Julian Fellowes has written an American version of Downton Abbey for HBO, so we’re recapping this first season of The Gilded Age! Starting in 1882, the story promises to be a juicy soap opera of new money vs. old with lots of bustle gowns. Check here on Tuesdays for our recap of the previous week’s episode.
We’ve got a brand-new historical TV series, but from a well-known source, Mr. Downton Abbey himself, so we can expect similar tropes and themes. While the story of The Gilded Age (2022-) may not be the most original, what’s exciting for us here at Frock Flicks HQ is that the production is funded by HBO, so there’s a ton of gorgeous period costumes and interiors to look at. And better still, it’s bustle era, which is a particular favorite of mine and one that hasn’t gotten much TV / movie love recently. Thus, I’m gonna try to recap this baby! New episodes drop on Monday nights, and a week later on Tuesday, I’ll post my recap — because it’ll take me that long to screencap and get together a decent article.
Note that I’m mostly focusing on the costumes, not the plot, but I’ll mention plot, so there will be spoilers. And while I’ll do some historical analysis in each episode, I plan to write an overall analysis after the nine episodes of the series have finished airing. Just setting expectations here!
Oh, and this being the first episode, I may include more pix and blather because there’s a lot of setup going on. My first impression of the costumes are good — there’s a big budget at play and a lot of attention to detail. What folks in our audience will undoubtedly complain about are, IMO, style choices by costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Yes, there’s one character who strays from strict historical accuracy in clothing. That is specifically done to highlight who the character is and how she moves in this world. It’s a very conscious choice, as I’ll note later.
Look at it this way. There are frock flicks that simply do not care about historically accurate clothing, such as Reign (2013-17). It’s a choice they made for the entire show. Then, there are flicks like The Tudors (2007-10) or Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) that purport to care about history but want to push a certain agenda (“history is sexy!” “history is modern and relatable!”). Something like Bridgerton (2020-) takes a different road by using history as merely a background for doing its own thing. Downton Abbey (2010-15) both had an agenda about history (“the upper classes were the best even as they were dying off!”) but also used history as a background. I think The Gilded Age will be a mix of Downton and Bridgerton, a little bit of an agenda but also a fantasy, and the costumes reflect that.
Some reviews of the first episode have been particularly harsh in terms of the plot and pacing, but a fashion blogger I sometimes read had this observation that really resonated with me:
“I keep thinking about that article I shared last week about why every TV show is so dark and dreary. (Vox) And The Gilded Age is anything but. Saturated color, actors walk purposefully into direct light, there is no trash or even horse poop on the roads. It’s shiny and new and bright and colorful and it feels like a vacation. The cast is full of Broadway stars and well-known faces. It especially feels like a vacation because it’s not about murder or lies or a dystopian future or the paranormal.” — Alison Gary, Wardrobe Oxygen
Even in the frock flicks world, there’s been a move towards “gritty” and “moody” in the past few years, which is a hell of a lot to take on top of our Real World problems. Also, as a friend pointed out to me, there are several frock flicks series running right now that have just fair to middling acting and plots, nothing special, but ALSO, have just fair to middling quality of costumes and production design (
* Around the World in 80 Days). At least The Gilded Age spent money on the visuals and has some great actors, even if the dialog and plot, so far, is a bit standard-issue.
The show opens in New York City, 1882. Right there, I must point out my pet peeve of naming the show’s date when the costumes don’t exactly match and when the date isn’t totally relevant. The costumes in this first episode skew more towards the mid-1880s than the early part of the decade. Unless there will be some intricate plotting that means the year is relevant, that could have been left off!
The early bustle shape, called the natural form, was very slim and body hugging. This started in the mid- to late 1870s and was going out of fashion by 1882. A rather architectural bustle that projected directly back from the body came in around 1883 and was popular until the end of the decade. (For reference, the first bustle style in the early 1870s, was much softer and rounder in shape.) While this may seem like nit-picky minutiae, it’s the same as following jeans fashions today, when boot-cut becomes passé and skinny jeans are all the rage. The most wealthy and fashionable people would know these trends — and The Gilded Age is chock full of wealthy and fashionable people!
The first scene gives a glimpse of Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) in a blue and yellow gown. Watch her, because despite being a rather mousey spinster, she’ll have as many costume changes as the nouveau riche main character!
We head to Pennsylvania, where Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) has been left orphaned and penniless by her spendthrift father. The solicitor takes pity on her and obviously has the hots for her, but not in a creepy way (he’s close in age). She’s just wearing boring black mourning clothes, so no screencap yet.
Back in New York, Ada has written to her niece Marian — now we get a lot of backstory. Ada and her widowed sister Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) disliked their brother, Marian’s father, because he wasted all their family money. It’ll come out later this ep that his BS is why Agnes had to marry a jerk, and I’m guessing it’s also why Ada never married.
Ada’s costume trademarks seem to be high-necked bodices, bright colors in either blue/greens or red/yellow/oranges, and often military or menswear details. In other words, classic early 1880s.
Agnes’ skirt has fringed panels, her bodice has double collars, her cuffs are ruffled, and her gown’s in a damask. All less severe, more embellished elements than Ada.
Directly across the street from Agnes and Ada’s house is a brand new, super fancy house built by the Russells. George Russell (Morgan Spector) is a cliche robber baron who does dirty business deals and is hinted will later have an affair with his wife’s maid. His wife Bertha (Carrie Coon) is a mega social climber, and her clothes will upset all the historical costuming purists.
Honestly, I find almost everything she wears a bit tacky or at least not to my taste, but I can TOTALLY see what the costume designer is doing. This character is a walking embodiment of New Money Who Doesn’t Fit In With Established Society. Her entire look is “off” in terms of what a wealthy woman would be wearing in the 1880s. And her lady’s maid, who formerly worked at Old Money houses, loudly critiques her mistress to the other servants as ‘not getting it’ and not knowing how to do things ‘properly.’ This is the theme Bertha is expressing with every fibre of her being and clothing. She doesn’t fit in, she’s not doing it quite right.
That “eww” reaction all the students of historical costume are having is exactly the point — Bertha Russell doesn’t know how to dress appropriate to her newly acquired station in life. Her clothes show that. She sticks out like a sore thumb. This gown is actually reminiscent of late 1880s evening wear with the strong V shape. But you don’t wear an evening bodice under a day jacket; they’re two different things. And that’s something a new-money lady like Bertha doesn’t get. Combined with the shiny fabrics and exaggerated details, all done in bright colors, everything Bertha wears makes her look out-of-sync with the society she so desperately wants to be part of.
Over in the van Rhijn house, Ada watches a room being made up for Marian. This is her third dress already, yes, I’m keeping score.
Marian leaves Pennsylvania for New York, but her purse is stolen at the train station. In the mayhem, she falls and tears the skirt of the woman next to her. Then she talks this same woman, Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), into buying her a new train ticket. It’s all rather weird and presumptuous, but I guess they had to figure out some way for these characters to meet.
Back in New York, the Russell’s older child, Larry (Harry Richardson), has briefly come home so mom Bertha can hen-peck him a little bit. But he’s quickly off to a house party in Newport where he’ll hob-nob with fancy folks, who apparently are OK with him but not his parents (huh?).
The Russells have dinner, and we see their younger child, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), who is probably close in age to Marian but is treated like a little baby. She’s not officially “out” in society yet, and her mom doesn’t seem to let her out of the house hardly at all. We can only see costume necklines at the dinner table, but I’m including them.
However, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that lace neckline has historical precedents, such as…
I think Gladys is wearing a very pale pink with embroidered roses, and it looks like it’ll be in the 18th-century revival style she almost exclusively wears this episode.
After missing a ferry due to bad weather, Marian finally arrives at her aunts’ house, and she brings Peggy along because she didn’t want her waiting for another ferry all alone (yeah, their whole story setup feels weak; I’m going to ignore it because, so far, Peggy is more interesting character and Denée Benton seems like a better actor than Marian / Louisa Jacobson).
Agnes allows Peggy to stay because it comes out that Peggy attended the school for colored people in Doylestown, PA, that the Brooks family used to support. So the random connection comes around in a very Victorian novel kind of way, I guess.
Peggy’s first outfit is in a great plaid and those pleated ribbons are to die for. Hard to see a full-length or side view, but I think this is more of the natural-form, slim-fit style of the early 1880s. I guess younger and / or poorer characters will be wearing fashions of the earlier part of the decade, while older and / or wealthier characters will be wearing fashions of the middle decade.
They give Peggy a room in the servants’ quarters, and she has to eat dinner with the servants, who are none too pleased by this turn of events. The butler seems nice enough about it, but the Irish maid is snooty about serving Peggy dinner and literally says of Black people moving north, “they’re coming up here to take our jobs.” EYE ROLL Also, the older lady maid asks Peggy “do you drink coffee?” as if Peggy is from another planet, not like she’s just another person who, yes, knows what coffee is and might or might not drink it. Holy micro-aggressions, Batman!
The next morning, Agnes complains about how much correspondence she has piling up. Peggy offers to help, and since Agnes loves her penmanship so much, she hires Peggy as her secretary.
Over at the Russells, Bertha tells her daughter not to slouch, while plotting how to get on the good side of genteel society. Tip #1 from me would be: don’t dress like this. It’s another evening gown worn during the day, for starters. And while it has definite historical elements, it looks like they’re sewn on top of a 21st-c. column-style evening gown. But Bertha isn’t listening.
Gladys is dressed like an 18th-century child, although even little girls in the 18th century WOULD PUT THEIR HAIR UP.
There was a revival of 18th-century fashions in the 1880s, but I don’t think it was quite this literal, not in the fashion plates and extant garments I’ve seen. It was more of an inspiration not fully recreating garments (except for fancy-dress balls). Compare with this fashion plate, where you can see an 18th-century influence in the cut of the bodice and polonaise skirt, but overall the look is still that of an 1880s ensemble.
There must be plenty of charitable work for idle rich young ladies to go around, because Agnes suggests the same occupation to Marian, who’s still wearing mourning dress. But Ada has her fifth outfit.
In beachy Newport, Mrs. Marion “Mamie” Fish is throwing a party for all the most fashionable young folks, including Larry Russell (again, how does the nouveau rich kid get invited but his mom is snootily looked down on? is it the patriarchy? maybe it’s the patriarchy). Mrs. Fish sets Larry up with Caroline “Carrie” Astor (Amy Forsyth), the fourth child of Mrs. Caroline “Lina” Astor.
Mrs. Fish and the Astors are all real historical people who lead the old-money New York high society of the period. Specifically, Mrs. Astor was considered the gatekeeper, and if you didn’t get a personal invitation from her, you weren’t part of “The Four Hundred,” aka the only truly fashionable people who mattered in New York. Old money inherited it, new money earned it, often by unsavory methods. This is really the crux of The Gilded Age‘s plot, the conflict between these groups. For example, the Vanderbilts built their vast fortune through ships and railroads, which Mrs. Astor found distasteful, and she refused to call on Mrs. Vanderbilt. It wasn’t until Carrie Astor wanted to attend a particular ball that Mrs. Vanderbilt threw that her mother relented. I wonder if we’ll see this exact event in The Gilded Age or if it will be interpreted with Mrs. Russell with the host?
Back in New York at an unidentified restaurant, which has a separate room for Black people (low-key segregation being historically accurate in the north vs. overt Jim Crow in the south), Peggy has a stressful conversation with her mom, Dorothy Scott (Audra McDonald). Apparently Peggy’s dad did something that can’t get over, and mom says, “we are all held fast, frozen in time, until you allow us to move forward.” Hrm…
OK, how about that charity gig? Mrs. Russell arrives first, with Gladys in tow.
It’s like Bertha wants to stand out by wearing the brightest, most garish things, and yet she doesn’t understand that people don’t appreciate that about her. At least the shape of her bustle is more historical here. There were a bajillion ways to drape a bustle, and this certainly works. Gladys is wearing more of a natural-form hip swag instead of the mid-1880s style of her mom.
For everyone cringing at Bertha Russell’s bad fashion sense, let’s not imagine the past as perfectly tasteful. There are PLENTY of fashion plates and extant garments that may look completely tacky to modern eyes (and maybe they looked tacky then too!). This green and pink dot ensemble is exactly the kind of thing Mrs. Russell is going for, with the loud color / print combo and asymmetrical design.
She talks with Mrs. Aurora Fane (Kelli O’Hara), who is Agnes van Rhijn’s niece by marriage, so of course she’s going to be wary of the Russells. There’s also Mrs. Anne Morris (Katie Finneran), another of the old-money crowd, who is ready to snub Mrs. Russell as soon as someone better shows up.
They all disdain Mrs. Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn) for an unknown reason but it’s so awful they make it sound like she was a whore.
Ada and Marian finally arrive and much shade is thrown at Mrs. Russell by Fane and Morris in favor of the Brooks ladies.
Nighttime in Newport is the right time for a party and a game of “cinch” (no, I don’t know how to play either, but I’m open to learning, nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
Nighttime in New York is boring though, and I’m only including it because Marian will wear this damn blouse a bunch of times from here on out.
Dinner at the Russell house — notice how both Bertha and Gladys coordinate with the room decor. For as weird as they dress, they are harmonious with their surroundings. It mirrors Ada and Agnes who, likewise, coordinate with the dark woods and textured fabrics of their home. Here, we see the pale blue walls with gold trim in the dining room, the blue upholstered chairs and gold cloth on the dining table, and Bertha wears pale blue accented with gold.
The next morning, Marian walks the dog, a spaniel named Pumpkin. She and Larry Russell get a meet-cute when he rescues Pumpkin from getting run over by a carriage. GAWD HOW CLICHED IS THAT?
After his heroism, Larry has a chat with mom and sis about things he doesn’t care about and neither do I.
Little girls did wear ruffles in the period — but girls younger than Gladys, who’s of age to be presented to society. So the takeaway from these infantilizing outfits is that her mother only allows her to dress as a child because she sees her as a child. And Gladys is rather meekly accepting of that so far.
Marian and the dog take a quick carriage ride with the aunties. She gets a lecture about the usual “good reputation” crap, while I admire the hats.
Mrs. Russel goes a-calling. Not very successfully. Yet she’s going to throw a big party anyway. Hope springs eternal!
Agnes’ only child, Oscar Van Rhijn (Blake Ritson), arrives home. Larry met him in Newport, and that idea would probably make his mom’s head explode. Of course, we learn at the end of this ep that Oscar has a male lover, which would also make his mom’s head explode, so Agnes is being set up for some scenery-chewing later on.
I think Victorian productions use this blouse with sleeveless bodice thing because it’s relatable. It looks like a modern blouse and jumper thing. But the style was most commonly worn in the 1860s, and it only occasionally shows up after that. (Thanks again to Sabrina for these period examples.)
Marian watches preparations for the Russells’ party from the window across the street, but Agnes has said they won’t be attending. Ada comforts her by explaining how shitty Agnes’ life has been and that’s why she’s a crusty old broad now. So much narrative exposition crammed into this episode! It’s a boring way of going about things, IMNSHO.
Marian’s fashions seem to be conservative, youthful, and skewing towards the early 1880s in silhouette. This reflects her character’s tenuous financial situation and that she’s new to the big city and high society.
Well, Bertha is all dressed and ready for her party!
Asymmetrical bodice, basque waist, floral decor — it’s all there in the fashion plate too, on the left.
But first, the family has dinner, and the men force Bertha into letting Gladys attend the party instead of going to bed like a child (but no-one will let her stop dressing like a child, not this episode).
Marian sneaks out of her house with Peggy’s help (and on Peggy’s recommendation). Aunt Agnes falls asleep, and Ada thinks Marian is just going up to bed early. For once, Ada doesn’t have a new dress while Agnes does!
When Marian arrives at the Russells’ party, there aren’t many other guests. I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you.
Something about the stripped-down style of Marian’s gown annoys me. On the other hand, I adore the floofy romanticism of Gladys’ lavender outfit. Can’t help it, I’m mercurial that way.
Larry introduces his sister to Marian and says “let us three be friends.” Because that won’t annoy anyone.
Also, while Gladys’ gown still isn’t in the mainstream of 1880s fashion, it’s at least in the 1880s. I’m immediately reminded of the Pre-Raphaelites and Dress Reformers who added soft, vaguely medieval elements to their dress styles, like this:
Mrs. Fane does show up but only because she wants Bertha to donate money to the charity. She also sees Marian, and they both agree not to tell Agnes that either of them were at the Russells house.
The same night, we see Carrie Astor arriving home with her older sister, Helen, and her husband James Roosevelt (older half-brother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Mrs. Astor is in the parlor going through old invitations, and Carrie notices one from Bertha Russell for tonight. Mrs. Astor doesn’t think anything of tossing it into the fire.
Whew, that was a lot! We’ll see how much I screencap for future eps :D
What are your first impressions of The Gilded Age?
I turned it off. Beyond the fashion of Bertha, I could already see how it would go: orphaned child arrives in the big city to live with aunts, runs into nasty oldest son of enemy, despite society and family opinion, they fall in love.
Regarding those photos of Carrie Astor in Newport : love the outfit, but what’s up with her parasol? Maybe it’s the angle of the photos, but that parasol looks like it’s small enough for a toddler. :)
You can find extant teeny decorative parasols (heck, you can find them on eBay!). Blame conspicuous consumption.
Thanks! I didn’t know they were a thing. :)
Some of those tiny parasols also fold up. The Parasol Industrial Complex was a thing.
Mrs Nouveau Riche had me yelling at the screen – particularly the lack of interest on her hems. It was incredibly uncommon for high fashion dresses not have something going on in the hem department between 1870 and 1890. Ruffles for the 70’s, pleats for the 80’s, more or less. The major exception being skirts with deep pleats in the 80’s, and these were paired with long over skirts to add interest. Plain skirts were for poor people – so what what was with that blue number? The god awful bodice was just the icing.
I did catch in the “next episode” bit that she might be wearing a replica Worth gown. Hoping it’s a sign she gets some fashion sense. Late 80’s if memory serves. Have been having way to much “spot the extant gown replica” fun.
But hems aren’t the focus of attention in TV & movies, faces are. Why waste time/money/effort on what’s barely going to register on-screen when you’re creating about 5,000 costumes?
I’m guessing they’re doing the hair thing for Gladys as either a) a signifier that her mother infantilizes her (sidestepping Trystan’s point that even younger girls wore their hair more ‘done’ during this time) or b) the tried (though not true) costuming method of trying to make actresses in their 20s look like younger teenagers by giving them little girl hair (see also: Lily James and Florence Pugh’s hideous bangs in War and Peace and Little Women respectively). Also yay for the continued Gummer nepotism hires; lord love them all for trying, but none of them can hold a candle to their mom in terms of acting ability.
So far, the plot’s been a bit boring and predictable, but I’m cautiously optimistic. Downton Abbey was a bit wimpy in the first few episodes too.
And honestly, I don’t even care much about the plot, because this has some of the best 1880s dresses I’ve seen on-screen. The decade had so many interesting colors and tailoring choices, and it’s rare for a costume designer to actually feature them. Ada’s colorful, high-contrast military dresses are particularly fantastic.
Yeah, I’m giving the plot a pass for now — it’s just the first episode, there’s a lot of setup. But the costumes are delightful to watch!
The plot sounds like a great deal of Expository Lump (haven’t seen it yet), but I’m a sucker for lush costuming.
Is Marion cosplaying as Cinderella? Methinks blue is her trademark color! Also, I smell a clichéd love triangle blooming!
I felt there was a mix of really great in the costuming and like you, I hated that she took off her jacket and was wearing an evening bodice. There was also Corset Whining TM, and she was clearly referring to the outer garment as her corset and I had to grit my teeth. The actor playing Mrs Nouveau Riche also keeps holding onto the point on the front of her bodice in a weird way.
The bodices worn by the Russells look very structured and stiff, as if there’s been a costuming shortcut of making the outer bodice like that to avoid the need for corsets underneath? IDK.
My FAVOURITE bit was Mr Russell’s bedroom, all dark panelling and deep red velvet, right out of a Hammer Horror vampire film :D
The interiors are FANTASTIC. Clearly, money was spent on this production :)
A lot of the scenes were filmed at the Newport Mansions (I live in the next town over).
OH THAT’S SO COOL! But that’s Fellowes for you – at lot of Downton was filmed inside Highclere Castle.
Can we have more Pumpkin? He’s adorable. On the whole clothes are B+ bc I understand why the nr aka Nouveau riche wear what they do. So their families are going to throw both Gladys and Marion at son of nr? Someone going to get hurt. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Peggy and Peggy’s mom.
Tom and Lorenzo have just posted an interview with the costume designer: https://tomandlorenzo.com/2022/02/interview-with-the-gilded-age-costume-designer-kasia-walicka-maimone/
Yep, just saw that. sigh Only a little annoyed bec. I asked HBO for an interview 2 months ago but couldn’t get thru! They were so nice to work with for Gentleman Jack.
Thank you! This is wonderful to read – and thanks for the confirmation re: Bertha Russell’s outfits. They were definitely jarring. I thought they fit her character (mostly – the feather thing seemed OTT even for her) even if when they were way, way off historically. Gladys’ hair was lamentable to say the least, so here’s hoping the hinted-at coming-out ball changes things for her. Looking forward to the season and your recaps!
Those blue feathers had me itching all over my chest just looking at them! I can’t imagine wearing them and not scratching myself raw. Tremendous respect to the actress for wearing them.
I kept thinking of feathers getting into her mouth while she was eating. :)
I was just bugged by the bad fit of that neckline!
As a wealthy young man Larry would definitely be more socially welcome than his parents. Society couldn’t get enough rich men for their girls to marry.
Marian, the girl with blue blood but no money, and Gladys, the poor little rich girl with hopeless parents both fit in the setting. Peggy doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, you could write a hell of a series about a young, educated black woman making her way in 19th century New York. Back then urban blacks, some of them well off professional folks, created their own alternate dimension where they could succeed. The problem is that world didn’t overlap with the tinsel world of high society. Shoehorning Peggy into a high society plot does neither the plot nor the character any favors.
Yup, you’re right about Larry being more welcome as a potential moneyed suitor for someones superfluous daughter. Also, men knew each other from university,
In addition, he looks rather athletic, indicating he might be/have been a moderately succesful sportsman on his college’s team. That could earn some level of admission to “good” society by itself.
In England, they even had a specific name for the young athlete/ artist/ poet/ officer/ hero of the day. They would be called “lions” and a good hostess should have at least one at her weekend party.
There are some really good gowns. And then there are other gowns…
And I find dressing the outsider in way-out stuff to be sophomoric. To begin with, why would an aggressive social climber dress outside what society expects? If her clothes are to be different… tasteless or avant-garde… you can design that and be more accurate. You could dress Bertha in Artistic Dress. That would be different, but not her character at all. She could be tacky and gaudy but she doesn’t have to look like she’s from another planet.
Still, there are some really good gowns in the series. But the Bertha from Mars concept is not doing it for me.
I agree: I get that she’s meant to stick out, but wouldn’t it be more subtle than this if she is specifically trying to curry favor with these people, who are legendarily snobby and whom she would have to know would scrutinize every ruffle and bow for correctness? I’m reminded of a scene in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episode “The Illustrious Client,” in which Holmes tells the villain that he should make sure to remove the band from his cigar before lighting it, lest he be taken for a bounder. That’s the level at which people gatekeep, then and now (makes me think of having the Right Jeans in high school in the eighties: Lord knows that was a game of inches). I realize it’s more work to film those subtleties, but this just makes me feel like the creators think we need to be hit over the head or we won’t get it. I think it would actually be more effective if the differences were minute, showing just how narrow-minded the old guard are, rather than “Jeez, she’s so tacky she can be seen from space!”
That’d be a different show — a very closed-up drawing room type film, & I do mean film because it’s not the kind of thing that’s usually sustained over several years of episodes, plus it works well with fewer characters too. The Gilded Age is presenting a broad canvas with lots of characters & storylines, aka a soap opera. There’s room for all.
Good point! I just wish it were shiny fabrics OR low/unusual necklines OR weird floofy bustles, rather than the whole pile (even if that did, technically, happen in fashion), because that’s obviously going to read as super tacky to modern eyes rather than just somewhat “off” and incorrect (though you’re right, a Julian Fellowes TV joint isn’t the place to look for subtlety; also, he’s of course on the side of old money and so probably has no problem making Bertha look a little ridiculous. I just think she’d be smarter than this; it seems like a disservice to her character.). It’s an interesting contrast with Dorothy Scott, who obviously isn’t trying to get into high society but who clearly knows a thing or two about hard-won respectability.
I’m not sure about the show, but I do love Ada and her frocks. For a spinster, the bright colors hint at a bit of rebellion.
As for the script, Edith Wharton did it better.
I love Ada’s clothes. I think the colors are fantasic.
I think what bothers me is, as you point out, the fact that there were plenty of ways to look tacky and nouveau riche within early 1880s parameters without resorting to the weird shapes and trims we see here. It seems lazy, even when I know a lot of work and thought went into what we’re seeing. The same goes for the ingenue looks. It almost feels like they’re trying really hard to make the costumes do the acting for them. Though considering most of the performances, it may not be the worst idea…
As another commenter pointed out, compare this show to Bridgerton. I think the costuming choices work for mainstream TV. This is on HBO, Bridgerton was on Netflix. These aren’t indie art house productions for niche audiences. They’re aimed at mainstream viewers. But unlike, say the 2018 Mary Queen of Scots, the costumes aren’t super dumbed-down versions of historical costume. Historical elements are tweaked & twisted, but there isn’t the wholesale “let’s make this RELATABLE” that other productions have done.
Their take on Mrs Russell’s wardrobe reminds me of Lady Featherington’s, another parvenue, in Bridgerton.
Ding ding ding! We have a winner.
I think she looks like a Gilded Age Lwaxana Troi :)
Lwaxana Troi will always be my queen
YES – I thought that, too, especially with that blue corset dress.
I think that black and white striped dress might be a reference to John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs Wilton Phipps
Yes, that’s got to be it! Thank you! — https://www.wikiart.org/en/john-singer-sargent/mrs-wilton-phipps
I’m so used to seeing Taissa Farminga in horror films and TV shows. I’ll need to adjust my brain if I watch this.
I loved the article! What did you guys think of the men’s costumes and hairstyles? I was not sure whether Mr. Russel’s beard was accurate for the period or not
I totally ran out of steam for the menswear, sorry :)
Hated Downton Abbey but am weirdly loving this as you say I can see why the costuming choices are being made. The scenery /interiors are amazing and I’m finding the Russells as a couple who support each other and are totally into the others skills/ ambitions super sexy. Really hope the whole maid thing doesn’t happen it’s a cliche.
The Russells are a surprisingly sweet couple. I’m already annoyed that her maid is scheming to sleep w/the mister. He’s a jerk in biz, but he cares about his wife & her ridiculous ambitions.
Making the maid the sexual predator is rather worse than a cliche. Seducing a married man would most likely end with her ruin and any woman of the time would know it. Heck being abused by a married employer, a far more likely scenario, inevitably ended very badly for the girl.
A good ladies’maid was in high demand by New York society women. Risking a promising career for what? Makes no sense at all.
But have you seen….. the beard?
No. Is it that sexy?
Well….. I vote yet.
Agreed that the maid is a terrible potential plot device.
It doesn’t help that’s she’s waspish and snippy and always bobbing her head and sneering.
In that last photo of Mrs. Astor that you posted, looks like she also is wearing a cardboard stiff corsety-type bodice, like Mrs. Russell’s. I’ve never seen anything like that. ~Val
Yes! I see Bertha’s weird costume choices creeping onto other costumes. And some of the recreated gowns may be period correct, but are they a tacky miss from Mr Worth? Just because it’s real doesn’t mean it’s tasteful.
I love the costumes of Ada, right in between Agnes and Berthe, but I don’t like the Russell Mansion. It’s a bit too tasteful and under furnished
Their is something irresistibly funny about the name Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. Caroline Astor is of course the reason girls like the Ynzagas, the Jeromes and other new rich took their dollars to London to buy arsisocratic husband’s and social cachet. Mrs. Russell is a pitifully inept climber and Gladys is likely to have a very hard time of it. So far the Van Rijns seem to have hit every single Old Money trope, loss of fortune, bad marriage, sad spinster and ner do well heir. Is it me or is it all very boring and predictable?
It’s Julian Fellowes. ‘Nuff said.
Hasn’t done anything great since “Gosford Park”.
Gladys and Marion are sadly passive. Girls of the time were often seriously ambitious and very self directed and active. Heiresses like Jennie Chamberlain and Mary Leitner took the social lead dragging their bewildered but fascinated parents in their wake. Mrs. Leitner seems to have been a real detriment, like Bertha. But Mary was a success in spite of her.
about Larry being invited to the New Port parties, he’s young, male and rich. there is a great difference between inviting a man to make up the numbers and allowing him to court your daughter.
as for the ladies maid of Mrs. Russell, shame on her. she’s got the experience, it is her responsibility to direct her mistress into what is acceptable and allowed by newcomers into society. the fact that she does not and mocks her to the staff is VERY wrong. using her to seduce the master is also such a lame cliche.
I figure they’re setting up the Russells to move to the “Old World” in search of acceptance. the empty and ignored invitations to the ball actually happened and the woman in question said “screw you” to NYC society and moved to England, got polish, a noble patroness and made a HUGE splash and successful marriage for her daughter.
Mrs. Russell needs some help and fast. Sack the ladies maid, get someone who helps you rather than screws you over and dress to win!
Are you thinking of Mrs. Paran Stevens? She had considerably more nous and confidence than Bertha Russell seems to have had and knew all about how to act and dress.
Longtime reader/lurker (love the snark so hard!) and I had to chime in on the jewels. As a lover of antique jewelry and someone who works with it daily, so much of the jewelry was just wrong. I know jewelry isn’t your focus, but I thought of you all when I saw it. This period has both sumptuous jewels for the upper class and mass produced less expensive jewels for the middle and working classes. There is a lot of extant jewelry around to borrow or use for reference. So why didn’t they?
I shared the same screencap on Instagram of Bertha wearing the lacy shrug and decidedly 1950s looking asymmetrical diamond necklace. Our fellow antique jewelers went crazy in the comments talking about it. Bertha also wears at least one recognizably modern jewelry designer… why?? It immediately took me out. The jewelry on the old money characters was ok, but could be so much better. It drives me crazy when they put thought and research into everything else about the costumes, but the jewelry is at most generic Victorian looking. Curious what you think and if you agree.
Yeah, I thought Bertha’s jewelry looked fairly modern or at least 20th-c. vintage. But that goes with her aesthetic as being “off” in everything.
I’ll also give the production a bit of a pass on jewelry bec. it’s a HUGE production so it’s better that they do have accessories like jewelry that are close enough. Compare with other TV shows that simply don’t have any! But don’t compare with movies, which only need to have items for one shoot, not for multiple episodes. (But do compare with movies that can’t get that right, hello, 2018 MQoS & the stupid multiple hoop earrings, hah.)
As long as nobody dons a head necklace, right? 😉
There should be tiaras, though!
I see what you mean, but there’s so much jewelry from this period out there and easily available. They couldn’t borrow any? If they couldn’t afford diamonds, they could use antique paste. I have a suspicion they made agreements with a few modern designers who make antique-inspired pieces and called it a day. It’s very disappointing, especially since the jewelry on Downton was fabulous! So many beaded sautoirs, I loved it.
I didn’t even mess the 2018 MQoS, just watched the trailer and read your entries on it! That was enough for me. That triple hoop earring really stuck out as awful.
I am kind of “meh” on this — bad acting abounds, the plot is incredibly predictable so far, and it lacks the charm and likable characters of Downton Abbey. But it surprises me to find the gowns are mostly accurate — they seem gaudy and overdone, and not nearly as beautiful as the ones in The Age of Innocence, which is the gold standard for the period.
Even though I don’t have access to watching this, I really appreciate this overview of the costuming. As usual, GREAT job breaking down the good, the bad, and the just plain WTF?
But I’ve got to pick at one point concerning Gladys’ hairstyle:
“Ugh, the hair. The cliche.”
I realize that there is a ridiculous cliche in movies/TV where “long loose hair = young and innocent/at least unmarried,” no matter what the time, setting, and conventions dictate.
However, there seems to be enough visual evidence from paintings and photos from the late 19th century that this was perhaps not so far-fetched at this time.
Renoir painted quite a few girls with long hair only pulled back out of the eyes but otherwise hanging loose, even a little messy at times:
8-year-old Irène Cahen d’Anvers, 1880
15- or 16-year-old Julie Manet, 1894
(Julie Manet was the daughter of painter Berthe Morisot and the niece of Édouard Manet, and seemed to own neither a hairbrush nor a single hairpin, based on images of her from the time.)
One of Manet’s most famous paintings is this 1873 painting of his most frequent model, Victorine Meurent, 29 at the time and apparently depicted as a young mother:
And this look turns up in photography from this period, as in this undated photo of a unidentified young woman, which appears to be a carte de visite:
So while it’s definitely a cliche, it may actually work in some settings, and it might actually have been accurate here.
A cliche is something ‘overused and betrays a lack of original thought’ or a stereotype. Which ‘long hair worn down means a female is young’ absolutely qualifies as. Sure, it was sometimes done historically. You can always find exceptions to rules. But it wasn’t the common or accepted or fashionable thing that was done most often. So using it like this has become a TV/movie trope, & we’re tired of seeing it!
Perhaps this hairstyle is meant to be exagerated: her mother is excessive in the way she dresses, in the way she decorates her house and also in the way she infantilizes her daughter.
She treats her like an annoying puppy but I also have the feeling she wants to erase any possible competition as «woman of the household » that everone should admire. Hence a hairstyle her daughter should have dropped three or four years earlier (assuming she is 16ish), that is meant to juniorize and « downsize » her vs her mother.
I have yet to watch it (serious lack of time), so I only have screencaps to go on, but…
Some of Marian’s outfits seem to have a rather late 1880s vibe to me. Specifically the purple one and the crappy blue dog-walking one. Somehow they resemble the very end of the bustle period to me, when the bustle got small and the skirt hung looser. At least looser compared to Natural Form, when it was still sort of pulled tight into the back and around the knees (like her yellow dress). Even though a walking dress would allow for some freedom of movement, of course.
I don’t like that Worth recreation. Unlike the original design, it lacks cohesion and the contrast is too strong. Particularly the way the black part ends at the top is clunky when compared to the original gown.
Why is Gladys going around with such low necklines in daytime?
Am I getting this right? Marian snuck out and went to a party ALONE? A young, unmarried girl turning up to a party unchaperoned? Even if Bertha is nouveau-riche and uncouth, she would have known better and sent her home immediately.
Also – though I only know the European standards from the period, Americans might have done it a bit differently – she should have spent more time in half-mourning. She went from all-black straight to colourful dresses and parties, except for that one purple outfit, which might have been a coincidence. Mourning after a parent’s death was supposed to be quite long, with longer transition. And if she was still finishing mourning, she should not dance – but I don’t know if it was a ball or just a party.
Yep, Marian as late 1880s becomes more obvious in the next episode. Her aunt Agnes specifically said “no more mourning” when she sent Marian to the dressmaker, so that purple suit is as close as she got.
Why the eyeroll at the maids being sniffy to Peggy, exactly? Sadly, it’s only too believable that people nearly at the bottom of the heap would comfort themselves by having someone they can look down on.
Personally, it always bugs the heck out of me when the writes of historical shows make interactions between different ‘tribes’ of the oppressed all cosy and brotherhood-of-man heartwarming. Human nature hardly ever works like that.
Disappointed with lack of authenticity in appearance of costumes. Could be the lighting. The costumes reminded me of damask satin curtains from 1930s. Too overly designed, lack of real feel. You may have left out the one that I considered, worst costume, worn by “Marion”?, bright shiny gold satin decorated with ugly blue lace. Also some of the rhinestone necklaces are reminiscent of those from the 40’s- 50’s.
There are simply too many costumes, must have had quite the budget, my point is that even the wealthy people wore the same dress more than once, hell, even the royals are known to reuse dresses they have worn before in public.
Best costumes I have seen lately were by Luminita Lungo for the movie “The World to Come”
A bit late to the party but Gladys’ “Little Bo Peep cosplay” seems to be inspired by a Alexandre Cabanel’s portrait (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexandre_Cabanel_-_Portrait_Of_Young_Lady.jpeg).
And the white/red striped dress worn by an extra in the 2nd episode is based on a 1887 dress in the McCord Museum (http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M2009.62.1.1-2)