HBO’s latest series, “The Gilded Age” is nothing short of a visual feast, filled with sprawling marble mansions and luscious recreations of 1880s New York City. But possibly the most eye-catching element of Julian Fellowes’ new period drama is the gorgeous gowns that outfit the largely female cast of high society strivers and schemers. From the sun-bright yellow dress Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) dons at the end of the show’s first episode to the long, immaculately embroidered blood-red cloak Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) wears to the opera during the show’s fourth episode, “The Gilded Age ”pulls one jaw-dropping look after another out of its wardrobe.
As candy-colored as the gowns can be, however, the depth of the series’ costumes goes beyond their peerless stitchwork. As lead costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone describes it, “The Gilded Age” captures one of the most fascinating periods of New York fashion, as styles and trends began changing and progressing alongside New York City’s upper-crust.
“It was one of the more interesting fashion periods,” Walicka-Maimone said. “It was a very new and exciting period in fashion, in technology and art. And we were lucky that that’s the period we were dealing with because it’s very much a period that gives us a lot to experiment with, and lots to draw from and lots to play. “
Walicka-Maimone came to the project interested in exploring the history of New York, a city she isn’t from but lives in and feels a strong connection to. In creating the wardrobes for the characters, she and her costume team of around 65 people did heavy research into the trends and styles of the time, taking inspiration for some looks through photography, paintings, fashion plates and writing of the time period. The team explored a wealth of material: for example, the designs of the character Peggy (Denée Benton), a Black woman who hails from a wealthy Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, were inspired from research into the Black elite in New York and other urban areas .
Walicka-Maimone’s goal was to develop looks that communicate both who the characters are, and where they exist within the show’s central divide: the old elite who grew up with money and social power, and a new wave of New Yorkers who have obtained much of the former but don’t quite yet have the latter.
In the show, the old money elite are primarily represented by socialite sisters Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada (Cynthia Nixon), while the new money is embodied by Bertha and her husband George (Morgan Spector), a wealthy railroad tycoon who moves across the street from Agnes and Ada in the first episode. The difference in background between the sisters and Bertha is obvious just from the way they dress: Agnes and Ada’s gowns tend to be simple, elegant but decidedly plain and unshowy. Bertha, meanwhile, is constantly adorned with frills, feathers and large hats that make her stand out like a sore thumb whenever she leaves her opulent mansion for a social event.
According to Walicka-Maimone, Bertha’s fashion reflects how new money types of the time period were heavily inspired by Parisian fashions and trends. While older New York City elite tended to stick within the purview of established American fashion, newcomers adopted European looks partially in an attempt to impress and develop a presence for themselves in a world they had only just begun to enter.
“I would describe the old money as the effortless presence of very established rules,” Walicka-Maimone says. “The new money is trying to be the better versions of that society, and because of that they become maybe bolder, and then have more courage and more means to try the newest of the new, what came from Europe, which was just a breath of fresh air. “
One of the biggest innovations of 1880s fashion was the advent of artificial dyes in clothing, leading to an explosion of new color combinations. Walicka-Maimone focused on giving each character a specific color palette that matched their background and role in the story.
The results are frequently illuminating: Stately Agnes wears jewel tones to reflect her prideful nature while her kind-hearted, charitable sister Ada opts for warmer colors, particularly oranges. Bertha wears a lot of silver to reflect her husband’s job as a railroad tycoon and the newness of their money, while her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), a young woman just emerging into society, wears soft lilacs and lavenders in combinations inspired by Parisian aesthetics .
Marian, the outsider of New York, wears bright blues and yellows with floral patterns that symbolize her upbringing in the countryside and her naivete compared to the woman around her.
“We tell the story and through the costume work, we represent the stories of those characters,” Walicka-Maimone says. “All of us, as a society, have responses to colors, we know historically and through circumstance that colors have meaning.”
While the gowns are the showstoppers of “The Gilded Age,” Walicka-Maimone paid similarly close attention to ensuring the male characters’ wardrobes were both period accurate and distinct from one another. As the show is set in the world of business in New York, the wardrobes tend to be more restrictive than the ladies, with their outfits generally limited to charcoal black and gray suits (a scene in the pilot that takes place in Newport, where the men don polos in whites and pastels, is a notable exception). However, Walicka-Maimone, with the help of design team member Patrick Wiley, focused on stylizing their vests and fabrics in ways that reflected their status, personality and households, even if those differences were much subtler than those between the women.
In general, Walica-Maimone stressed that she would not have been able to achieve her work on the series without the help of her team, from her fellow designers to the makers who were situated in both the US and Europe to the team on set who handled the costumes during filming. With their help, she was able to reach her goal of capturing the Gilded Age as it was, in all of its complexities.
“What was fascinating about creating the look for ‘The Gilded Age,’ was acknowledging the world that was in front of us, because it was a very complicated time,” Walicka-Maimone says. “So to represent the working classes, present the servants or present the street vendor is to represent the world as it was: complex, complicated, and even economically, extremely diverse and polarized. And I think that’s what was the most favorite part about this process. That we did have this wide world to represent and trying to get it right. “