At the bottom of the Met Gala invitations sent every spring is an inscription small in size but vital in importance: the dress code. In 2020, for “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” it was studied triviality. In 2021, for “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” it was American independence. And come May 2, 2022, for “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” it will be gilded glamour, white-tie.
Oh, yes. Dust off Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. The 2022 Met Gala will ask its attendees to embody the grandeur—and perhaps the dichotomy—of Gilded Age New York. The period, which stretched from 1870 to 1890 (Mark Twain is credited with coining the term in 1873), was one of unprecedented prosperity, cultural change, and industrialization, when both skyscrapers and fortunes seemingly arose overnight. Mrs. Astor and her 400 ruled polite society until the new-money Vanderbilts forced themselves in. Thomas Edison’s light bulb, patented in 1882, alit first The New York Times building and then the entire city. Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 telephone made communication instant—and created a demand for operators to man the lines, leading one of the first mass waves of women into the workplace. Wages skyrocketed past those in Europe (although, as Jacob Riis captured in How the Other Half Lives, far from everyone benefited). Millions of immigrants arrived to the country through Ellis Island, the recently-erected Statue of Liberty beckoning them in with a poem by Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”) Architects McKim, Mead, and White built Beaux Arts buildings up and down Fifth Avenue, beautifying the city in the process. And in 1892, Vogue was founded with the mission of publishing the “point of view of the cultivated citizens of the world.” Original stockholders included Cornelius Vanderbilt, Peter Cooper Hewitt, and John E. Parsons—last names that still live on in New York to this day.
For the upper echelon, 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. (The unofficial edict? The more going on, the better.)