The Gilded Age and Fashion

An era of inequality and pretty hats.

Gilded age! You must have heard of it at least once during this year. Maybe you already knew about it before, maybe it was the most recent MET Gala that made you find out about another controversial era of money and extravagance. What was the Gilded Age really about, though?

The Gilded Age, which refers to the time roughly between years 1870-1900, was an era of rapid economic growth in the United States. United States jumped to the lead in industrialization ahead of Britain. The nation was rapidly expanding its economy into new areas, especially heavy industry like factories, railroads, and coal mining.

The rapid expansion of industrialization led to real wage growth of 60% between 1860 and 1890, and spread across the ever-increasing labor force. The average annual wage per industrial worker (including men, women, and children) rose from $380 in 1880, to $564 in 1890. Conversely, the Gilded Age was also an era of abject poverty and inequality, as millions of immigrants—many from impoverished regions—poured into the United States, and the high concentration of wealth became more visible and contentious.

The unequal distribution of wealth remained high during this period. From 1860 to 1900, the wealthiest 2% of American households owned more than a third of the nation's wealth, while the top 10% owned roughly three-quarters of it. The bottom 40% had no wealth at all. In terms of property, the wealthiest 1% owned 51%, while the bottom 44% claimed 1.1%

With such great amounts of money, came extravagance in fashion. Having all the resources spread under their hand, women and men of wealth never stepped back from showing their wealth in the most exaggerated ways. Clothing became more over the top which reflected the time's wellness. The top-quality, well-made products also reflected the technological improvements in the textile industry that came with the era. Advances in textile production made working with fabrics like silk, tulle, and lace easier which led to an influx among the richer side of the coin. While tuxedos became more common among men, women took interest in bustles, which are skirts that are fuller in the back, and extravagant hats. Gilded Age fashion generally meant layers of clothing, with men wearing different versions of suits and women wearing floor-length gowns accompanied by restrictive corsets to help achieve desired shapes. Generally, the more often someone was able to change their ensemble a day, the more wealthy they were.

At the first steps of the era, bustles were popular, along with color mixing. Before this, matching bright colors with dark colors was quite an uncommon idea to choose. Slowly, the princess line combined bodices and corsets with vertical seams, long sleeves, and high necklines. The princess-style dress and bustles continued as time went on and got even more elaborate. Both day and evening wear included lace, frills, bows, and other over-the-top details.

In terms of men's clothing the traditional tuxedo from Europe during this time period and got really popular among the wealthy. Men’s sportswear for leisure activities got popular during this time period as well. After some time, as trends and interests started to change especially among women, they began to involve themselves in more activities outside the home. Sportswear gained popularity among women during this time as it maintained its popularity among men. As people started to get more physically active regardless of gender, the highly formal wear started to disappear slowly.

Fashion of the era was such a grand step in fashion history that even the globally known and loved fashion magazine 'Vogue' was founded in the year 1892 to chronicle the trends and for people, mostly women to critique the aesthetics of what to wear when.

The most recent MET Gala, which was done in May 2022, also was under the theme of 'Gilded Glamour'. Taking inspiration and combining it with present trends and their creativity, artists like Blake Lively, Lizzo, and Sarah Jessica Parker were seen in looks that carried crystal clear resemblances from the shining era of the States.

Some did not forget the working class who helped the States see those days. unlike many attendees, Riz Ahmed was seen in a look that became a walking tribute to the working class who was forced to be overworked and underpaid as they made the country prosper.