This week, Ruth Croft explores the history of fashion in the gilded age and how it was best represented at the 2022 Met Gala.
The Met Gala is the arguably one of the most fashionable nights of the year. It is a chance for designers to showcase their creativity, whilst also allowing everyone the opportunity to celebrate the annual fashion exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the fundraising gala is always held.
It was first founded in 1948 by Eleanor Lambert, an American fashion publicist best known for establishing New York fashion Week and the International Best Dressed List. The illustrious event is now organised by Vogue magazine and chaired by Anna Wintour. Every year has a specific theme, and those invited are expected to dress accordingly.
In May 2022, the Met Gala’s theme was “In America: An Anthology of Fashion.” The exhibition was to celebrate the development of American fashion throughout history, whilst the invitations reportedly suggested that guests intertwine these concepts with the themes of “white tie” and “gilded glamour.” Through this, it seems important to explore the history of fashion in the Gilded Age, how it was best represented throughout time, and who dressed the most accordingly at the Met Gala.
The Gilded Age received its name from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today in 1873. It told the story of an era of cultural and social issues disguised behind glamorous gold gilding.
The Gilded Age was a part of American history from 1870 to 1900. It is considered to be a time of economic increase, especially for those skilled in their trade, and for industrialisation as a whole.
The average worker saw their wage rise with a gain of nearly 50%. This was mostly due to society turning their attention to important industries— railroads, mining, and factories. Resultantly, labourers had more work, and therefore, the concentration of wealth rose in visibility. However, it was also a time of great poverty and suffering.
Historians called it a period of ‘economic dislocation.’ The millions of immigrants from Europe who travelled to the US to work struggled to find places that weren’t already taken.
In terms of politics during the Gilded Age, the national elections saw cultural issues as a dominant factor, particularly surrounding education and economic wealth. The union workers desired better working hours and the abolition of child labour. Meanwhile, those belonging to the middle classes focused on civil service reform, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, and the suffrage of women. This ultimately led to the following era of progression in all aspects of society.
In terms of fashion, the Gilded Age was best known for luxury. The upper-class women of society wore dresses of rich fabric, such as velvet and satin, all in beautiful jewel tones of royal blue, amethyst purple, and rose pink. These styles were often paired with corsets and jewellery. For men, the period saw expensive suits become the fashion staple.
The textile industry experienced vast technological advances and began producing materials like tulle and silk. The accessories for every gender involved feathers. It was a look of extravagance that perfectly represented the idea of gold masking the truth of society.
One of the most famous looks from this time was that of Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, an American socialite. Upon receiving an invitation to a high-class party, she reportedly asked designer Charles Frederick Worth to create her a haute couture dress that would accurately represent electricity.
The result was a beautiful blue gown made with heavy velvet and a gold satin veneer called “Electric Light”. The dress was decorated with glittering diamonds, which illuminated with the help of a battery hidden within the fabric. The look perfectly emulated the famous glow of Thomas Edison’s recently invented light bulb.
Another famous fashion statement of the Gilded Age was the ‘princess’ look, which featured vertical lines crossing the fabric of corsets and bodices to make the wearer look slender and ‘long waisted.’ This was often paired with bustles, a padded undergarment that added fullness to a woman’s skirt. The effect was that of the desired feminine figure.
This illustrious part of fashion history should have provided those attending the Met Gala with an abundance of inspiration. However, many have agreed that the theme wasn’t entirely represented perfectly.
Kim Kardashian had one of the most memorable looks of the night, wearing the dress Marilyn Monroe wore to John F Kennedy’s birthday. Not only is it one of the most iconic dresses of the 20th century, it is also incredibly expensive, having been auctioned for $4.8 million.
The sheer, glittering gown was originally designed by Jean-Louis. However, the Kardashian had a replica made to change into once she climbed the stairs at the Met Gala so as not to potentially ruin Monroe’s original dress. Despite how beautiful the dress was, it didn’t quite fit the gilded glamour theme, rather more that of the history of American fashion as a whole.
A lot of people agreed that their favourite look of the night was Blake Lively’s. Lively stepped onto the red carpet in a rose-gold and pale blue Versace dress, which paid homage to the Statue of Liberty. The aspects of the gilded glamour theme were visible through her elbow-length gloves and extravagant jewellery.
Meanwhile Tessa Thompson shone in a light pink dress by Carolina Herrera. The design featured a corset and 200 metres of tulle, which was perfect for the theme, making her look the ultimate princess.
Similarly, SZA looked perfect in her Vivienne Westwood gown, which was a bright jewel-pink colour made of a heavy fabric with a corset bodice. She paired the look with a massive black hat, long gloves, and a statement piece of jewellery around her neck.
It was a particularly influential night for fashion, and one that will be hard to eclipse next year. The gilded glamour theme is one that will be remembered through history, just as the time period for which it was inspired from. A constellation of differences, luxury, beauty, and deep tribulations all dressed in a golden veneer.
You can read more of Ruth’s work by following her on Instagram @thewriterruth.
Images via Wikimedia Commons, @kimkardashian on Instagram, @vancityreynolds on Instagram, @tessamaethompson on Instagram