A Brief Reflection on the Historic Context, Social Relevance, Design Influence, and Artisanship of Gilded Glamour
On May 2nd, Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, aka Met Gala, returned to its traditional First Monday of May time slot with a night of lavish display of Gilded-Age inspired glamour. The official dress code of the evening, gilded glamour and white tie, brought to attention the extravagant style popularized by the elites of New York during the last part of the 19th century. It was during this period that hyper-industrialism and urbanism spread throughout the United States, amplifying the wealthy gap of the country.
The nouveau riche enjoyed flaunting their new-found richness. Fashion, with its powerfully visceral impact, became one of the most obvious means to show off one’s fortune. During this period, the new American aristocracy coveted clothing and accessories that were heavily embellished, often adorned with gold-dripping ornaments, feathers, pearls, gems, and intricate embroideries.
To fully comprehend the magnitude of New York high society’s appetite for excess at times, we must turn to the era’s most iconic representation of the opulence, the infamous Electric Light gown, designed by Paris Couturier Charles Fredrick Worth. It was created with a variety of labor-intensive embellishing techniques and materials, such as bolts of lightning and shimmering tinsel, to reflect light. In addition, in a true cutting edge way of the period, the dress had a built-in battery that was discreetly concealed and used to power the handheld torch, resembling the Statues of Liberty (speaking of symbolism).
The dress paid homage to Thomas Edison’s electricity distribution system, and worn by Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt to Vanderbilt Ball in 1883.
The term Gilded Age first appeared in the title of 1873 Novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who, in turn, took clues from William Shakespeare’s King John:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily… is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” (Act IV, scene 2)
Starting in the 20’s, the phrase Gilded Age was gradually used to refer to the era from 1870 to 1900 in United States history. As indicated in its origin story, the term initially took on the pejorative meaning because of many social and economic problems associated with the rise of the new class of riches. Yet, through time, a school of maximal aesthetic was established based on this overly decorative and ornate style. The Gilded Age, along with the Victorian Era and Belle Époque, have remained as the constant sources of ideas and inspirations for design, fashion and interior decor. Its visual influences are so prominent that it is not the first time in New York where a major exhibition was dedicated to the era.
In 2013, The Museum of The City of New York unveiled the exhibition, Gilded New York, to inaugurate its Tiffany’s & Co. Foundation Gallery. The exhibition was initially scheduled to run for one year, and ended to be on display until May, 2017. Over 100 objects were lavishly showcased , exploring the visual culture of this bygone age of tremendous wealth. We found the companion book with the same title, Gilded New York by Donald Albrecht and Jeannine Falino, published by The Monacelli Press, a great resource to dive deep on and appreciate the era’s long-lasting impact on arts, design, interior, and architecture.
In January 2022, HBO premiered its newest television series, The Gilded Age. We appreciated the elaborate costumes and enjoyed the visual gratifications brought by the show. It felt like a temporary escape into something fantasia, even prompting us to bring some glam and flashiness to our own design works. Then, came the announcement of the Met Gala dress code for 2022: gilded glamour, white-tie. The invitation read:
“The 2022 Met Gala Will Ask Its Attendees To Embody The Grandeur — And Perhaps The Dichotomy — Of Gilded Age New York.”
Suddenly, this aesthetical desire for excess seemed to be everywhere. It made us wonder: Will Gilded Age inspired glamour back in trend even at times of many uncertainties?
Escapism has always come into prominence after a period of hardship. The asceticism and austerity are often required at difficult times. A couple of years of restrictions of all sorts due to Covid, followed by the prospect of an economic downturn because of inflation, the sudden Ukraine humanitarian crisis with no clear end ahead, and the likely potential of overturning Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court, it is natural that some might gravitate towards the outlandish self-expressions to unburden.
History has also proven that an increasing yearning for the exaggerations of all sorts often acted as the coping mechanisms to face the aftermath of a social disquietude. There were the roaring 20s after WWI, and the decade-long decadence of the 80’s after the turbulence of previous years, i.g. Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis.
Regardless of whether or not the interest for the gilded glamour will go beyond the Met Gala red carpet, or, if this type of excessiveness is appropriate under the present economic and politic climate, as the Brooklyn-based design atelier that serve clients across the New York State, we deeply appreciate the cultural importance of this by-gone era. It was during this time that the foundation was laid out for the rise of New York City, whose current fashion industry accounts for 6% of the city’s workforce, generating $10.9 billion in total wages.
An event like Met Gala provides opportunities for designers and fashion houses across the globe to participate in, producing breathtaking, labor-intensive, technique-challenging, and, from time-to-time, boundary-breaking garments and accessories. Being a part of the fashion ecosystem, we are truly passionate about the beautifully designed clothing and objects. Each piece worn by the attendee at Met Gala often required hundreds if not thousands of hours of dedicated works. Each detail is mostly done by the artisan’s skillful hands with many of them receiving years of training before mastering the techniques and developing the necessary intuitions. In today’s hyper fast digital age, it is not only urgent to preserve such skills but also important to acknowledge the devotion of time and patience from those who create the works.
Be it customized for a particular attendee or an archival piece pulled from the fashion house’s historic catalog, there is an entire team of creatives and craftsmen working behind the scene to make it happen. When attention is put mostly on the celebrities who wore those pieces, it is easy to see how frivolous this can all seem to the outside world. Yet, the need to make beautiful things has been the driven force to push forward our human evolution. All the skills, knowledge, the quests to solve the problems and break the boundaries have collectively contributed to the progress of mankind. While trends come and go, and what is in the zeitgeist changes constantly, the aesthetic of the Gilded Age will always hold its place as one of the most influential American cultural exports.
When reflecting on this year’s Met Gala with its ultra-glam theme, we were reminded of an era where no single detail was left unattended and the cutting edge technological innovations were deeply interwoven with the pursuits of extravaganza. To make all that magic happen, there were many unsung people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes. And, a handful of them, for the first time in the history of Costume Institute, are brought to the foreground for proper acknowledgement at the exhibition, America: A Lexicon of Fashion, on display through September, 15th, 2022. Next time when you hear the mention of the term Gilded Age, we hope that you will join us to pause a second to contemplate about this long-ago era, not just what we can learn from all its faults, but also to marvel at its design ingenuity.
Originally published at https://www.houseofjune.net on May 6th, 2022.