A look at the time fashion – WWD
The new HBO series The Gilded Age delves deep into the era of New York City in 1882, a time of increasing prosperity, industrial growth and an internal clash in society as numbers of the “new money” in ascended the ranks of “old money” devices.
Brought to you by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the HBO show focuses on a cast of characters played by Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Louisa Jacobson, Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, and more. The show follows Marian, played by Jacobson (Meryl Streep’s daughter), who recently lost her father and moved from rural Pennsylvania to live with her “old money” aunts Ada (played by Nixon) and Agnes (played by Baranski). to live in new york city.
Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone was commissioned to portray this divide between the “new money” and “old money” characters through her period costumes. The costume designer and her team of approximately 65 clients thoroughly researched the Golden Age era—and periods before and after—to understand the styles of 1882 to create approximately 5,000 costumes for the show’s first season.
“There was this strong Parisian influence on women’s fashion in New York and designers like [Charles Frederick] Worth had a huge impact on what happened on the streets of New York,” Walicka-Maimone said. “So the ladies of ‘new money’ and royalty quickly brought this Parisian fashion and European fashion to the streets of New York.”
Walicka-Maimone explained that most of the fabrics were sourced from Rome, Paris or London, or made in the show’s costume house. Few vintage materials were used – Walicka-Maimone used some vintage lace and period jewelry – as they were too fragile to be molded into the tight, corseted dresses.
The distinction between the “old money” and “new money” characters can be seen through types of fabrics, colors, and ornaments in the costumes. The character Bertha Russell (played by Coon) is the most prominent “new money” character of the series.
Russell is the wife of a railroad magnate and recently moved her family to an “old money” neighborhood that she doesn’t accept. Their costumes clash with those of their neighbors, with Russell favoring heavy ornamentation, flashy headgear, and bright colors.
“She’s trying to be the grand dame of all grand dames,” Walicka-Maimone said. “She’s not trying to break away from society, but she’s just trying to be a better version of the old society. I tried to make that subtle difference between their costumes and the “old money”. The silhouette is the same – no one would dare break the silhouette – but with Bertha it fits more with current fashions.”
Walicka-Maimone explained that her team saw through historical research that “new money” figures would often adopt the current fashion of European homes, while “old money” families would buy the same garments, but up to a certain point These trends and styles eventually reached the United States. This reflected the New Money characters’ desire to set trends and be bolder, while at the same time reinforcing the Old Money characters’ practice of sticking to what is traditional.
Russell’s costumes were in stark contrast to the central ‘old money’ characters of Agnes and Ada, both of whom adhere to monochromatic jewel tones, with the former regularly wearing shades of purple and blue, while the latter wore gold, orange and red. Walicka-Maimone described the aunts’ dresses as “heavily decorated fabrics that are at the same time extremely elegant, discreet and never too loud”, but also evoke a “richness of history in every element” such as the embroidery or the depth of colour.
While the show’s central character, Marian, hails from an “old money” family, her costumes don’t necessarily fit that style, or even “new money.” As Marian is new in town, her style reflects how she absorbs the new people and experiences around her.
“She has a very beautiful sensibility of a girl who comes from a smaller town and then ends up in New York among these giant powers of a world that’s very well established with very classical values,” explained Walicka-Maimone. “And then she gets a glimpse of Bertha, who’s across the street. [Marian] is exposed to it all and absorbs it at the same time and creates her own vocabulary.”
Walicka-Maimone described the characters’ style as a mix of “old money” and “new money”, with Marian favoring pastel yellows and blues, lighter fabrics, lace and floral prints. Her style is also meant to reflect her newfound independence and how she’s trying to make a place for herself between these two worlds.
For all characters, color plays a huge role in furthering each person’s story and narrative. Walicka-Maimone explained that there are specific colors reserved for specific characters, such as jewel tones for the Aunts and pastels for Marian, and that the hues were used strategically.
“We’re all coded for color reactions,” she explained. “We know that color carries so much more information than just what is called colour. It carries a wealth of information. I wouldn’t put Marian in a jewel tone. It’s just not her character. She’s young and innocent, and she’s a breath of fresh air that’s blowing up in the house. Bertha, we treat these colors symbolically. Her husband runs railroads, so that idea of steel and shiny things is coded into the character.”
Overall, Walicka-Maimone said the costumes serve as a representation of the world at the time, promoting narrative and separation between the characters.
“[The costumes] improve storytelling,” she said. “It’s always our job as design teams to portray the underlying story behind each character. I think you can feel that by looking at the people and recognizing each character.”
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