At extravagant Gilded Age galas and balls, New York’s 19th-century scions served up luxurious styles with a generous splash of strangeness. Take Kate Strong, who wore a taxidermied cat atop her head while attending an 1883 costume ball hosted by the Vanderbilt family, or Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, who attended that same event wearing a gold- and silver-thread dress that, thanks to a hidden battery, actually lit up.
Though most A-listers in attendance at last night’s Met Gala, an annual benefit hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, didn’t find inspiration in the sheer weirdness of some of the era’s outfits, some did take their cue from the Gilded Age, the historical period that lent the theme its name. They interpreted the theme of “Gilded Glamour” in oft-divergent ways, lending the event a sense of luxury in keeping with the times that inspired it.
Spanning roughly 1870 to 1900, this era of excess, economic inequality and political corruption inspired Sarah Jessica Parker’s flashy feathered headdress; Billie Eilish’s satin reimagining of a gown featured in an 1885 John Singer Sargent portrait; and Riz Ahmed’s simple “homage to the immigrant workers who kept the Gilded Age going,” as the British-Pakistani actor told Vogue on the red carpet.
Other celebrities took the first half of the theme literally and covered themselves with gold; singers Cardi B, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion all donned gold-embellished or embroidered gowns. Still others adhered to the glamorous, if not gilded, part of the dress code: actress Michelle Yeoh in an emerald ensemble, singer and actor Janelle Monáe in a futuristic black-and-white look, and model Gigi Hadid in a red Versace puffer coat.
Yet another group of guests drew inspiration from New York City, the metropolitan center of the Gilded Age. Singer Alicia Keys sported a black cape adorned with jewels in the shape of the Manhattan skyline, while gala co-host Blake Lively channeled the Statue of Liberty in a flowing dress whose copper bow unfurled to reveal a patinated blue-green train.
One of the gala’s highlights was a dress that hadn’t been worn in public since Marilyn Monroe famously sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. Reality show star and business tycoon Kim Kardashian convinced Ripley’s Believe It or Not to let her briefly wear the sheer, skintight, glittering dress on the runway. (In a nod to the cultural importance and fragility of the dress, Kardashian wore a replica for the remainder of the event.)
Reflecting on the evening for the New York Times, critic Vanessa Friedman drew parallels between Kardashian’s coup and the era that inspired the event:
[W]hen it came to channeling history, Kim Kardashian, making the final entrance of the evening, ... topped them all. In receiving the honor of being the last to arrive, she, a pop culture figure born of reality TV who had once been barred from the gala guest list, conclusively demonstrated that it is influence and fame, not just pedigree and filthy lucre, that are the real currency of success; the keys that unlock the doors of even the most exclusive events. Today, even more than in the original Gilded Age.
Arguably the biggest night in fashion, the Met Gala makes headlines every year with its out-of-the-box designs and unexpected themes, which attendees sometimes ignore in favor of more traditional red carpet looks. Held in tandem with blockbuster exhibitions at the Met’s Costume Institute, the gala most recently asked attendees to embody American fashion and camp, defined by theorist Susan Sontag as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
This year’s benefit marked the opening of “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” the second installment in a two-part Met exhibition. Per a statement, part one of the exhibition “establishes a modern vocabulary of fashion,” while part two is more retrospective, outlining the historical context that shaped today’s couture.
For the soon-to-open show, the Manhattan museum recruited nine film directors, each of whom transformed one of the Met’s iconic period rooms into what a separate statement describes as “cinematic vignettes” spotlighting designers and dressmakers who worked in the United States in 19th and 20th centuries.
At a press preview earlier this week, curator Andrew Bolton told reporters that most of the figures chosen by the directors—including Regina King, Chloé Zhao and Sofia Coppola—are women and women of color who “have been forgotten, overlooked or relegated to a footnote in the annals of fashion history.” According to Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press, King highlighted Fannie Criss Payne, a Black designer who worked in Virginia at the turn of the 20th century, while Julie Dash explored the life of Black dressmaker Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding gown yet remained “shrouded in secrecy” and received no public fanfare for her work.
“Sex and the City” star Parker similarly paid homage to an underappreciated designer: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a formerly enslaved woman who became First Lady Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker. As Christian Allaire reports for Vogue, the actress collaborated with Christopher John Rogers to reimagine a design made by Keckley in the 1860s.
“It was this cape, and a black and white gingham-plaid gown underneath,” Rogers tells Vogue. “It was the starting point for us—and since we’re known for using plaids and taffeta, it was already in the wheelhouse of what we do.”
Keckley’s designs date to just before the Gilded Age, whose name was coined by Mark Twain in a nod to the illusory nature of the period. Twain “used [the term] to describe the era’s patina of splendor—gilded, after all, is not gold—and the shaky foundations undergirding industrialists’ vast accumulation of wealth,” wrote historian Kimberly Hamlin for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year.
As new technology and improved infrastructure reshaped 19th-century Manhattanites’ everyday lives, the chasm between the wealthy and the working class grew—a trend that led some observers on social media to condemn the 2022 gala’s theme as “out of touch” at a time of inflation and continued economic inequality, per Maya Yang of the Guardian.
In terms of fashion, Gilded Age style was defined by extravagance. The era’s “unofficial edict,” according to Vogue’s Elise Taylor, was “[t]he more going on, the better.” Upper-class women wore jewel-toned gowns crafted out of a variety of fabrics, including silk, velvet and satin. Corsets, bustles, feather-adorned hats and expensive jewelry often completed high-fashion ensembles. Beginning in the 1880s, meanwhile, tuxedos became the norm for formal menswear.
“It’ll be great to see a nod to all the embellishment ... and a celebration of that kind of exaggeration,” fashion historian and curator Kate Strasdin told CNN Style’s Jacqui Palumbo ahead of the gala. “And the whole exuberance of color and shape. And maybe some crazy hats.”