HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’: Oh, the Dresses!

HBO’s ‘The Gilded Age’: Oh, the Dresses! March 26, 2022

Group of actors in Victorian-era dress
(L-R) Cynthia Nixon, Morgan Spector, Carrie Coon, Louisa Jacobson, Denée Benton and Christina Baranski in ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

I have all kinds of thoughts after the finale of The Gilded Age, HBO’s costume drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, but I’ll save those for a bit, to allow the tardy among you to get through the last episode.

To be honest, I wasn’t enthralled with the show at first (as I say here), but it grew on me, and I can’t wait for season two!

In the meantime, we have to discuss the costuming in this show, which has made it a visual and sartorial treat. But, while I like to look at all the fabulousness, I don’t know enough about it to comment with any authority.

For that, I turned to my BFF Cheryl Hurd, my personal Obi-Wan on all things tea, who also has long been involved in both Victorian-era and theatrical costuming.

So, I sent her some HBO publicity photos of a selection of dresses and asked her thoughts.

BTW, this is a piece for fans, so I’m not going to preface with the whole description of what the show’s about. You can click here for that.

But here’s a helpful video that I sent to Cheryl for reference.

With some editorial notes from me (in italics), take it away, Cheryl …

As one of the actors says in a behind-the-scenes video, some people will watch this show with the sound off just to admire the costumes. As Julian Fellowes says, “Not for nothing are they called costume dramas.”

There’s a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) psychology to costuming — certain colors evoke certain feelings, which is why the good guy always wears a white hat and the bad guy wears black.

In The Gilded Age, designer Kasia Walika-Maimone has excelled in this. Old money is routinely represented in jewel tones that, while opulent, are never flashy. New money is loud, often grating, and never shy.

The Russell Ball

Woman in a 19th-Century ball gown
Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

While Walika-Maimone said that Agnes and Ada would never dream of wearing a new dress for at least two seasons, Bertha has no such qualms — witness the fact that her ball gown had only just arrived from France the day before the ball  (which begs the question, when was she in Paris for a fitting?).

And speaking of that ball gown, I must say I’m not a fan. First, it’s the debutante who’s supposed to wear white to symbolize her purity, not the mother. And the leaf motif is not entirely flattering.

While it does have a train you could give rides on, it’s just not stunning enough for the occasion. On the other hand, it may have been a practical design to cover Carrie Coons’ baby bump.

(Yes, Coon was pregnant for much of the filming. In a video, she said she was six-and-a-half months along while filming the ball scene. Her pregnancy is more obvious in the video at the bottom of this post. Modern maternity fashion may have to up its game.)

Two women in ball gowns.
(L-R) Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell, and Donna Murphy as Mrs. Lina Astor in ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

As long as we’re talking about the ball, Mrs. Astor sets the gold standard, literally. Her gown is exquisite and understated but commanding. And paired with a Tiffany’s-window-worth of diamonds, how could she be anything other than She Who Must Be Obeyed? 

Three women in 19th-Century ball gowns
(L-R) Christina Baranski as Agnes Van Rhijn; Cynthia Nixon as Ada Brook; Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

The Van Rhijn/Brook party looked lovely at the ball. Agnes in her jeweled-tone gown, and Ada in her autumn-colored gown. Neither gown looked brand-new, and one wonders how long it’s been since the sisters actually went to a ball.

However old the gowns were, they were still very much in style for the event. Marian’s gown, in very light celadon, was a nice change in her pastel color palette of light blues and butter yellows.

(One does wonder, though, how getting dressed each day — or several times a day — is handled in the van Rhijn household. We only ever see one lady’s maid, the cranky Miss Armstrong.

Considering she apparently dealt with two ladies, and now has three, Miss Armstrong may have cause for her bad temper. Some of Marian’s dresses have closures all the way up to her neckline. Not even a contortionist could manage that alone.)

That Red Dress

Bertha’s most stunning outfit is the red gown she wore to the Academy of Music. That bright red will cause eyebrows to be raised, for sure.

But beyond just the gown is the jet-bead-bedecked opera cloak that goes with it. To say the least, this addition takes the ensemble from amazing to breathtaking. 

(The cloak is front and center in the video above.)

Woman in a 19th-Century ball gown.
Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

The Charity Bazaar

At the Bazaar, it’s obvious why nothing can begin until Mrs. Astor arrives.

Again, she sets the gold standard. This gold is deep and burnished, not the flashy, close-to-lame gold one might see in Bertha’s gowns. This is old gold.

Aurora and Ann are understated and so very correct for their societal positions and the occasion. 

Three women in 19th-Century dress
(L-R) Kelli O’Hara as Aurora Fane; Donna Murphy as Mrs. Lina Astor; and Katie Finneran as Anne Morris, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

By the Sea in Newport, Rhode Island

Because Newport is a seaside resort, one should be dressed to relax. But, as Aurora points out, one was expected to change outfits at least four times a day — not counting dinner wear.

However, one’s outfits could be more casual or frivolous than what one wore in New York City — hence the outlandish outfits worn by hostess-with-the-mostest Mrs. Fish.

Two women in Victorian dress
(L-R) Ashlie Atkinson as Mrs. Mamie Fish; Kelli O’Hara as Aurora Fane, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

Her motto seems to be “nothing succeeds like excess,” why else would she appear in dresses with more embellishment than necessary? Why just have tassels when you can add ruching, lace and shiny glass buttons? She’s a true eccentric.

In the picture above, Aurora is, as usual, dressed appropriately for an afternoon of leisure and that afternoon carriage ride back down Bellmore Avenue, which was a must for anyone who was anyone.

(A thought about bringing back floor-length dresses worn with gloves — women would certainly save a whole lot on mani-pedis.)

The Scott Women

While not as wealthy as Agnes, the Scotts are upper-middle-class, and their money is as old as it could be for a race recently out of bondage.

Mrs. Scott’s gowns are understated and elegant and bespeak her profession as a music teacher — her gowns are flattering and very stylish. Her colors compliment her skin tone perfectly. 

Woman in 19th-Century dress
Audra McDonald as Mrs. Dorothy Scott, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

Peggy’s clothes are very utilitarian to start. After all, she was traveling, and it was a dirty business back then.

While both Scott women are in mainly earth tones, the plaid gowns were a bit overdone. As seen in the shot below, it was nice to finally see Peggy in something that wasn’t plaid.

Two women in Victorian dress
(L-R) Denée Benton as Peggy Scott; Louisa Jacobson as Marian Brook, ‘The Gilded Age’/HBO

Although her mother’s gowns have a bit of a  sheen, Peggy’s generally do not. Hers tend to be more matte — cotton and wool versus silk or satin.

To sum up, the women in The Gilded Age are in good hands as far as their wardrobes are concerned.  What fun it must be to research and design these costumes, and how much work goes into the execution of them!

And while we’re having fun, here’s a look at the equally fabulous sets (and some more dresses):

Images: HBO

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About Kate OHare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is an entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Catholic production company Family Theater Productions and a screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.

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