If you’ve been watching the new Julian Fellowes series The Gilded Age, you’ll know that the fashion of the late 19th and early 20th century showcased the fortunes of both the old and new money in New York City and helped establish one’s place in society. It was an age of excess that helped ambitious women (and the rest of their clans) stake a claim in a rapidly changing world. Here are seven sartorial elements that emerged in the Gilded Age.
More was more. Bustles were big, sleeves were ornate, skirts were layered, and trim was abundant. All this excess was topped off with intricate hairstyles and hats adorned with elaborate plumes.
Ladies’ hats took flight with feathers, wings and even entire birds topping the millinery of the time. When the Titanic sank, its most valuable cargo was over 40 cases of feathers destined for New York milliners. The mass slaughter of birds for the millinery trade was a key factor in the creation of the Audubon Society in 1895.
Outer garments accommodated undergarments like those enormous bustles. Dolman style mantles or visites allowed easy movement in and out of carriages. They were just as elegant as the gowns they covered and would be left on during short social visits.
Brooches bloomed in the daylight, since a woman could display her jewelry collection on top of her high-necked gown. Many were fashioned after flowers, particularly the much-adored orchid.
Tea gowns were the equivalent of modern athleisure wear. Gilded Age women were mostly laced up and buttoned down, unless they were relaxing at home. Then they loosened their corset stays and wore less restrictive but still luxurious tea gowns and dressing gowns.
Shirtwaists were ubiquitous. Clerks, salesgirls and teachers paired white shirtwaists with dark-colored skirts and belts, proving once again that a good white shirt is a working girl’s best friend. But the upper class wore more substantial versions when they went hunting or cycling and a proper lady might don one in taffeta or silk for afternoon tea or a less formal evening engagement.
Kimonos and chrysanthemums were all the rage. Japanese fabrics and motifs swept the fashion world. Asian-style clothing and accessories were popularized by the display of Japanese objects at the 1875 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and other exhibitions. The latest fashion came from France, but when Paris embraced Japonisme so did the rest of the fashion elite.
What Gilded Age fashion element intrigues you most?
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.