From Downton Abbey: A New Era to Bridgerton, historical fashion is having a moment. If you need more proof, look no further than this year’s Met Gala, which took place on May 2nd. The theme for 2022 was “Gilded Glamour,” and it resulted in modern takes on all the over-the-top looks you’ve come to love from the era that inspired Julian Fellowes’s 2022 HBO series The Gilded Age.
The exhibition behind the Met Gala theme — The Costume Institute’s “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” — is presented in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing and explores “the role of dress in shaping American identity.”
If you aren’t familiar with Fellowes’ show, The Gilded Age dramatizes all the social-climbing, excess and greed of New York City in the late 19th century. It takes its name from a term coined by American author Mark Twain to describe the superficially beautiful, deeply corrupt nature of 1870s-1900 American society — when unprecedented wealth and growth in industry also gave way to deepening economic inequality.
“It’s a complex period,” Justine De Young, professor of fashion history at FIT and founding editor of Fashion History Timeline, tells Yahoo Life. “There is this very prominent and exploding wealthy class of people that can afford to buy French couture and so on, but it’s also a period of the great democratization of fashion because of the rise of the department store. Thanks to the industrial revolution, fashion was actually much more accessible to a wider swath of society than ever before.”
The era bestowed us with some big names in American royalty like J.D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. But you don’t need to be a Vanderbilt or red carpet celebrity to bring some old-world glitz to your wardrobe. Here are five Gilded Age-inspired fashion trends you can wear right now.
Sorry, Bridgerton fans — in Gilded Age fashion the empire waist is out and small, defined waists are queen.
“In terms of silhouettes, this is your peak for the very curvy large bust, small waist, wider hips,” De Young says.
Today, corsets are working their way into festival fashion, onto the runway and around the waists of countless celebs — because who doesn’t like “rocking your underwear as outerwear”? And you don’t have to kill yourself (literally) to nail corset couture; De Young says some sneaky tricks went a long way.
“The thing about corsets — people think women were torturing their waists, but a lot of what was achieved was illusion,” De Young explains. “They wore additional padding to make their waist seem especially small.”
#2: Puffed sleeves
Who can forget Anne from Anne of Green Gables’s insistence that she must have a dress with puffed sleeves? "Puffed sleeves are so fashionable now. It would give me such a thrill, Marilla, just to wear a dress with puffed sleeves," the iconic character says.
We certainly share Anne’s urgency. From Renaissance-era Juliet dresses to the balloon-shouldered styles of the 1980s, the puff sleeve is once again blowing up (pun intended) in 2022. As was the case in the Gilded Age they come in all shapes and sizes, from little mushroom puff sleeves to giant mutton sleeves.
Only time will tell how long the 21st-century puff sleeve will last, but De Young says during the Gilded Age it was pretty short-lived.
“There is a moment when you must have those sleeves,” De Young says. “But it’s literally like one year. It’s a very short trend.”
#3: Long gloves
Gloves aren’t just a cold weather staple these days. They’re going beyond function — and not reserved solely to accessorize a ball gown or wear to the opera. Nicola Peltz donned a long lacy pair during her wedding to Brooklyn Beckham, and if you’re Kim Kardashian you may even wear them at the beach.
De Young says long gloves were a big part of traditional dress during the Gilded Age — with lengths varying from just above the elbow to up to the shoulder — and are a must for anyone wishing to pay fashion homage to the era.
“I would say there’s three things that would be required for a ‘Gilded Glamour’ look. Those would be a defined waist, some kind of elaborate updo and long gloves,” she says.
#4: All the ruffles, frills and embellishments
“‘More is more’ is a good motto for this period,” De Young says.
Being extra was definitely in vogue during the Gilded Age, with everything from beading to lace to ribbons making their way onto women’s dresses. Ruffles and frills were resplendent, particularly on women’s derrieres, with the bustle style skirt at its apex. It’s a trend that’s very 2022, too, with ruffles and frills adorning even swimsuits this season.
But if you think only bougie robber barons’s wives were embellishing themselves, think again. De Young says middle class women got in on it, too.
“The drive towards ornamentation was perhaps a way to differentiate classes, but at the same time, it also cuts both ways. Because what fashion magazines often advised women on was how to restyle a look,” De Young explains. “So you have a basic black dress, but you can add the latest artificial flowers, which can be available cheaply, or the latest ribbons.”
#5: Prairie dresses
Slow down, fancy pants — the Gilded Age wasn’t all gold and glam. Some of the simpler aspects of that era have made their way into contemporary fashion as well. Namely, the so-called prairie dress. These light, airy numbers — great for twirling and prancing around a field or, erm, prairie — also offer the perfect balance between comfy and chic. They seem ubiquitous in fashion circles and have been rocked by everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Margot Robbie.
But prairie dresses aren’t a look we’d expect to see at a fancy event — either today or during the 19th century. De Young says during the Gilded Age they were very stripped down, and wouldn’t have been considered particularly fashionable.
“I think the modern interpretation of [the prairie dress] is close to what women would be wearing in the 1890s, maybe to go to the beach,” De Young says.
It may be tough to secure an invite to the Met Gala — a ticket will set you back $35,000, and table seating is contingent on Anna Wintour’s blessing. But if you have any other fancy event on your social card this season, De Young says to consider donning the princess line — a forerunner of the mermaid dress.
“If I was going to go to a ‘Gilded Glamour’ gala, I think the princess line with a long train would be very dramatic,” De Young says.
“It’s named after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, who was famous for her figure and loved the narrow silhouette.”
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