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.
It’s the final episode of The Gilded Age (2022-) for this season. Some boring plots are tied up with neat yet still boring bows, while random bits of future plot are thrown out into the winds, either to be picked up in season two or ignored forever more. Meh, I’m just here for the fancy clothes, so let’s do this! It begins with Marian going to Mrs. Chamberlain to talk about eloping with Mr. Raikes. Bad idea (the eloping, not talking to Mrs. Chamberlain)!
Bertha’s planning the ball and worries that her massive ballroom might be too small. Hee.
She heads over to personally invite Mrs. Astor, but is told by the butler the lady is “not at home” for her. Yet Bertha sees that Mrs. Randolph is let in the door. So at dinner that night, Bertha tells everyone that Carrie can’t come to dance because Mrs. Astor snubbed her. It’s a tedious bit of plot-work (as usual), and they’re all wearing repeat costumes, so let’s move on.
Peggy comes to retrieve her things from the Van Rhijn house and gets wrangled into Marian’s elopement scheme. I guess, sure, Peggy had her own elopement that pissed off her family, so she’d be on Marian’s side. But it’s another bit of tedious plot-work, par for this show’s course.
Ada sees Peggy is leaving, notices she’s taking Marian’s bag, and suspects something’s up. She even tries to talk Marian out of this ‘escapade,’ but no luck.
Ada’s getting more fashion-forward as she figures things out — her dress is from the late 1880s.
Over at the Astors, Carrie finds out she’s been dis-invited from the ball and gets pissed at her mom for being a snobby bitch at Mrs. Russell. Lots of repeated costumes, but some promo pix and clearer screencaps so here ya go:
Carrie visits Gladys to apologize and tries to figure out a way to fix things between their mothers. Everyone’s wearing their ugliest repeated gowns, ball fringe and pleather, oh my! And has Gladys crimped her hair? Discuss.
It’s dinnertime at Van Rhijn house. Oscar pokes at mom, but not as entertainingly as before, so it’s kind of sad.
Aurora sees Mr. Raikes canoodling with that Bingham girl at the opera and is now suspicious (even though she set them up, ugh).
Morning of the ball, Bertha feels like she has her ducks in a row. Across the street, Marian is head off to Disappointment-Ville, even though Aunt Ada again tries to warn her. Marian also leaves letters with Larry Russell, who adds “mailman” to his new job, along with “architect.”
At Mrs. Chamberlain’s House of Scandal, Peggy plays dutiful friend and waits for these stupid white women, since her own storyline is going haywire.
Yes, Peggy’s worn this before, but the bodice of Peggy’s gown seems inspired by this:
Mrs. Chamberlain is in silver and black, with a touch of red to remind us she’s scandalous! Oooooo.
I’m not sure exactly what this style of gown is referencing. It looks like a coat dress over a fitted gown, and I can’t find a ton of similar examples. Maybe this shape?
Mrs. Astor sucks it up and pays a call on Mrs. Russell. It’s not enough for Bertha, who demands that she actually come to the ball with Carrie, oh, and tell all her high-and-mighty friends to come too. Massive eye-rolling at the likelihood of this, but moving on.
Aurora Fane joins the party at Mrs. Chamberlain to tell Marian what a rake Mr. Raikes is (get it? GET IT?).
The sleeve treatment on Aurora’s dress is wild but also common in the era. Compare with the detail of this fashion plate:
And the detail from this House of Worth wedding gown:
But it’s a lot like this fashion plate (which has a much more interesting hat than Bertha’s).
Marian heads to Raikes office, where he’s supposedly writing a kiss-off letter to her. Blah blah blah. They’re over. Good.
Meanwhile, Peggy’s mom finds a letter in Dad’s coat that shows Dad hid Peggy’s son, who isn’t dead, and is actually with adoptive parents. She tells Peggy, who swears she’ll find her baby. SMH at this recycled plot device being shoved down Peggy’s throat.
OK, it’s finally Gladys’ debut ball, and everyone’s all dressed up. Let’s ignore the plot bullshit (oh yes, it’s bullshitty), and get down with the dresses!
First up, the hostess with the mostess. She’s come a long way in her style evolution — or has she?
This gown is definitely inspired by a legit extant gown, even if it’s over 15 years in advance of this TV show’s date.
The main change for Bertha’s costume is the sleeves, which both the costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone and the actor Carrie Coon discussed in an LA Times article. Coon said:
“There was a long, heated debate in my fitting about whether or not she could get away with that tiny sleeve without a scandal. At the time, it was incredibly inappropriate for a woman to have a sleeveless gown, because that would [mean] you were a courtesan, a prostitute. I was advocating for some woman to come into the ball and gasp when they saw my bare arm! It was breathtaking. I loved it.”
There’s a grain of truth there, but never rely on actors for fashion history. They just wear the costumes, they don’t study the topic! She may be thinking of something like the controversy around John Singer Sargent’s 1884 painting of Madame Gautreau, titled Portrait of Madame X. The issue was more that the original version of the painting showed one strap falling down the figure’s arm, plus the gown is very low cut in the front. The overall look of the painting was too sexually suggestive for the time, not merely bare arms.
Because a common style of evening gowns in the 1880s was to have bare arms and sleeves that hardly cover anything. Bertha’s ball gown sleeves seem within the realm of plausibility, not some wild scandal. There’s plenty of fashion plates and extant gowns with sleeve lines that may look surprisingly modern, but it wasn’t a big deal in context.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone makes the point that Bertha’s costume shows her story arc:
“I went for these super light colors so that Bertha fits within the aesthetics of the ball, because the idea was that she is finally part of the world that she’s been trying to break into. Nevertheless, the black appliqué still draws attention and makes her stand apart from everybody else.”
Nevermind that Mrs. Astor will be in black and gold, Agnes is in purple, and there’s a number of extras in dark gowns.
Next up is Agnes Van Rhijn, Ada Brooks, and Marian Brooks, representing Old Money at its finest.
Agnes gown is in a deep purple, the jewel tones she always wears. Ada is breaking out a little bit in a yellow, but it’s a lighter, rich damask version of her bright oranges. Marian is always in pale yellow, NBD.
Ada’s gown seems to be a riff on this extant gown, with a more 1882 neckline, and without the center-front lacing (undoubtedly there’s some awkward hook-and-eye closure up the back).
Marian’s gown appears to be inspired by a painting:
Details of this gown from Eric Winterling on Instagram:
Aurora Fane, also representing for the Old Money crowd, wears a typical 1880s gown in one of her typical pale colors.
Gladys finally gets her Big Girl Dress for her Big Girl Party and thank the fucking gods HER HAIR IS UP.
It’s hard to see much of this gown — her first of three for the night! — but it seems pretty standard in an icy blue with a little bit of gold trim and lots of tulle. Something like this:
Of course, the real guest of honor in Bertha’s mind is Mrs. Astor. The party literally cannot start until she arrives.
Mrs. Astor’s gown is heavy, glitzy, and a bit fussy. But her daughter’s is delightful. Carrie Astor wears a fun, youthful gown that’s a repro of a possibly House of Worth extant gown.
This is also a good example of the natural form style that was popular from the late 1870s to about 1882, which this show has been super inconsistent about. The costume designer must have thought that the big bustle to small bustle to big bustle to no bustle phases from the 1860s through 1890 would be confusing and just went for Old Money wears big bustle, New Money and young ladies wear small bustle.
Then there’s the quadrille, the dance that inspired this whole ball and its social machinations. This bit of theater, and the whole your-daughter-can’t-come-if-you-aren’t-nice-to-me stuff, was modeled after the real Carrie Astor wanting to take part in a dance with Alva Vanderbilt’s daughter at their massive costume ball. At the time, the Vanderbilts were New Money upstarts. Show writer Julian Fellowes said in Vanity Fair that he didn’t want this final event to be a costumed ball, even though he was referencing the Vanderbilt one:
“I felt that it would rather confuse the visual image of Bertha making it [in society]. To surround her by figures more traditionally identifiable as high-society men and women as she finally crashes through the doors and gets there was more graspable. If people had been wandering around dressed as giraffes and Louis XV, I think it might have all been more muddling really.”
So The Gilded Age limits the costumes to just the quadrille. The male dancers wear horse heads in reference to the “hobbyhorse quadrille” that, at the Vanderbilt ball, was done with full-size hobby horses. And I guess the female dancers being in 18th-century costume refers to the “Dresden quadrille,” where the dancers tried to look like Dresden china.
Except the most popular and well-known Dresden china figures at the time were romanticized 18th-century peasants. And the young ladies in this quadrille are wearing 18th-century costumes that imitate court fashions with panniers and tall “powdered” wigs. Oh well.
Gladys gets one more gown, and this one must be her “official” coming-out gown because she gets to dance with Adult Men Who Aren’t Wearing Horse Heads now. And before anyone wonders why she doesn’t have a white gown, well, she’s not being presented at court or any place that has rules about what you have to wear. She’s at home and can wear whatever she pleases.
That’s it for my recaps. Next week, I’ll post a wrap-up of all the costumes with a bunch of info from the costume designer and others who worked on The Gilded Age so we can get the big picture.
What did you think of this finale for this season? Will you be tuning in for season two?