By Dale Peers (professor emeritus, Seneca School of Fashion),
With the recent premiere of “The Gilded Age” Julian Fellowes gives us another peek into an earlier age. As he did with Downton Abbey, we have a glimpse of an era that seems so very different to our own. In this production we time travel to the period prior to that depicted in Downton Abbey and on another continent altogether. And yet a link can be found between the two. Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham was a wealthy American heiress whose marriage to Lord Grantham helped to save the family’s fortune.
The Gilded Age depicts a period that might elsewhere be referred to as late Victorian. The period encompasses the latter half of the 19th century and includes a time of great advancements. The impact of the industrial revolution can be seen in huge changes in lifestyles, wealth and social status. For those “captains of industry” who built the railroads, established banks and amassed wealth through this industrialization, life was very good. Their personal wealth far exceeded the majority of the population and their wives and children lived a life of ease and privilege.
They built huge mansions and dressed their wives in fashions that emphasized their success and wealth. This “vicarious consumption” as described by Thorstein Veblen in his chapter “Conspicuous Consumption” in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899), was evident in the fine fabrics, long hemlines and corseted waists that effectively created and defined the “weaker sex.” Women were the visual symbol of the success of their husbands and the daughters of this social class were trained in beauty culture, social graces and little else as their objective was to marry and marry well. Moving up the social ladder was paramount and the definition of female success. The pinnacle of success would be to actually become an aristocrat as Cora did by marrying into a family such as Lord Grantham’s of Downton Abbey.
At the other end of the economic spectrum were women of the lower social classes who would find employment not only in these wealthy households in roles of maids and other household servants but in employment positions that were now considered acceptable. These included women working as teachers, nurses and as clerks in offices or the newly established department stores. The widespread use of the sewing machine also meant women could find employment, and perhaps establish their own business in fashion and millinery producing clothing and hats as all women, regardless of social standing wanted to dress appropriately.
While these feminine roles may seem to provide some degree of freedom they might be considered as insubstantial as the concept of gilding. While something might appear to be gold it is only a veneer covering what is really underneath. Women’s roles were precarious. While it might appear lovely to lead a life of leisure a wife was entirely dependent upon her husband as owning property or having independent wealth was not socially acceptable and would have portrayed her husband in a poor light. Women who had careers while single were more often required to quit once married which further limited their independence.
Fashions of the age emphasized the gender differences. Female silhouettes were softly curvaceous with rounded shoulders, a monobosom and tiny waists. High necklines as well as corsets created enviable posture.
Fig. 1, Corset, SFRC accession# 1-870-72-01133
While the corset may seem torturous to some today, and the traditional fashion historical viewpoint was that it was a symbol of status as the wearer was unable to perform physical activities beyond a brisk walk. Having servants was an indication of wealth, and therefore the financial success of the family was measured by the number of those employed. There are, however, contemporary scholars who contest this in their research and identify the corset as a fashion object of empowerment. For example: Hilary Davidson https://twitter.com/FourRedShoes (http://www.hilarydavidson.net), and also dr. Alanna McKnight : https://twitter.com/alanna_mck .
Fig. 1a, Bustle, SFRC accession# 1-880-72-04355
There is a certainly a consensus that conspicuous consumption was an effective way of demonstrating one’s wealth by having bigger, grander, and more of everything; from houses to food to fashion.
Women’s wardrobes were divided into outfits that should only be worn in the morning, the afternoon, for walking in the park, for dinner at home, for an appearance at the theatre or for special occasions like a grand ball.
Fig. 2, “Brown and rust day dress” SFRC accession# 1-880-12-03211
Description: Day dress. “Three-piece rust and brown day dress of moire silk. The long-sleeved, high-necked bodice is decorated with 30 small buttons and shows a rounded monobosom. The rust skirt is decorated with many ribbon bows in the centre front. The back of the bodice is also decorated with these same bows. There is an overskirt that drapes over the bustled back of the skirt” (SFRC).
An entirely separate set of clothing was to be worn for mourning the death of a family member. This separate wardrobe of black was worn for a specific length of time and with jewellery appropriate to this sombre time. To do so was a symbol of respect for the deceased and as another status symbol as this affectation would be possible to those with wealth (or the appearance of such wealth).
Fig. 3, “Bog oak, mourning jewelry” from the SFRC collection.
The colour palette of fashions during the period consisted of intense hues created with aniline dyes produced with advances of the industrial revolution. Purple was extremely popular with its historical link to royalty. And the use of embellishments such as multiple buttons, ribbons and appliques were also important. Historicism was popular during this period and fashion references to baroque fashions were seen with polonaise style skirts.
Fig. 4, “Purple Victorian wool day dress” SFRC accession #: 1-885-11-03202
SFRC Description: “Three-piece purple wool day dress. The bodice of the dress is decorated with a velvet collar as well as cuffs. The purple wool ruching detail applied to the cuffs is also used on the back of the bodice in a v-shape which enhances the tiny waist of the wearer. The skirt has purple silk in the centre front and a wool ruffle around the hem. An overskirt, also in purple wool, is gathered in a polonaise style. Purple grosgrain ribbons and purple floral silk ribbons decorate the overskirt” (SFRC).
Fig. 4, “Ladies Bodice”, SFRC accession #: 2-890-41-02850
SFRC Description: “Bodice is close fitting with pouched bodice, centre front closure fastened with many green pearl buttons. Has high neck, mandarin collar style. Front hem is shaped in a V, has two coattails in the back with a pink satin bow. Sleeves are full length, has ruffled insert over biceps, four buttons up the back wrist. Sleeves and hem are trimmed in green braid trim.”
Feathers adorned hats and were anchored firmly to the wearer’s head with beautiful hat pins.
Social status, standing and appearances that communicated wealth and success were important to the advancement of families in the era and this was the responsibility of women in the family dynamic. While men brought home the financial wealth women were expected to demonstrate that wealth through their fashionable appearances and to make the appropriate social connections for their sons and daughters that would allow them to marry well.
In the very first episode of The Gilded Age we are introduced to this concept and see how rigidly the “old New Yorkers” attempt to maintain their social circles by keeping out the “nouveau riche.” But will future episodes show cracks in the social walls erected by the old guard as the new, younger generation begin to associate?
In the meantime we have the opportunity to admire the work of costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone who will educate and enthrall those of us who adore exploring history through fashion.
(For more examples of Late Victorian fashions from the SFRC collection see our article: Fashion Necessities of a Bygone Era.)
Veblen, Thorstein. 1899. “Conspicuous Consumption.” Chapter 4 in The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York: The Macmillan Company: 68-101.
Header image: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-true-history-behind-hbos-the-gilded-age-180979415/