Julian Fellowes has written an American version of Downton Abbey for HBO, so we recapped this first season of The Gilded Age! Starting in 1882, the story promised to be a juicy soap opera of new money vs. old with lots of bustle gowns. Check here for all our recaps.
OK, now the first season of The Gilded Age (2022-) is over, and we know there will be a second season. Viewership increased from episode to episode, HBO said the show was its most successful Monday premiere in three years, and by the end of the run, it had increased viewership by 54% and was the top series on HBO Max. If you look at the discussion among non-costumers and others who aren’t obsessive about frock flicks, they’re almost uniformly in love with the look, style, and allllll the fashions of this TV show. And why not? Money was spent, attention was paid! This is not some slapdash, no-budget production. About 5,000 historical costumes were purpose-built for this series, plus rentals acquired for the backgrounds.
But inside the frock flick beltway here, those of us who study historical costume with a more finicky eye are polarized! Some enjoy the game of “spot the repro” for the show’s costumes that are directly inspired by extant gowns, portraits, and fashion plates. Others are aghast, aghast I tell you!, at liberties taken with said historical inspirations, because HOW DARE a costume designer interpret history and not faithfully recreate everything exactly as it must have been done. (Never-mind that no matter how much you research, different people are still going to have somewhat different ideas of what “historically accurate” means.)
While, yes, Frock Flicks as a media empire exists to point out the historical inaccuracies in movie and TV costumes, we also have many times acknowledged that movies and TV shows are not documentaries or historical reenactment. They are a business, they are storytelling, they are fiction (even if they’re telling true stories). They have a million considerations that go into designing something for the screen that go above and beyond what is “historically accurate.” We’ll cut costume designers slack when we can see that the deviations from historical designs are done purposefully for the story and / or due to things like budget or timelines. We try to reserve the most snark for when costume designs just go wildly off the rails and don’t make sense within the context of the show. Or just look ugly, because, hey, bitchy is our brand ;)
Anyway, I just remind you of all that because this post is where I want to delve into the reasoning behind the costumes of The Gilded Age. While I found plenty that was not to my taste or just plain fugly, I understood what the function of these costumes were in the context of this story. Designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone did an excellent job of pairing costume to character and creating a visual theme for each character and their story arc. Sometimes, this used more period styles than others, but it always made sense within the series. I knew who these characters were through their clothes, and that is ultimately what the costume designer’s job is.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone and her team did start this project with research, as she told Fashionista:
“We did faithful research of that period, and studied in detail the American fashions of 10, 15 years before 1882 and fashion that followed 1882. We tried to represent what was happening on the street at that time, and in the rooms the society as portrayed.”
In Tatler, she said she studied the:
“structures, colours, and art of the time, but it was a matter of reconfiguring the colours and geometry of the shapes and taking what was powerful from that period, which was organic draping and small waists and intense femininity. I wanted to take those things and play with them. Each costume is based in historical reality but everything is slightly enhanced to create an exciting dimension.”
“I’m always absolutely faithful to the silhouette of a period and the social consequences of every choice made. But, at the same time, I felt I needed to filter our modern perception of that period into the outfits, to inject our understanding of what is truly exciting.”
The hair and makeup team did their research too. Talking to Vogue, Sean Flanigan, head of hair, and Nicki Ledermann, head of make-up, said:
Ledermann: “I took my biggest inspiration from paintings by Realist painters such as John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. I wanted the cast to look like a portrait painting, to evoke the aesthetic and colour palette of that era.”
Flanigan: “I love a museum and a good portrait gallery. I rely on so many sources like history books, as well as fashion books for women from the period.”
Once you have the historical sources, then you have the world-building and character breakdowns. Let’s break it down.
The biggest visual distinction is between the Old Money women (Agnes Van Rhijn, Ada Brook, Lina Astor, Mamie Fish, Aurora Fane, Anne Morris) and the New Money women (Bertha Russell, Sylvia Cunningham). There’s also a further division between all the older women and the younger women (Marian Brook, Gladys Russell, Carrie Astor, Peggy Scott). Historical styles and colors are distinct between each group and from character to character. In Women’s Wear Daily, Kasia Walicka-Maimone discussed color theory:
“We are all coded for color responses. We know that color carries so much more information than just what you would call color. It carries a wealth of information. I wouldn’t put Marian in a jewel tone. That’s just not her character. She’s young and innocent and she’s a breath of fresh air that shows up in the house. Bertha, we treat those colors symbolically. Her husband is responsible for railroads, so that idea of steel and things that shine, all of that is coded into the character.”
Old Money Costumes in The Gilded Age
The styles and colors used for the Old Money women are conservative and often darker. The silhouette is mid-1870s rounded bustle and mid-1880s aggressive bustle; they mostly skip the narrow late-1870s to early 1880s natural-form slim silhouette. I’ve complained about this simplification of when bustles were big/small in the show vs. history, but OK, fine, onscreen, simplification is necessary.
Agnes Van Rhijn’s Costumes
Agnes (Christine Baranski) is the main character on the Old Money side, and as such, her costumes are the most conservative in the show. She wears rounded bustles throughout the series and gowns in cool dark tones like black, burgundy, blue, and green. A sampling:
Ada Brook’s Costumes
Agnes’ sister, Ada (Cynthia Nixon), wears costumes almost as conservative, as befits their family status. She mostly wears a rounded bustle, though towards the end of the series it looks like she’s in natural form gowns and even in a late 1880s silhouette. Her colors are warm dark tones of orange, red, blue, and green. As costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone notes in Fashionista:
“We knew that Ada would have the oranges, browns and greens as somebody who’s like a librarian and missionary on a journey to discover charities and be part of the society.”
Lina Astor’s Costumes
This is a real historical figure who ruled the “400” best families in New York. In the TV series, she shows up several times as a force to be reckoned with. Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) wears a rounded bustle that looks very old-fashioned, more early 1870s than aggressive 1880s. Her costumes are usually in rich, deep colors and especially damasks. For example:
Mamie Fish’s Costumes
This is also a real historical person who was known for hosting tons of parties that featured silly games and entertainments. Mrs. Fish (Ashlie Atkinson) wears a rounded bustle, but with more flashy clothes that speak to her character as the noted party hostess. She’s only onscreen a few times, but she often gets costumes that are directly inspired by extant garments. Such as:
Aurora Fane’s Costumes
Aurora (Kelli O’Hara) sometimes wears 1880s natural-form gowns, and her wardrobe is a mix of jewel tones and pastels, usually with lots of fussy trims and details — all of this shows that she’s born to Old Money but open to discussions with New Money, unlike her Aunt Agnes who is totally closed off. Such as:
Anne Morris’ Costumes
Mrs. Morris (Katie Finneran) is the most stuck-up bitch of the Old Money set, and she wears stripes. I don’t know what that means to the costume designer, because stripes were incredibly popular throughout 19th century. This is the one misstep I find in the costuming for The Gilded Age, to tag just one character with a specific pattern that was in the period (and today!) fairly ubiquitous, and keep that specific pattern away from any other characters’ costumes. For example:
New Money Costumes in The Gilded Age
The women with New Money are visually distinct in that they tend to wear smaller bustles with a silhouette of 1882 stretching up to 1890, but skipping the mid-1880s aggressive bustle. They might wear a natural-form gown. They definitely wear color and lots of it.
In Variety, Kasia Walicka-Maimone said:
“I would describe the old money as the effortless presence of very established rules. The new money is trying to be the better versions of that society, and because of that they become maybe bolder, and then have more courage and more means to try the newest of the new, what came from Europe, which was just a breath of fresh air.”
Bertha Russell’s Costumes
Here’s the costumes everyone loves to hate on: Bertha’s. Yes, they’re wild! That’s on purpose! As I’ve said before, Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is the epitome of New Money and, as such, she’s a little clueless about what should be worn when and where. She’s very ‘bull in a china shop’ too, so she just does stuff because she wants to or it seems like a good idea to her. She obviously does not know the social niceties — New Money folks didn’t! They had to learn them. It was a painful process. Plus, she’s a bold, aggressive woman, every bit the equal of her robber-baron husband. Her costumes express all of this.
Bertha’s wildest gowns are more 1889 in shape than 1882, with a tiny bustle, but she also has a few that are closer to 1885 with a rounded bustle. She wears bright colors, lots of metallics, and lots of flash. For example:
Bertha Russell has a shitton of money and just throws it around, so in terms of fashion, that gets her wacky haute-couture — compare with stuff that’s put out by today’s fashion houses and many of you will ask, “Who wears that?” Answer: anyone who has the money. In the 1880s, same thing. There are plenty of whack-a-doodle 1880s fashion plates (click those links!) out there that make you wonder who wore them. The Bertha Russells of the world would.
On Bertha’s gowns, Kasia Walicka-Maimone said in Fashionista:
“That period was very experimental in the draping, use of color and shapes of garments and hats. “During [the 1880s], a lot of asymmetry appeared, with very free organic draping. There’s a very interesting use of mixed and unexpected elements in embellishment of the dresses.”
And in an interview with Tom and Lorenzo, she said of Bertha:
“The thought was always that she brings the forefront of Parisian fashions, that she brings the forefront of European fashions, that the new money embraced it much more easily. Those gowns were extraordinarily expensive from the Worth House, the main house, also Maison Félix, but primarily the Worth House, they cost an extraordinary amount of money. The ladies from the old guard were also buying those gowns, but they were keeping them in their closets for about two, three years until the newness of the style calmed down a bit.”
Carrie Coon, who plays Bertha, had a few things to say about her costumes in a Collider interview:
“They’re extraordinary. They absolutely remake your body and restrict your body. They’re a real challenge in stamina. These women didn’t wear their costumes for 17 hours at a clip. They changed five or six times a day, and you start to understand why. I think I had 25 dresses for the first four or five episodes. It was an extraordinary number and a tremendous amount of work.
And, of course, I also had the added challenge of getting really pregnant about a quarter of the way in. Everything they made, we just had to throw out and start over. Not really. What they ended up doing was putting a lot of strings in the back and a lot of elastic and moving buttons. The costume department managed to mask my pregnancy for most of the shoot, so they had to do very little CGI, ultimately. They did it all with actual practical costuming.
I had to remember what it was like to move around in a corset because I didn’t have one anymore. That was actually, in some ways, more challenging because the corset is a cheat. You can’t slouch in the corset, but once it’s gone, I had to keep pretending like I had one on. In some ways, that was harder. And wearing high heels when you’re pregnant was not my favorite thing. It’s miserable.”
She gets a pass on our usual annoyance with corset-whining because, yeah, being pregnant AND working long hours in period costume and high heels is nobody’s idea of a good time!
In Town and Country Magazine, designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone described how she worked with corset-maker Tricorne on Bertha’s corsets
“I’ve never dealt with corseting pregnancy and we want to be smart and respectful and logical about it. So we modified her corsets, we modified the stretch panels in certain corsets, and it was genius engineering.”
Carrie Coon also said in the LA Times:
“Whenever you see Bertha in a fancy cape, you can rest assured that it was shot in the last two weeks of filming. It was kind of a wild thing for costumes to have to figure out where to put my boobs, as they kept getting bigger!”
The actor mentioned her favorite of Bertha’s outfits to the AV Club:
“The opera look is certainly one of the most extraordinary. I mean, that red velvet is like butter. It’s the most fluid piece of fabric, and it drapes so beautifully. And that cape weighs 35 pounds. It choked me. I can only do that so many times, and we had to take off my necklace because it was going to pierce my skin because the cape is so heavy. So I mean, women still go to great lengths to ascend in the fashion world. That certainly hasn’t changed very much, I’m afraid.”
“I also love this one dress, and I wear it, I think, a couple of times, but it’s turquoise and copper, and it has this black and white sort of graphic element to it. They called it the Eiffel Tower dress. And I just love some of her combinations are so surprising, they feel risqué to me in a way that’s really, really fun.”
I can totally imagine that opera cape being heavy between the velvet and the beading! And while the Eiffel Tower dress looks silly to me as a historical dress, I can appreciate it as a ‘surprising combo,’ sure.
Sylvia Chamberlain’s Costumes
The other New Money woman is Mrs. Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn). She’s an outcast from polite society and mostly stuck in her art-filled home. But she is also a bold woman, who has made controversial life choices, and her costumes reflect that. She wears some of the only 1882-ish natural-form gowns in the show, and they’re in striking color combos using black, blue, silver, and gold.
The Younger Women’s Costumes of The Gilded Age
The younger women each have their own looks, but together Marian Brook, Gladys Russell, Carrie Astor, and Peggy Scott wear fashions that bridge between the Old and New Money worlds. Each of them take from both worlds in some way, some of them more than others.
Marian Brook’s Costumes
Marian is nominally the heroine of this story, and her character is the ingenue who’s moved from a small town to the big city. Her clothes go through a transformation that show her starting as a wide-eyed country girl to a fashionable young lady from a moneyed family. All along, however, her silhouette is a bit more 1886 and later, with slim lines, small bustle, and bodice / shoulder treatments that lean towards the later part of the decade. She wears a lot of blue and yellow, but then occasional brights.
In Woman’s Wear Daily, Kasia Walicka-Maimone describes Marian:
“She has a very beautiful sensibility of a girl that comes from a smaller town and then she lands in New York between those giant powers of a world that is very well established with very classical values. And then she gets a glimpse of Bertha, who is across the street. [Marian] is exposed to all of that and at the same time she’s absorbing it all and she creates her own vocabulary.”
But Louisa Jacobson, who plays Marian, did complain about her corset, in the Reign With Josh Smith podcast as reported by Hollywood Life:
“They measured and sewed all my costumes based on how tight my corset was in the fitting when I had been really ambitious about making it very tight. I would say three or four months into shooting, I actually had to ask them to take out my dresses from the waist because it was just too much, it was taxing physically and mentally, I couldn’t sleep on my side for a long time because my ribs were so sore.”
Gladys Russell’s Costumes
As the daughter of the main New Money family, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is bound to wear non-traditional stuff. But her clothes are more about her character arc than strictly fashion. She’s a sheltered young girl, treated as younger than her years by her mother, and the season leads up to her debut ball. So she’s dressed in extremely youthful-looking outfits, often far stranger than what an 18-year-old lady of the period would wear, to really drive home the point. When she’s allowed to leave the house, she does start to wear 1882-ish natural-form gowns.
Caroline ‘Carrie’ Astor’s Costumes
Carrie Astor is a real person, the daughter of Mrs. Astor, and in real life, she did mix with New Money in the form of the Vanderbuilts. Carrie (Amy Forsyth) wears elaborate, highly trimmed costumes as fit her Old Money status, but unlike her mother, she wears up-to-date fashions. Sometimes she’s in 1880s natural-form gowns, and sometimes she wears what looks like a mid-1880s aggressive bustle.
Peggy Scott’s Costumes
As an educated middle-class Black woman in the 1880s, Peggy (Denée Benton) dresses in current fashions, just not as extravagantly as the rich white women or as fashion-forward either. She’s one of the few characters who wears distinctly mid-1880s costumes with mid-size bustles, as if to show that she’s “of the time” without being either too old-fashioned or too fashionable. As with all the characters, Peggy’s wardrobe is both historically based and tells her story. In Fashionista, Kasia Walicka-Maimone referenced this specific photo by Charles L. Kempf and said of the plaid costumes Peggy wears:
“I took the plaids from a lot of the research … We use the plaids more in the home environments. Then, we tried to stay away from the plaids, because that was just the beginning of her character [arc] — we moved to things that were a little bit more professional, like the stripes and browns.”
Peggy’s wardrobe does show a progression. For example:
For those questioning why and how this Black woman would have ever gotten involved with the white folks on the Upper East Side, listen to historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Ph.D., a co-executive producer on show, who told the Washington Post:
“This is about world-making. This is about bringing characters who’ve been relegated to the margins into the center. … There is a 40- to 50-year gap that hasn’t been explored in ways that are nuanced and show Black life in the North.”
Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s based in history, and stories tweak history all the time. So why not do so in a way that brings lesser-known history to light, integrating into the history people might know or might already be interested in?
Dunbar continued in Vanity Fair, saying:
“The reality is that very few Black women were working uptown, and they definitely weren’t doing so in a semi-professional way. She’s not a domestic. She is someone whose profession is built on her education. It was really important for us to show that she was a skilled woman, and that that was a reality for Black people 15 years or so removed from the Civil War.”
Again, taking elements from history and weaving them into the story. Which is the same as the costume design team did — take historical designs and use them in ways that told a story for a mainstream TV audience.
Lastly, while the production team did have a lot more resources than many other shows, it wasn’t limitless. Kasia Walicka-Maimone told the LA Times:
“The amount of money they spent on their dresses was endless [in the period], so we had to find tricks to show that without actually spending that kind of money on each outfit.”
One particular way this plays out that I noticed is how the skirts of the costumes are sometimes rather simple. Bustle-era skirts can be magnificently elaborate with all kinds of puffs and swags and trimmed in pleats, ruffles, bows, fringe, you name it. But a TV show focuses on the actors’ faces as they’re talking. So any time, and thus money, spent making fancy skirts wouldn’t be seen onscreen. Sure, there are productions that do it, but not often!
What do you think of The Gilded Age‘s costumes?