In one of "Titanic"'s most memorable scenes, Rose stands between Jack and a chaise lounge, wearing only a kimono-style robe as she tosses a coin his way. "The last thing I need is another picture of me looking like a porcelain doll," she begins. "As a paying customer, I expect to get what I want." She removes her robe, completely naked underneath, and Jack sits there awestruck, unable to form a full sentence.
It's April 14, 1912 and, hours before Titanic sinks, he's going to draw her like one of his French girls. This is scandalous for an era in which women were expected to be clothed to excess; in which they are literally caged in by their corsets, their petticoats, their stockings, belts, and by an inability to button their own dresses. But with the abandonment of her clothing altogether, Rose forges a new future: one in which she is liberated from her past and the expectations placed on her. It is told not just through the story and its dialogue, but through her wardrobe and its evolution.
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When we first meet 17-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukator (portrayed by a 21-year-old Kate Winslet) she's bundled and wrapped head-to-toe, wearing a jacket, dress, gloves, boots and a hat that rivals the ship's own size — structured as stiffly as the rules she's been raised to obey. We learn she is engaged, unhappy and returning to America under duress via the most ignorant and cringe-worthy of all dialogues, in which James Cameron likens Titanic to a slave ship. We see her again in her suite, unpacking paintings by Monet and Picasso while being challenged by Cal Hockley, her domineering fiancé. She's removed only her hat, and when we catch them together again, a similar aesthetic follows: They're having lunch with the ship's crème de la crème and she sits in long sleeves, tailored and corseted to perfection.
In every perceivable way, she's a woman confined. It's only later, when she's pushed to her emotional and mental limit and nearly throws herself off the back of a ship, that she physically rips through the barriers she's consistently obeyed. As she barrels down the ship in tears, her hair comes down. Her dress gets ripped. Her makeup becomes smeared. And when she first meets Jack Dawson (played by a hunky 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio), she is no porcelain doll — rather a sad, tragic, spiraling woman. Her wardrobe is as together as she feels.
But she still attempts to cling to her previous norms and existing aesthetic the next day. While walking around with Jack, her hair is up, her neckline is high and her sleeves are long. Even when she spits over the side of the boat, she's self-conscious and firm. After dinner that night, we meet the Rose from the night before: In third class, she takes off her shoes and gloves, gets a run in her stockings and dances with the train of her dress fastened so she can actually move. She's a carefree teen having a blast, and the more she realizes what happiness looks like, the less she's interested in dressing for a role she never asked for.
Not that she wasn't forced to confront this first-class pedigree for a final time. After Cal loses his mind in the wake of Rose's newfound independence, her mother, Ruth, delivers a somber speech about the realities of their financial situation and reminds Rose that their future relies on that union, however unpleasant Rose may find it. Rose's corset gets laced tighter and tighter as Ruth forbids her from straying from this path while she stands there, helpless.
Outside the obviousness of the film's narrative (clearly Jack and Rose were meant to be, albeit briefly), we should've seen Rose's liberation coming on our own. On "the last time Titanic ever saw daylight," Rose approaches Jack with her hair half up, and for once, the fabric she's wearing has movement — a wrap instead of a jacket — and when she's flying, her pieces fly with her. She — despite eventually swearing never to — actually lets go. Which explains why, as Jack arranges his drawing pencils, she abandons clothing altogether to embark down a path she won't return from. (Because, look: You just don't come back from giving your fiancé a nude portrait of yourself — drawn by a man you're hooking up with.)
When Rose dresses again, she's in something that's not only easy to put on without the aid of a maid or her mother, but that's relatively easy to take off. Plus, it — in all of its traditional sheer, pink femininity — has movement, so much so that when braving the freezing waters of the Atlantic and the trauma of grasping to remain alive, she's able to physically exert herself. Her wardrobe morphs from her gatekeeper to a superhero's uniform, not weighed down by layers or the rigidity of a corset. Instead, she takes on a layer of traditional masculinity — Cal's jacket — as she abandons the lifeboat for Jack, where she decides to stay alive and swim toward a dead man's whistle before reinventing herself on Ellis Island.
"You look nice," Jack says to Rose before they're forced to flee her room. And he's right. She does. But she also looks powerful, having chosen to wear something she can run in, swim in, survive in. She looks, for the first time, like a woman who doesn't really care how nice you think she looks.
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