #1: Southampton and Sinking
Jack Dawson’s primary costume throughout Titanic—seen when boarding on Wednesday, April 10, and again on Sunday, April 14, through the sinking—consists of a simple thin collarless shirt with his usual corduroy trousers and boots, occasionally supplemented by an unstructured jacket and waistcoat. Several versions of this outfit have been auctioned, with details from the below listings providing additional background for this post:
- Barneby’s (Shirt, Trousers)
- Heritage Auctions (Jacket, Shirt, Trousers)
- Heritage Auctions (Waistcoat, Shirt, Trousers, Suspenders)
- Nate D. Sanders (Shirt and Trousers)
Jack’s creamy white cotton broadcloth shirt is a “popover” style, an exaggerated version of today’s henley shirts but consistent with “negligee shirts” of the Edwardian era before men regularly wore shirts that fully buttoned up the front. Jack’s shirt has a large bib over the chest, patterned with taupe, white, and slate track stripes against a stone-colored ground. The bib closes with two flat white two-hole buttons with a third button positioned at the top on the round neckline. The full sleeves blouson at the wrists, where they fasten with single-button cuffs that Jack wears undone when rolling up his sleeves to sketch Rose in her stateroom.
The closest thing Jack has to a tailored jacket appears to be the slate-gray cotton twill jacket that he wears during the Southampton poker game that results in his running to board the ship with Fabrizio (Danny Nucci). A Heritage Auctions listing describes this “studio-distressed” jacket as made from gray chambray, though close-ups of Jack—particularly while angling for his full house—distinctively show a twill weave rather than chambray’s plain weave.
The unstructured single-breasted jacket is styled like a ventless suit coat, with notch lapels that often fold back over the three-button front, especially as Jack never wears the jacket closed. The lapels are finished with narrowly welted edges and a buttonhole through each. The set-in sleeves are finished at the shoulders with exposed seams more like a work shirt or casual jacket than the dressier shoulders of a suit jacket, especially as the cuffs are left plain with no buttons or vents. A patch pocket is slung low over the left chest, and there are larger patch pockets over both hips.
Jack only wears this forest green wool waistcoat (vest) when he boards the ship in Southampton. Tailored for DiCaprio to wear by Dominic Gherardi, this single-breasted waistcoat has short notch lapels that roll to a six-button front, though Jack affects a scrappier look by only wearing the top two buttons fastened. The waistcoat has four welted buttons and, as informed by a separate Heritage Auctions listing, a black fabric back and lining with an adjustable buckled strap.
Jack attempts to return to the first-class section of the ship on Sunday, April 14, but his less formal dress and appreciate quickly flags him as a steerage passenger and he’s ordered to return to third-class. Now aware that he needs to be incognito to track down Rose, he outfits himself an unattended overcoat and black bowler hat from the A-Deck Promenade. Known alternately as a “bowler hat” (in the UK) or “derby hat” (in the U.S.), this round-crowned hat was developed by brother milliners Thomas and William Bowler in 1849 and spent the better part of the following century as popular business headgear among upper-class gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jack’s purloined bowler hat, which looks almost endearingly out of place on him, is constructed of all-black felt with black grosgrain silk band and edge braiding.
Even after Jack thankfully abandons the bowler hat in the ship’s gymnasium, he continues wearing the handsomely tailored overcoat, which Spicer Lovejoy (David Warner) explains by the tag is the “property of A.L. Ryerson”, specifically Arthur Ryerson, a prominent real-life first-class passenger who died during the disaster after ushering his wife and three children onto lifeboat number 4. (Fans of A Night to Remember may recall Second Officer Lightoller needing to be cajoled into allowing a 13-year-old boy to join his mother in the lifeboat; in real life, this was Ryerson’s son John, and Lightoller was considerably more hesitant to let the youngster onto the boat.)
Aside from the full evening dress he would later borrow for dinner, this “borrowed” double-breasted coat may be the most attractive piece of Jack’s costumes, an intentional contrast to the character’s own earthier, hard-wearing wardrobe. The woolen coat is constructed from a wide-scaled black and gray herringbone weave that presents an overall charcoal finish, with a wide-bellied shawl collar rather than now-more common notch or peak lapels.
The double-breasted configuration closes through two of the six large black buttons, and there are two buttons at each cuff. The tailoring creates a strong, athletic silhouette by building out the shoulders with padding and roped sleeveheads, then suppressing the waist with a buttoned half-belt in the back above the long vent. Unfortunately for Jack, the coat’s set-in pockets have wide openings that allow Spicer to slip the Heart of the Ocean necklace in to frame him for robbery.
Costume #2: King of the World
Through the earlier days of the voyage, beginning with Jack famously declaring he’s “king of the world!” from the prow as Titanic sails away from Queenstown on Thursday, April 11, Jack wears an earthier outfit consisting of a russet collared popover shirt with his usual corduroys and a plaid mackinaw-style jacket, the latter particularly consistent with what a working-class kid from the Great Lakes region would have trusted. (For what it’s worth, this is my favorite of Jack’s on-screen attire.)
Mackinaw jackets were developed in Michigan almost exactly a century before Titanic sailed when Captain Charles Roberts of the British Army requested that heavy wool blankets be requisitioned as outerwear for his soldiers stationed at Fort St. Joseph through the long winter of 1811 into 1812. Fur trader John Askin Jr. enlisted his wife Madeleine and a group of local Métis women to sew the coats, which were intentionally shorter than officers’ great coats to prevent the skirts getting caught in the snow. Named for the French pronunciation of the Mackinac region of present-day Michigan, these “mackinaw jackets” obtained their characteristic reddish plaid coloration when the original makers ran out of the necessary blue material to make the British soldiers’ coats.
The mackinaw jacket evolved beyond its original military-informed purpose to become a favorite among outdoorsmen, particularly those operating in the snowy upper Midwest regions of Michigan, Minnesota, and indeed Wisconsin, from which the fictional Jack Dawson hails. In 1912, the same year that Jack proclaimed his royal status from Titanic‘s forecastle, A.F. Wallace extolled the mackinaw jacket in Hunter-Trader-Trapper magazine when he wrote that “in no other garment is there so much all-around common sense for outdoor work in cold weather.”
Cut and styled like a naval pea coat, Jack’s thigh-length mackinaw jacket is patterned in a brown, black, and tan shadow plaid wool. The double-breasted front fastens high with two parallel columns of three black marbled buttons each. The coat has a broad ulster collar, slanted side-entry chest pockets, and straight-entry hip pockets. The sleeves are finished with a single vestigial button on each cuff, and the waist is suppressed by a half-belt sewn across the back.
A 2014 Live Auctioneers press release adds some context for the jacket’s relatively limited appearances (appearing only the “king of the world” scene and Jack’s subsequent rescue of Rose) as “the one-of-a-kind period coat was never duplicated for production.”
Given the cold April air on the night of Friday, April 12, when Jack fells compelled to help a suicidal Rose on the poop deck, Jack wears the additional layer of a knitted gilet. A gilet is a more function-oriented type of waistcoat or vest, typically worn for warmth rather than style.
Jack’s charcoal knitted gilet has a ribbed texture, with double sets of narrow white stripes. The mixed fabric and style recall Brown’s Beach Cloth, a rugged early 20th century fabric described by Heddels as “a proprietary two-ply weave blend of 70% wool and 30% cotton” introduced by Massachusetts entrepreneur William W. Brown, who debuted his two-pocket jacket and four-pocket vest in 1901. Though Brown’s original company has been defunct since 1960, its spirit lives on through modern manufacturers like Full Count & Co. who developed a nearly identical replication available at Clutch Cafe.
The edges are rolled in a dark brown sueded fabric, including around the armholes, around the outside, and encircling the four irregularly shaped patch pockets that each slant toward the center of the garment. The waist-length gilet closes with six gunmetal-finished snaps up the front from the waist to the gently dipped V-shaped neckline, though Jack wears the top few poppers undone.
Jack is down to just his shirt sleeves when getting better acquainted with Rose on the Boat Deck on Saturday, April 13, showing more of the brown cotton canvas shirt that shines a purplish finish under the afternoon sun. This popover collared work shirt has a long placket that extends down to his stomach, with four smooth nickel rivet buttons including one at the top that fastens to one of two buttonholes, either against the neckline or on the elongated throat latch that extends from the left side of the collar.
Jack’s habit of wearing the top one or two buttons undone shows the top of his beige thermal cotton crew-neck T-shirt that he wears for warmth, with the frayed ends of each long sleeve showing when he unbuttons and rolls back the sleeves of his brown over-shirt. This shirt also has a patch pocket on each side of the chest with reinforced horizontal yokes across the tops.
Although he was dressed in the creamy white bib shirt during the sinking, Jack appears in this brown popover work shirt when Rose “returns” to Titanic at the end of the movie… intentionally left open to interpretation whether she’s dreaming or has died in her sleep.
Jack’s Everyday Trousers, Braces, and Boots
Although he alternates between his jackets, shirts, and waistcoats, Jack Dawson wears the same corduroy trousers, braces, and boots throughout his time on Titanic. Having originated among European sportsmen requiring something comfortable yet durable for outdoor pursuits, corduroy would have been an ideal cloth for a well-traveled man of limited means like Jack.
Jack’s tan trousers are constructed from a standard-wale corduroy, referring to the number of ridges found in one inch of his velveteen cotton cloth. Tailored by Dominic Gherardi, these high-waisted, flat-front trousers have a double-button front closure above the button-fly, and the only pockets are full-top “frog-mouth” or Western-styled pockets that gently slant against the top of each thigh, with a short split on each side that eases hand access.
The trouser waistband has sets of two buttons on each side of the front to accommodate suspenders with an additional set in the back, each button flanking the notch of a split “fish-mouth” back. Rigged a few inches lower on the back is an integral cinch-strap to adjust the fit through a silver-toned buckle.
Jack tests the limits of his suspenders (braces)—or, more specifically, the trouser buttons they’re attached to—during the intensity of the sinking, but they serve him well; indeed, we see Jack is still wearing his suspenders holding up his trousers when he and Rose swim through the ice-cold water to perch her atop that controversial floating door. (Yes, there was technically room for him to fit, but the door would have likely lacked sufficient buoyancy to keep them both out of the water.)
These suspenders are made of tan elasticized fabric, patterned with three double sets of faint brown stripes, with brass adjusters and dark brown leather hardware, including the leather back patch and the hooks fastening to the buttons along the front and back fo the trouser waistband.
The trousers’ plain-hemmed bottoms cover the shafts of Jack’s well-traveled dark brown leather boots. These wingtip boots are derby-laced with dark brown woven laces up the mid-calf shafts. His taking the time to remove them—perhaps a performative tactic to show Rose that he intended, albeit unwillingly, to jump into the cold water to save her—signals to a suspicious Spicer Lovejoy that there was more to his and Rose’s story on the poop deck than they so clumsily explained.
The “Snake Pit” Tailcoat
“You’re about to go into the snake pit… what are you planning to wear?” The helpful Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) asks Jack upon learning of his invitation to join them for dinner in the first-class dining room. As Jack indicates his casual cotton kit with a shrug, Molly shakes her head: “I figured, come on.”
The next we see, Molly is helping Jack into a black wool evening tailcoat, the pièce de résistance of the full evening dress ensemble he’s borrowed from her absent son.
“You shine up like a new penny!” Molly assures him, and the rig even passes muster with the pretentious Cal.
Cal: Well, it’s amazing! You could almost pass for a gentleman!
Like Cal himself, Jack dresses in the expected formal uniform of Edwardian-era gentry with his white tie and tails. The black barathea wool evening tailcoat features silk-faced peak lapels, vestigial six-button double-breasted front, three-button cuffs covered in the same silk as those on the front, and two additionally decorative buttons above the tails in the back. His low-fastening three-button formal waistcoat is made from white piqué to match the self-tying bow tie and boasts a shawl collar—buttoned to the shoulders—and slim-welted hip pockets.
The matching black formal trousers detailed with the requisite silk side braiding, are held up with black brocade silk suspenders best seen when Jack sheds the tailcoat, waistcoat, and tie for his exhausting “exertions belowdecks” with Rose and his fellow steerage passengers.
We also see more of the white cotton dress shirt, which buttons up the back so not to interrupt the stiff white front bib that’s detailed with same mother-of-pearl studs to match the links fastening his single cuffs. Though he keeps the shirt’s brass neck stud-buttons fastened, the stiff white wing collar eventually lives up to its name and evidently flies off of Mr. Dawson’s neck as collateral damage from his centrifugal dance with Rose.
Although the black patent leather side-button cap-toe ankle boots differ from Jack’s usual worn-in footwear, they serve him ably as dancing shoes. According to Gentleman’s Gazette, the half-century heyday of side-button boots lasted from the 1880s through the early 1930s, though they gradually fell out of popularity among all but the highest gentry following World War I.
What to Imbibe
I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.
Almost on queue, a dining room steward appears over Jack’s shoulder with a bottle of Moët & Chandon, toward which Jack raises his crystal coupe (“I’ll take some more of that”) before establishing the evening’s toast:
I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You don’t know what hand you’re gonna get dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you… to make each day count.
Despite the wealth of documentation around Titanic‘s menus, I’d had some difficulty finding a straight answer regarding what wines were officially served by White Star Line during the voyage. While Joy’s Joys of Wine shares that some Moët corks had been found among the wreckage, current consensus—among both Joy and Touton—is that the official champagne on the ship was Heidsieck “Gout Americain” Extra Dry, a sweet sparkling wine from the venerated Heidsieck & Co Monopole house.
Jack ably goes through the motions of first-class dining, though he and Rose appear considerably more comfortable swilling beer in steerage. Root beer was poured in Leo and Kate’s mugs to represent a more potent brew, suggested to be Bass Ale based on the bottles swung by their fellow revelers and the historical fact that 12,000 bottles of Bass Ale had been loaded aboard the ship for her maiden voyage.
If you’re in the mood for something a little fancier to accompany your Titanic viewing party, there are obvious reasons why I’d recommend the Jack Rose cocktail. This applejack-based cocktail was contemporary to the Titanic, with early mentions including a 1905 article in the National Police Gazette citing its creation by New Jersey bartender Frank J. May before it was popularized through the roaring ’20s literary scene as a favorite of John Steinbeck and included in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises.
To mix a Jack Rose per Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, pour an ounce and a half of applejack brandy (I use Laird’s), a half-ounce of lemon or lime juice (I prefer lime), and a teaspoon of grenadine (I use Rose’s) into an ice-filled shaker, shake until ice-cold, and strain it into a chilled martini glass, which is then garnished with a lemon zest. Drinker beware: do not take a sip every time Jack or Rose say the other’s name, as you’ll be blotto before the ship even hits the iceberg.
How to Get the Look
When not borrowing tailcoats or overcoats to fit in among Rose’s snobbish peers, Jack Dawson dresses comfortably in the scrappy but durable duds of an Edwardian-era drifter, comprised of hard-wearing workwear like jackets, waistcoats, and pullover shirts all worn with his suspender-appointed corduroy trousers and well-traveled wingtip boots.
- Gray cotton twill single-breasted 3-button sport jacket with notch lapels, patch breast pocket, patch hip pockets, plain cuffs, and ventless back
- Forest green wool single-breasted 6-button waistcoat with notch lapels and four welted pockets
- Ecru cotton broadcloth pullover “negligee shirt” with striped 3-button collarless bib and button cuffs
- Tan corduroy cotton high-waisted flat-front trousers with external suspender buttons, two-button closure, “frogmouth” full-top front pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Brown leather wingtip mid-calf derby boots
- Tan striped suspenders with brass adjusters and dark brown leather hooks
Many pieces inspired by Jack’s costumes were contemporarily recreated by J. Peterman, and these occasionally are auctioned as seen in these Heritage Auctions listings for the “King of the World” outfit and the sinking outfit.
While much of Jack’s costumes are understandably rooted in 1912 fashions, there are pieces offered by modern retailers (as of April 2022) that can add a touch of Titanic style to your closet:
- Jackets and Vests:
- Buck Mason Felted Chore Coat in in charcoal merino wool (Buck Mason)
- Burgus Plus BP16906 Jazz Nep HBT French Work Jacket in gray cotton blend (Clutch Cafe)
- J. Crew Knit Blazer in heathered carbon poly/cotton (J. Crew Factory)
- Full Count & Co. Brown’s Beach BBJ9-001 Early Vest (Clutch Cafe)
- Everlane Flannel Popover Shirt in heathered nutmeg (Everlane)
- Post Overalls Navy Cut Shirt in olive cotton poplin (Clutch Cafe)
- RRL Michelle Bib Shirt in blue/white stripe cotton (STAG Provisions)
- Belafonte Ragtime Clothing 1890 Jute Cotton Aged Canvas Trousers in beige (Clutch Cafe)
- J. Peterman Corduroy French Work Pants in pale gold (J. Peterman Company)
- Aldo Salinger Boot in cognac leather (DSW)
- Allen Edmonds Dalton Weatherproof Dress Boot with Dainite Rubber Sole in brown leather (Amazon)
- Thursday Wingtip Boot in brown full-grain leather (Thursday Boot Co.)
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
I also highly recommend reading Walter Lord’s 1955 nonfiction volume A Night to Remember, followed by watching the 1958 docudrama inspired by the book that remains a definitive cinematic adaptation of the tragedy. One of my favorite movies, A Night to Remember stars Kenneth More as Titanic‘s Second Officer Charles Lightoller among other recognizable faces like Honor Blackman, Bernard Fox, and David McCallum.
Cameron had been inspired to make Titanic after watching A Night to Remember, and you can see many parallels of the earlier film in his 1997 blockbuster, as this excellent side-by-side video illustrates.
For real enthusiasts, I recommend watching either (or both) of last night’s real-time livestreams of intensely detailed animations of the sinking backed by commentary from Titanic experts, including Part-Time Explorer and Titanic: Honor and Glory.
When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.