gilded age

The nouveau riche Russell family — Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha (Carrie Coon) — head to church on Easter Sunday

Barbara Nitke/HBO
gilded age

Bertha’s red, white and blue gown pays homage to the American flag

Barbara Nitke/HBO
gilded age

Early design sketch of Bertha's red, white and blue gown

Barbara Nitke/HBO
the gilded age

Gladys and her father make an entrance. Her lavender cape may seem over the top, but it was inspired by an actual piece from that period

Barbara Nitke/HBO
Fill 1
Fill 1
November 13, 2023

The Gilded Age Dresses to Impress

Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone reveals how the HBO series recreates the finery of another era.

Anyone who has attended New York City's annual Easter Parade knows how big and bold the hats can get.

But they still don't surpass the extravagant head swag of the Gilded Age — when the city's upper crust, its nouveau riche and everyone else turned the Fifth Avenue procession into a sea of preening peacocks. Elaborate hats adorned in feathers, flowers and other frills towered atop women's heads, and their gowns were equally resplendent.

So when the costume department for the HBO series The Gilded Age opened the scripts for season two and discovered that the first scene depicts characters in their Easter Sunday finery, "We gasped," says costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone. "We were like, 'Oh my God, how are we going to pull it off? It's huge.' And we all started laughing. Because we love that kind of challenge."

The Gilded Age refers to a boom time in the United States from approximately 1877 to 1900 when industrialists and financiers (sometimes termed robber barons) like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed great wealth. HBO's fictional series — created, written and executive-produced by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame — portrays the era's corruption, inequality and excesses. In New York, where the series is set, exaggerated displays of wealth like opulent mansions and ornate clothes were flaunted as a way to climb the social ladder. "The more the better. That was the theme of the period," Walicka-Maimone says.

With fashion so front and center, she began filling her head with costume ideas long before production began. Her department amassed at least 40,000 images and artifacts from the Gilded Age, she says — "costumes, photography, paintings, real pieces" — to help determine exactly what people wore. Preparing for the series' second season, which premiered October 29, they added even more. "It's an endless encyclopedic education," she says, "that I try to process, present and apply to the story that we are telling."

It's not as simple, though, as mimicking period clothing. "We are builders of personas," Walicka-Maimone explains. Seeking to familiarize themselves thoroughly with the characters so they could dress them appropriately, she and her team asked Fellowes and director Michael Engler (who helmed episodes of Downton Abbey, as well as the 2019 film) various questions such as: where do they come from? What are their interests and circumstances?

Turner (Kelley Curran), for instance, is introduced as a begrudging lady's maid in season one. When she returns in season two, she is wearing the kinds of lavish, cutting-edge fashions she used to dress her former mistress in, which raises eyebrows among society types. Walicka-Maimone decided to push the intrigue even further — weaponizing Turner with something close to impeccable taste. "I arrived at this idea of softening the shell a little bit with this feminine, almost Jackie O approach," the designer says. "I had a blast designing for her."

Walicka-Maimone also gave a lot of thought to the fashion leanings of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who grew up in the Pennsylvania countryside without a mother. When her father dies, her wealthy New York aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), take her in. Walicka-Maimone imagined Marian's taste would reflect her rural upbringing. "So I used very delicate colors — pale yellows, pale blues — and a lot of floral things in my designs for her." Because Marian is a progressive thinker, Walicka-Maimone constructed her outfits with unfussy, forward-looking lines and topped them with jaunty hats.

By contrast, Marian's haughty, blue-blooded Aunt Agnes wears clothes that are classic and conservative — even a tad passé — because she would be unlikely to adopt a trend before it was safely established. "Her bustle is a little bigger, which was the height of fashion in the 1870s," Walicka-Maimone explains. "I think — as is true for a lot of us — we find the period that is our favorite and we don't change as the years go by. That was true of Agnes. The height of her fashion is ten or fifteen years prior."

Born in Poland and a graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Walicka-Maimone has been designing costumes for television, theater, dance and film for decades. Her credits include I Know This Much Is True, Bridge of Spies, Moonrise Kingdom and The Goldfinch. She says, "Each one of them presents different worlds," including this first foray into the Gilded Age — what she considers a revolutionary period in fashion.

While men's clothes didn't stray far from archetypal black-tie attire, women stood out in highly flattering, sculpted silhouettes, their waists cinched tight by corsets. "This tiny waist," Walicka- Maimone says, "and exaggerated hips through the bustle." Dresses were finished in a surfeit of lace, tulle, ruffles, ribbons and other garnishments. "When women showed up on the street," she says, "there was this excitement. I thought, 'How are we going to create this excitement for the contemporary eye?'"

Walicka-Maimone starts her process by painting quick, impressionistic watercolor sketches of her ideas. She designs every element of every dress the primary characters wear. Skilled costume-makers in New York, Los Angeles and Europe construct them. She also attends every fitting. Costumes for the thousands of extras are either acquired through stock houses or made by her team under her direction. "Our whole design team consists of people with extraordinary experience," she says, explaining that it includes a tailoring unit, milliners, fabric-makers and more. In season one alone, they presented more than 5,000 costumes. She says, "We're just a big machine going at a crazy speed."

In addition to abundant ornamentation, asymmetrical draping was in vogue at that time, presenting further dramatic options. Walicka-Maimone also enlivened her ideas by experimenting with color. Artificial dyes were being invented in that era, "so there was an explosion of colors," says the designer, who has been quizzed as to whether certain tones she has used existed yet in the Gilded Age. "Absolutely," she says, noting, "We have an endless amount of research from that period of this extravagance of colors."

One character in particular was ideal for brandishing the latest fashion innovations. Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) is married to a stinking rich railroad tycoon. Being "new money," she is initially looked down upon, which only makes her more determined to elbow her way to the pinnacle of society. "I studied the new fashions for Bertha's household," Walicka-Maimone says, recalling hours she spent perusing vintage fashion magazines and archives of then-leading Paris fashion houses, seeking ideas for how to dress Bertha and her daughter Gladys.

As a result, the first season depicted Bertha swanning about in one haute-couture dress after another, often paired with swooping feathered headpieces. In one scene, a blood-red ball gown with a sweeping train seemed to manifest her thirst for power. For the season finale, Walicka-Maimone outfitted her in a bold black and white gown with asymmetrical chiffon sleeves (one voluminous, the other just a sliver) so diaphanous they gave the impression of — gasp! — bare arms.

In season two, Bertha's wardrobe continues to awe, including the showstopper she wears to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Referencing the colors of the American flag, Walicka-Maimone trimmed the red gown in blue flower appliqués (suggesting exploding fireworks) and finished the look with white elbow-length gloves. "This was actually a version of a dress that existed from the period," explains the designer, who similarly culled from archival photographs to create the feminine, sea-blue dress Gladys wears to the same occasion. It was inspired by pictures of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the super-wealthy daughter of the prominent Gilded Age socialite Alva Vanderbilt, who controlled her daughter much the way Bertha domineers over Gladys.

Walicka-Maimone's quest for authenticity also took her to art museums, where she scrutinized figurative paintings by artists of the period like William Merritt Chase and Mary Cassatt. In a scene from the second season, Marian is seated on her bed with friend Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), sharing confidences in a setting and costumes that evoke the domestic tableaus those artists often painted. "This was an intimate scene," says Walicka-Maimone, who enhanced the cozy mood by giving their dresses harmonious colors and billowy skirts that casually spill across the bed.

Costuming Peggy and other characters who represent New York's Black elite posed a challenge to Walicka-Maimone, who didn't find that slice of society as well documented in paintings and photographs. She relied instead on written descriptions that persuaded her to coordinate Black characters' costumes in earthier shades. Hence, Peggy's mustard-colored dress in that scene.

But even the history pages are no guarantee that a costume will work. After Walicka-Maimone's team created mockups of the shockingly huge Easter hats worn during the Gilded Age, they discovered that some actors couldn't pass through doorways in their creations. "And we are laughing," she says. "Even though we are like, 'Let's go for it!,' we can't go as far as history did."

The article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #10, 2023, under the title "Dressed to Impress."

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