If you’re looking for a nice historical series to watch, we can suggest The Gilded Age. Not only history-based and with an interesting plot, but also with a ton of lovely period-accurate outfits. There were about 5000 handcrafted costumes only in the first season of the show. Sure, not all of them were good, which is up for discussion, of course. In this post, we’ll share with you what movie costumes we liked and disliked and why. If your opinion differs from ours, you’re welcome to tell us in the comment section – we’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
This material is based on the video from YouTube channel “Costume CO”.
The Gilded Age is an American series created and written by Julian Fellowes for HBO. In Season 1, the show is set in 1882 New York. The costumes are designed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone. In the show, creator Julian Fellowes borrows heavily from his past works, like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs.
There was info that the Russell family was inspired by the Vanderbilts and George Russell, the family patriarch, is likely based upon Jason Gould, an American railroad magnate and financial speculator but also a very unpopular figure in real life. The Gilded Age production describes him as a classic Robber baron.
In many ways, The Gilded Age is a reflection of modern-day America. From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than 1/3 of the nation's wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly 3/4 of it.
While the main cast portrays fictional characters, many of the supporting characters are based upon real-life people, like Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, American socialite Mamie Fish, Caroline Astor and her daughter Carrie Astor, and Ward McAllister.
Costumes in The Gilded Age
This show is ensemble-heavy, many of the principal characters have dozens of costumes.
Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the show's historical consultant and co-executive producer, tells The Smithsonian, “The clothing that our actors are wearing, the carriages that they're stepping into, the teacups that they are using, all of this is accurate”.
It's a little disingenuous to make this statement since there are many liberties taken in the costumes, especially when it comes to the incorrect silhouette and, at times, the draping and color combinations that push the boundaries. So, to be fair to the show, we are dealing with actors with modern bodies, many of them have never worn late-19th-century underpinnings, so we cannot possibly expect their silhouette to be 100% accurate.
Carrie Coon, for instance, who played Bertha, was pregnant while shooting. If you look closely, you can see that she is often draped and caped as the season progresses.
Vogue says that, for comfort, the actors wore modern underwear, and you can indeed see that in this behind-the-scenes picture of a pregnant Coon eating a slice of pizza.
Louisa Jacobson, who plays Marian Brook – by the way, did you know that she's Meryl Streep's daughter? – had a tough go with her corset. She told Vogue, “In the beginning, during fittings with our costume designer, I got a little bit carried away; I had this idea that I would have a really snatched waist in every scene. After a couple of months, I had to go back to her, and be like: I'm really sorry, but we've got to loosen this puppy up! I couldn't sleep on my side because my ribs were so sore”.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone 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”.
That period was very experimental in the draping, use of color, and shapes of garments and hats.
No doubt the designer and her team were aiming for accuracy but then veered off, because, in the same interview, she said, “to enjoy some creative license” and “it's a bit embellished, as any film material needs to do for the sake of storytelling”.
One more thing, we see about 5000 handcrafted costumes in Season 1.
And now, let’s talk about the good and bad show costumes we see in The Gilded Age. First, the best stage outfits.
Best The Gilded Age show costumes
For starters, all of the servant uniforms in both houses look great.
As well as the men's costumes. During the day, the men of wealth are always smartly dressed in dark frock coats and waistcoats, wearing starched and pressed crisp white shirts, jewel-tone cravats fastened with pins, beaver silk top hats, and they're all carrying canes.
Their white-tie evening looks were also dashing.
The men's costumes were purposefully understated to allow the women's costumes to catch the eye – a request made by the show's producer.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone said, “We agreed with Julian that's how we're going to approach the men. We were very conservative with men, they were going to be this solid, elegant, measured giant palette for women to shine”.
With his bit of flair, Nathan Lane's Ward McAllister ensembles were among the best men's costumes.
The other costumes that deserve praise are the Newport by the sea outfits worn by both the men and women, like we see on Oscar, Carrie, and Larry, with their nautical touches of navy & white and some burgundy thrown in for a nice bit of additional color.
Oscar’s straw homburg – while we’re not sure if it's historically accurate – worked for his character.
Some of the images appear to be inspired by the great French painters of the time. Like this one side-by-side comparison of Bertha Russell and this James Tissot 1874 painting.
You can see some of the influence in the Polonaise-style draping of Aurora Fane’s dress, which is just gorgeous.
Carrie Astor's black & white gown worn at the Newport dinner was easily one of the favorite costumes in the show.
And most of the society ladies’ costumes were wonderful. For example, Aurora Fane and social outcast Sylvia Chamberlain.
Worth mentioning here are also the costumes of the sisters Ada Brook and Agnes van Rhijn. They are the most period correct and they have an almost flawless silhouette.
The fabrics and constructions of the gowns are beautiful and show their wealth and stature, while still not being too ostentatious. They are not showy in the least – that would be tacky.
Agnes’ jewel-tone gowns are created from sumptuous silk brocades and taffetas, trimmed with exquisite lace trims, jet bead fringe, and beaded appliqués.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone stated that most fabrics were sourced from Rome, Paris, or London or created in the show's costume house.
You can see the influences from many of the historical 1880s dresses of the period from the McCord Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
While we do see a repeat or two with Bertha, the sisters will wear an outfit more than once. They are all good pieces and a huge investment, so it only makes sense that these quality garments would be seen on more than one occasion.
Kasia Walicka-Maimone said, “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”.
Look how Ada has these masculine elements, a style borrowed from men's military jackets at the time because Ada is much stronger than her sister gives her credit for.
For Peggy Scott's plaid dresses, Kasia told Fashionista that she took plaids from a lot of research. For example, this circa 1890s 3/4-length portrait of an elderly lady in plaid dress by photographer C.L. Kempf from Brooklyn, New York. She said, “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”.
There are a lot of existing plaid gowns from the era, like these two dresses, one from the Museum at FIT and this 1882 French dress from The Met.
Many of Marian Brook’s costumes were lovely, like some of her afternoon and evening gowns. The costume designer described the character's style as a mix of old money and new money, with Marian favoring pastel yellows and blues, lighter fabrics, lace, and floral prints.
Some of her sunny yellow dresses were wonderful.
The one she wears when she's meeting Raikes looks like something out of a musical. Maybe that's an homage to the fact that there are so many in the cast that hail from Broadway.
Again, Tissot paints women in these softer shades of yellows, blues, and pinks.
Marian's ball gown in the season finale was stunning and reminded us of one French impressionist painting.
This is likely a minor grievance but aunt Agnes bought her a lot of clothes, which seems at odds because when her aunt took her in, she was nearly penniless.
But more importantly, the silhouette on some of Marian's looks felt way too contemporary, like, 20 years in the future.
In the beginning, they forewent the bum roll and bustle altogether, and at times, she had this ridge just below her bust that was driving you to distraction, like there was a dent in her corset or something. As you know, the busk was worn at the front of the corset to provide stiffness at the center front of the corset.
And this is the point when we move from good show costumes in The Gilded Age series to worse ones. Sorry, but it can't be helped.
Worst The Gilded Age show costumes
There was this one look that was so awful – the blue lace collar and gold satin number. There was even a scene where she was with aunt Ada dressed in a bright royal blue where they clashed.
The designer admits, “I might have pushed it too far, here and there, but I also think that’s what happens when young people are trying to define their style”.
Yellow ochre worked great on Ada because it was in her color palette, and it would be one thing if the designer kept to one character, but it would pop up on Bertha and then Peggy Scott as well.
Dorothy Scott's costumes, especially that yellow two-piece day suit, were so bad, with that trim on the front of her bodice. It was really unflattering on Audra McDonald.
Also, many of Caroline Astor's costumes weren’t good. The brocade fabrics had this weightiness to them akin to upholstery fabrics.
For the ball, her gown with the broad lace trim looked hastily put together, like her character had to pull out all the stops to make an appearance – maybe that's what they were going for.
Talking about Bertha Russell, Carrie was a late replacement for Amanda Peet, who had to leave the show due to a scheduling conflict. The design team switched directions when they met Carrie Coon and their design was informed by the way she walked and sashayed around the room.
According to Insider, “Bertha's gowns took on more metallic hues that Coon said were a nod to America's industrialization and the Russell's monopolistic fortune built from railroads”.
Her design was the most ambitious and created to make a statement.
Some of her costumes we genuinely like but others we hated. On some of them, the draping was way over the top and the combination of colors and fabrics clashed. In this case, the design team are attempting to recreate their own versions of a historical gown from the 1880s but with much tighter deadlines and obviously with a smaller budget. It's the same way that a master chef with a recipe will create a dish that is unrivaled but if a home cook attempted the same recipe, it might not work out.
And finally, there’s just one more character to poo poo and that's poor Gladys Russell.
It’s understandable where they were going with this, like, the doll's tea party, which was hilarious. Gladys's mother won't allow Gladys to come out into society, so she dresses her like a child.
Many of her outfits have an 18th-century silhouette, which actually isn't inaccurate because this period did take influence from that period.
But many of them look so bad on the actor. The pale costumes drained all of the color from her.
Although, this white & yellow number is an exception – it was really pretty.
And her hair, while historically accurate, was so mousy. Perhaps they were going with this ugly duckling to a swan trope and, in Season 2, we will see a great transformation.