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?