The Gilded Age might seem like a faded mention from high school history class for some, but the finery and disparity of that period may be hauntingly familiar to others.
Stretching from the 1870s to about 1900, that period of extreme materialism, otherworldly entertaining, industrial expansion and political upheaval amidst great poverty isn’t that different from current times. That was one of the takeaways of a joint interview with Elizabeth Block, author of “Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion,” and Katherine Howe, co-writer with Anderson Cooper of “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty.”
Neither author was involved with Julian Fellowes’ upcoming production of “The Gilded Age” for HBO, but they’re pretty excited to see it. The series premieres Jan. 24. And Paramount+ will start streaming “1883” on Dec. 19.
Howe said, “I feel that we’re in an 1880s moment. We’re increasingly aware of the yawning gulf between really staggering wealth and how most of us live our lives. It’s playing out politically. We’re in a moment where billionaires are going to space for fun. In a way, the most extreme fashion today is a bespoke space suit.”
While much has been written about the top 1 percent – about 1.3 million U.S. households making more than $500,000 annually, the country’s financial divide dates back more than a century. Block’s book noted how economists determined based on the 1890 census that 71 percent of private wealth in the U.S. belonged to 9 percent of population, but not all of it was in New York.
In addition to creating designer jeans and being a serious painter later in life, Cooper’s mother Gloria Vanderbilt lived “the last vestige of this Gilded Age life” even though her life spanned the 20th century, Howe said. “She was chauffeured around. The press followed her. She lived in some phenomenal residences, and had really remarkable experiences. She was just at the intersection of society and celebrity that had begun to function in the late 19th century…now we talk about celebrity. We don’t really talk about society in quotes.”
Block, a senior editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wants to turn the spotlight on the competent and driven women behind the corporate titans of the 19th century. “I would like these women to be back in the picture, as well as the many women couture designers, who have fallen out of the pictures.”
Similarly, while many Vanderbilt histories have focused on the primacy of Commodore and his “prodigious business acumen,” Howe said she and Cooper want to excavate the human side of the Vanderbilt story and what it felt like to be one of these people at this very remarkable moment in time.
Also, many of the histories of the Vanderbilts had been uncritical- an account of phenomenal wealth and phenomenal spending in which the conclusion was, ‘Look at that,’” she said. “We wanted to have something more substantive. What does this wealth mean in American society, for American myth making and for us today?”
Writing “Dressing Up” was a way of restoring agency for the women of that period, Block said. “We often look at these women, as fashion dolls in a way. We see these static images of them in their very expensive outfits, but all we ever hear about are the names of the male couturiers, or the designers who made the dresses for them.”
Looking to flip the script, Block wanted to look at the women as the consumers and how much power they had, as opposed to the “quote genius creators.”
Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883 all-night masquerade ball is referenced in both books. Each guest came up with a thematic costume, and the women dictated the creativity. Orchestrating the extravagant bash in her Fifth Avenue home for what was said to be 1,000-plus attendees alone gave Vanderbilt just what she was after — supreme status in New York City society. Howe said, “Alva Vanderbilt crashes into New York City high society and shatters the barrier that had been erected by Caroline Astor up until that point. Although the masterful display of her taste isn’t exactly the right word because the Vanderbilts are famous for the high style of that taste in a way, but Alva puts her own creative and artistic spin on it.”
Guests started dancing at 11 p.m., dined at 2 a.m., some brought their children, and maids and valets were needed en transit due to the weight and delicacy of some of the costumes. But those helpers were left outside on a March night hanging out and waiting for the party end. The ball is believed to have cost approximately $6.8 million based on a current inflation calculator. Vanderbilt also spent $1,800 at that time for stockings for servants so that they would be dressed in servants’ wear of that period.
Vanderbilt noted in an unpublished memoir that one of the things that she valued most about herself was not the ball, “one of the marks that she left on the history of New York,” but her long-standing relationship with her preferred architect Richard Morris Hunt. The monuments she constructed through her involvement with architecture was one of the ways that she felt made an impact. Her French Renaissance style chateau at 660 Fifth Avenue took five years to complete and was adorned with medieval tapestries and Renaissance hangings. The masquerade ball was a coming out party of sorts at this “enormous castle-like structure that called to mind the wealth of royalty from the medieval period forward,” Howe said.
Vanderbilt’s husband William hired Hunt to design a Newport “cottage” for her 40th birthday. The end result was Marble House, a 140,000-square-foot waterfront mansion that was partially modeled after the Petit Trianon.
Just as social justice and pay equity are issues today, so too were they during the Gilded Age. Howe and Block each temper their books with more grounding information that related to lower-income classes. Howe, for example, noted that Vanderbilt’s ball received front-page coverage on The New York Times along with a report about the Diamond Coal Mine Disaster. The coverage for the latter had “made much of the fact that so many states had given money for the relief of the widows and orphans,” Howe said, adding that New York had offered about $1,600 and Vanderbilt had spent $11,000 on flowers alone.
Howe said, “When we talk about the Gilded Age, it’s hard not to be impressed by the expenditure, the craftsmanship, the beauty and all of that stuff. It’s also important to remember that that was a moment only second to the one that we are living in now, when the difference between phenomenal wealth and phenomenal poverty was so stark.”
The power of women’s spending — whether to gain class status, support favorite couturiers or for other purposes — is explored in both books. While many marketers, pollsters and politicians recognize the power of women’s spending, the full degree of that buying power is not always fully recognized. Block noted how photographs of well-known guests at the Met Gala are routinely “first and foremost” identified by the designer whose clothes they are wearing.”
Howe added, “We’re in an interesting collaborative, performative moment in terms of women’s consumption and fashion, particularly given the role of Instagram, TikTok and the concept of the influencer. Women are still using conspicuous consumption to elevate their own prestige and power, and to command attention in a way not dissimilar from the Gilded Age and the 19th century.”
With a second Met Gala planned for May, Block said that is another sign of the second Gilded Age. From her view, other similarities include the return of dresses with long trains, a bare legged Pete Davidson wearing a Thom Browne dress to the Met Ball and men at Vanderbilt’s ball dressing as dukes with stockings. “It’s just all calves,” Block said with a laugh.
Iman’s all-gold Harris Tweed ensemble with a halo at the fall Met Ball was “a direct line” back to the battery-powered electric light dress and a torch accessory that was worn by Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt in 1883, Block said.
Howe noted another Gilded Age flashback — the popularity of foundation garments. “We are living in the moment of Spanx, Skims, waist cinchers, waist trainers and this and that. It’s all incredibly 19th century,” she said. “In the ’90s, we were expected to have flat abs naturally. Clothes were so minimalist and ephemeral that our bodies were expected to do all the work of being beautiful. Now there is more clothing and the clothing is resuming the work that we were expected to train our bodies to do than what the 19th century had.”