By Terrance Turner
May 2, 2022
Tonight the Met Gala commences in New York City. The annual event is a fundraiser for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vogue editor Anna Wintour has run the event since 1995. This year’s theme is “Gilded Glamour, White Tie”, a reference to the Gilded Age, the period from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century (approximately 1870 to 1900). The term was coined by American author Mark Twain, who wrote the 1873 book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today with Charles Dudley Warner. The book satirized society, commenting that the societal ills of that era were covered by a “gilding” (a thin gold coating) of economic expansion.
During this time, industrialization spread rapidly across the United States, and tremendous wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few (like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller). According to UCLA, “The last three decades of the century witnessed a sixfold increase in the nation’s Gross National Product; the number of workers engaged in manufacturing quadrupled to 6 million between 1860 and 1900; and the United States emerged as the world’s premier industrial power, surpassing even Great Britain as the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution.” But the booming wealth did not extend to everyone.
During the late 19th century, roughly 11.7 million immigrants migrated to the US. Of them, 90% were of European descent—primarily Irish and eastern European—and approximately 2% were of Chinese descent, per Insider. Many immigrants found work in factories and garment shops. But low wages, long hours, and harsh working conditions beset them. It was not uncommon for workers to put in 16-hour days and have their wages cut if they didn’t reach their daily quota. Children were also forced into labor: the first child labor law wasn’t created until 1938.
Meanwhile, newly emancipated Black Americans saw their right to vote gradually chipped away in Southern states. According to the Historical Dictionary of the Gilded Age, most blacks had been disenfranchised altogether by the turn of the century. Segregation became the law of the land in many states, and lynching became increasingly common.
So how does all this relate to fashion? What’s the dress code? According to Vogue, “fashion during that period was one of excess. Thanks to recent innovations of electric and steam-powered looms, fabric became faster and cheaper to produce. As a result, women’s dresses often featured a combination of many textiles, like satin, silk, velvet, and fringe, all adorned with over-the-top textures like lace, bows, frills, and ruffles.”
“Colors were rich and deep jewel tones […] Corsets were commonplace, and in the 1870s to late 1880s, women embraced bustles to elongate their backsides,” Vogue noted. For men, white-tie was the go-to formal dress for upper-class society. According to the G.Q. Style Guide published in 2010, “the look comprises a black tailcoat and trousers with a white shirt, vest (generally of piqué cotton), and bow tie. The white shirt has a wing collar, and, as the name implies, the jacket has tails.”
The theme left room for interpretation, and the celebrities on the red carpet served a varied palette of ensembles both inside and outside the theme. Though many of them (especially men) played it safe in black tuxedos, some decided to shock and awe with dramatic looks.
One early stunner was actress Blake Lively.
Initially she arrived wearing a glittering, metallic copper/bronze Versace gown with a bronzed pink bow. But upon reaching the top of the Met Gala steps, Lively’s attendants unfurled her bow to reveal a vivid turquoise bow and sash:
“I’ve patinated,” Lively told LaLa Anthony during Vogue’s live stream. “This dress is an homage to New York City and so many of the classic, iconic buildings.” She showed off some of the dress’s subtle references: “This is detailing from the Empire State Building, some of the draping from the Statue of Liberty…(and) the constellation from Grand Central Station.”
Another standout was singer/songwriter Alicia Keys, whose black cape was emblazoned with the skyline of her native New York City:
Actress and model Laura Harrier stunned in a gilded ballgown:
Rapper Cardi B arrived as part of designer Donatella Versace’s crew. In a fitting display of the gilded theme, she arrived in a body-hugging dress composed entirely of gold chains:
NBA legend Dwyane Wade and actress Gabrielle Union-Wade arrived in glittering silver and white. Mrs. Wade wore a sparkling silver gown complete with a ruffled train; Mr. Wade went shirtless under his white designer suit.