A fashion guide to HBO’s The Gilded Age premiere
Long before Fashion Week was established, New York City was already at the forefront of edgy style, and those with social status were setting the sartorial tone. Downton AbbeyJulian Fellowes turned his attention from the high/low world of aristocratic England in the early 20th century to the American Golden Age, which saw inherited families clash with wealthy newcomers. Monday night HBO premiere Golden age was quick to establish Manhattan’s elite who control the social scene. Money can’t buy status or adulation, but booming success has its couture perks.
Boasting a cast full of favorites and costumes designed by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, the show’s pilot episode set the scene: a time of immense economic change and innovation that challenged the status quo through railways, architecture and even the choice of clothing. Recognizable names like the Astors feature alongside the fictional characters who are all vying for a slice of this expanding pie. At the center of this story is Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) who must leave rural Pennsylvania to live with her elderly aunts in New York after her father’s death. A whole new set of rules awaits the young woman and she is quickly thrust into the middle of a battle between her stubborn aunt Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and the ambitious Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon).
Grab your fanciest hat and join us for this breakdown of ten gorgeous looks from the first episode of Golden age :
Marian Brook and Peggy Scott’s travel outfit
Marian’s trip to New York in “Never the New” gets off to a bad start when her purse is stolen and she has to rely on a stranger to board her train. The notes sent by his aunt and all his money (for a total of $30) were in the bag that was snatched from under his nose. Marian’s father didn’t have as much money as she thought, which is why she moved to New York in the first place. The all-black ensemble is not early gothic or an attempt to be chic, but reflects her grieving status. Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) is on her way back to Brooklyn, and her neat brown ensemble is torn apart by Marian during the rig fight that led to her current predicament. Marian’s naivety is as pronounced as her grief-stricken aesthetic, and she doesn’t immediately understand why Peggy and the other black passengers aren’t boarding the train at the same time as everyone else.
Comfort is key on a long journey and while underwear from this era isn’t ideal for a 12 hour journey, there’s a lot to be said for Peggy’s set. Style-wise, it establishes Peggy as a character whose clothes are not too much far from contemporary silhouettes or patterns. Sure, the bustle is long out of fashion, but the brown coat, plaid print and little black travel case are timeless.
Meeting with Aunt Agnès and Aunt Ada
Marian’s aunts couldn’t be more different in personality and attire, which sees Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon) adopt orange and brown tones throughout the first episode. Her single status is well publicized, and the often cheerful color palette she adopts makes up for her reputation as a “sad sister.” It also makes Ada hard to miss as she peeks behind her curtains at the new neighbors moving in. She’s not subtle, and that head-to-toe orange commands attention when Marian and Peggy arrive.
Agnes quickly assesses her niece’s mourning attire and requests an immediate overhaul of her wardrobe and a visit to her seamstress. Everything Marian says or does is a reflection on them, and that includes her attire. Agnes is as subtle as Ada’s dress when explaining why she must embrace cheerful colors, as she aims to quickly find a suitable bachelor for Marian to hitch her cart. Black is not considered attractive because who wants to commit to a backpack? Living under this roof means adhering to old money rules and that includes the makeover she didn’t ask for.
Aunt Agnes’ jewelry
While Ada’s signature hues are warm, Agnes’ severe exterior is matched by jewel tones paired with black lace detailing. Yes, Agnes is very much from the school of “do as I say” fashion advice. Of course, that choice is informed by her status as a widow, and while her late husband looks like a terrible person, that won’t stop Agnes from living up to etiquette.
Every inch of Baranski as Agnes feels like she’s judging you, and her perfectly put together closet is a testament to her formidable reputation. Sure, her sister’s clothes almost match the decor of the curtains, but you’ll never miss who the head of this house is. Bossy and stuck in her old financial habits, Agnès is ready to challenge the modern world by trying to navigate her way through its rigid social hierarchy. She’s probably been wearing the same style since before her husband died, and Agnes isn’t going to change now — or ever.
It took three years to complete Bertha’s dream home, and hopefully the closet is big to keep up with her multiple wardrobe changes in the first episode — not to mention the millinery eye candy. As the wife of a self-made and ruthless businessman, Bertha can buy any dress she wants, but it will take more than feathers and exquisite materials to win over the hard-nosed offspring of Fifth Avenue. Every inch of Bertha’s fabulously draped powder blue ensemble screams wealth, and yet money can’t buy what this social climber craves. To the modern eye, Bertha’s taste mirrors other wealthy women, but there are a few extra bells and whistles in her attire. She removes a brooch she considers too much, but that doesn’t stop the former set from being judgmental and mocking her tacky attempts to impersonate one of them.
Bertha’s Bold Statement
“Perseverance is the key to everything”, Bertha’s mantra covers all the elements of her plan to be accepted by women who have less money than her family, and it shows that she uses clothes to elevate her status . Nothing commands more attention than this hat paired with a chartreuse dress, which she wears to a fundraising meeting. Yes, these women want his checks but not his public sponsorship, and Bertha should be commended for not wanting to blend in. To put it in contemporary terms, Bertha’s arrival on the New York scene feels like the first time Kim Kardashian dared to attend the Met Gala and upsets those who haven’t deemed a reality star worthy of it. event (idem when she appeared on the cover of Vogue). And just like Kardashian, Bertha isn’t letting old attitudes get in the way of her ambition. She will put on the most fabulous dress for her impressive evening even though hardly anyone attends.
“Defeat is not your color,” her husband tells her after that party flop and fashion is the armor Bertha is willing to don to win this war. Meanwhile, her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) is desperate to participate even though she’s not “out” yet. This delayed social milestone is because Bertha doesn’t want to host this event until she’s won over the crowds, so expect Gladys to keep her childish outfit until further notice.
The ruthless style of George Russell
Nothing says power like a red and black ascot, and George Russell (Morgan Spector) isn’t someone to say no more than once. George’s wealth reflects the new world, and while his perfectly tailored outfit makes him look like every other man in the railroad tycoon business, no one does quite like him. George gains the status of a wife very early on and is keen to fulfill Betha’s dreams as much as his own. He’s also capable of flexing, and his tough business skills match his ties.
The Mysterious Mrs. Chamberlain
Betha isn’t the only woman struggling to fit in, and at the charity meeting, one woman is alone. Marian inquires about the woman whose hat is so big it cannot be contained within the frame, and she is greeted with muted tones. When she later brings her sighting of Mrs. Sylvia Chamberlain (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to her Aunt Agnes, she is met with a cut-off sarcastic response. Agnès asks if pickpockets and newly released criminals were also present. She could also be widowed because of the black on her feather-embroidered dress, and perhaps the horror of her presence at this event is related to a death. Or is this just another case of old money scorning new?
The whole of Newport
“Our future success in New York depends entirely on the support and approval of Mrs. Astor,” Bertha’s son Larry (Harry Richardson) repeats his mother’s words to his new friends (including Carrie Astor and the son of ‘Agnes, Oscar). Unlike his mother, Larry has no trouble gaining acceptance with the elite, and the recent Harvard grad joins renowned socialite and “fun maker” Mamie Fish (Ashlie Atkinson) on a weekend getaway. -end in Newport, Rhode Island.
It was one of the elite hotspots during the Golden Age (it still is), and Larry is certainly dressed accordingly, even if his name isn’t the stallion- gold. Grandma is among the many people who do not attend the Russell Manor party; if only Bertha had her son’s cultural cache. These summer-ready styles show off the different palettes on offer when people leave town and how easy Larry is to blend in.
Peggy’s calligraphy is so appealing that Agnès hires her on the spot to help her make up her correspondence. Peggy is grateful that the Brooklyn ferry isn’t running so she was able to avoid her parents — and especially her father — for a little longer. Meeting her mother to tell her the news of her new job, the tension points to her father’s interference and his belief that she cannot achieve her career goal.
Gender and race presented challenges to her aspirations as a novelist, and while there were successful figures from this era like Louisa May Alcott, there were fewer black examples. Peggy’s mother, Dorothy (Audra McDonald), is well-dressed, and flashes of purple unite the couple to suggest unity even during this tense conversation.
Illicit Party Dress
The lemon yellow doesn’t scream rebellion, but Marian’s quick stroll across the street to the red carpet affair everyone is avoiding shows a flash of independence. Yes, she doesn’t want her aunts to find out she attended, but it shows her desire to embrace the new New York and not just the old.
It’s impressive how quickly Marian gets back into her non-party outfit and because she wasn’t officially attending, that means she can wear it again. The beauty and the Beast dress adjacent to another event – of which there will probably be many. Marian’s big city aesthetic is incredibly sweet, but expect changes as she adapts to her new surroundings.
Golden age broadcast on Monday evening on HBO and HBO Max at 9 p.m. ET.
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Joe Reid is an editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AV Club and more.
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