Wearable Wealth: Fashions of the Gilded Age

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All eyes would have been on the woman who twirled around the dance floor in this pink ball gown by Charles Worth, 1890s. It sold for $3,850 in 2018.

The grand couture of one of America’s most opulent eras for fashion is back in the sartorial spotlight again thanks to HBO’s new period drama, The Gilded Age.

The series, which begins in 1882, chronicles “Old Money” versus “New Money” characters plotting to out-maneuver each other as they climb to the top of New York’s social ladder while dressed to the nines in luxurious satins and crisp taffeta.

The real Gilded Age in America, roughly from 1870 to 1900, saw immense economic change and innovation. “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 book, The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The term meant that the period was glittering on the surface but corrupt underneath. During this era, the country became more prosperous and had unprecedented growth in industry and technology. Still, unscrupulous politicians, bankers, and industrialists indulged in extraordinary wealth at the expense of the working class. The period was a battle between the people who had inherited their wealth (old money) and those who had earned their fortunes through shipping and railroads, often by unsavory methods (new money). The old-money elite, led by “the Mrs. Astor,” determined who was socially acceptable to be included on the prestigious and fashionable list of “The Four Hundred.”

One of the most powerful tools used to exercise social status was clothing. Consequently, the Gilded Age was one of the most progressive eras for fashion, particularly in New York, where society’s upper crust determined the trends and styles. For women, clothes were vital in keeping and even raising their social status.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF GILDED AGE FASHION TRENDS

Women’s fashions in the late 1800s lived up to Twain’s name for the era. The more-is-more approach yielded gorgeous and sometimes supremely impractical clothes. High styles were typified by elaborate construction and drapery, lavish fabrics in rich colors, all manner of trimmings, and a general love of excess.

Trends included “princess line” dresses that were tailored with vertical darts and seams and tightly hugged the body of the wearer, requiring more severe corseting; elongated bodices; low, square necklines and later high necklines; flat-front skirts, skirts with tucked in overskirts to show off pleated or ruffled underskirts, and A-line skirts; hourglass and S-shaped silhouettes; bell-shaped sleeves, tight sleeves, puffed sleeves, and super puffy leg-o-mutton sleeves. Gowns were bedecked with bows, buttons, knife pleats, box pleats, ruffles, lace, ruching, flounces, fringe, tassels, crystal embellishments, and beaded embroidery. Clothes were designed in a rainbow of colors: rich reds and golds, vivid purples, pinks, blues, emerald and other jewel tones, burgundy, and deep olives. Dresses would also frequently feature multiple colors, and navy blue and plum were a popular combination.

The 1870s also gave rise to one of the most iconic undergarments: the bustle. Bustles stayed in fashion for twenty years, took on different forms and sizes, and created various silhouettes. They started small, became longer and with bigger poufs, were named after lobsters. They went out of vogue for a bit but then came back bigger than ever (with a “back shelf”) for one last hurrah before disappearing at the end of the 1880s. How the heck did women sit down with those protruding backsides? It took some finesse and artful perching.

For an in-depth look at the fashions for women, men, and children in these decades, the Fashion Institute of Technology has excellent timelines for the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s.

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A Charles Worth couture fur cape from the 1880s sold for $799 in 2021.

INSIDE THE GILDED AGE CLOSET

Gilded Age fashions were also notable in America and Europe for occasion-specific styles. Etiquette demanded that precise clothes be worn for various activities and times of the day. It was typical for the wealthy to change into different morning, afternoon, and evening outfits. Even a moderately middle-class lady of leisure would have had morning, afternoon, and day dresses.

A woman of status would need a morning dress or wrapper, combing or dressing jacket, tea gown, afternoon dress, and dinner dress, as well as different corsets and corset covers, numerous petticoats, and undergarments. Also inside her closet were extravagant evening dresses and opulent gowns specially designed for balls. An average upper-class woman wore two new dresses each day, at minimum, to not break fashion’s cardinal rule of never wearing the same dress twice. Being a fashionable woman of the Gilded Age required a budget just as lavish as the gowns in her closet, as trips to Paris were required to keep up with the latest trends. Draping yourself in Parisian fashions guaranteed that you would appear distinguished.

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A beautifully embroidered tea gown with gorgeous handmade lace sold for almost $750 in 2020.

THE HOUSE OF WORTH: THE GOLDEN GILDED AGE ATELIER

Gilded Age women of means had several options when purchasing clothing. They could buy ready-to-wear garments from boutiques and department stores or commission fashions from private seamstresses. However, the pinnacle of high-end shopping was at Parisian haute couture houses, which created fashions as expertly crafted and costly as fine art.

The most influential French designer was Charles Frederick Worth, known as the “father of haute couture,” who opened his Parisian dressmaking business in 1858 and rose to fame after becoming the favorite designer of Empress Eugénie in 1860.

The House of Worth was a powerhouse in the world of Gilded Age fashion. It produced some of the most lavish styles in a period known for its opulence. Worth’s trendsetting couture designs are notable for using lush fabrics and trimmings, elements of historical dress, and expert tailoring. The fashion house had a huge staff that filled hundreds of orders per week. The most vital workers were the seamstresses, who could spend hundreds, even thousands, of hours hand-stitching each unique garment. Fashion-conscious and wealthy women worldwide flocked to Worth’s Parisian atelier. His one-of-a-kind gowns, which could cost thousands of dollars, exemplify the extravagant excess of Gilded Age New York in the time of the Astors, Carnegies, and Vanderbilts. They were the ultimate status symbol.

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This House of Worth haute couture two-piece blush satin, pearl-encrusted 1889 wedding dress sold for $300 in 2017.

With their lavish fabrics and great details, it is easy to see why they were expensive: satins and brocades shimmered in ombre tones; uncut velvet would be paired with silver gauze, and chiffon, silk plush, and other combinations of fabrics in masterful draping had an eye-catching appeal that would make the wearer stand out even on a crowded ballroom floor; a wealth of antique lace, seed pearls, and silk embellishments were used as adornments; iridescent rhinestones and sequins were applied in bow-knot, butterfly or leaf motifs.

Then there were the costumes Worth designed for fancy dress balls. One, an “Electric Light” ensemble, was worn by Alice Vanderbilt to her sister-in-law Alva’s famous fancy dress ball in 1883. After much scheming on Alva’s part to get on the list of the Four Hundred, this was the ball that did it and was even attended by Mrs. Astor herself.

If you would like to add some Gilded Age fashions to your closet, you have many choices, whether a corset or perhaps a bustle dress, or a pretty tea gown. Designs by Worth also periodically appear for sale at auction and on eBay. His more elaborate gowns generally cost between $500 to $6,000 and up. No matter what Gilded Age fashions you may decide to collect, social scheming is optional.


Adina K. Francis has been a writer and editor in the antiques and collectibles field for more than 20 years. She is a member of the Vintage Fashion Guild and is a bit obsessed with the Victorians.

WorthPoint—Discover. Value. Preserve.

The post Wearable Wealth: Fashions of the Gilded Age appeared first on WorthPoint.

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