Dior Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2007/2008. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

A look back at the golden era of fashion history and what to expect on the steps of the Met.

When the Met Gala returns to 5th Avenue on the first Monday in May, expect plenty of glitz and turn-of-the-century glamour.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has announced that it will stage “In America: An Anthology of Fashion” as the second installment of the September 2021 Met Gala “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Corn New York Times’ Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman revealed earlier this week that this year’s theme could perhaps be interchangeably referred to as “Gilded Glamour.”

It seems like two words never inspired so much speculation as visions of Gilded Age clothing have left the internet split between literal interpretations the patina of opulence of the time and more historical references.

The period was considered Golden, not golden. That is to say, thinly veiled with sumptuous illusions. This American era (its name derives from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel The Golden Age: A History of Today) covered the years between the Civil War and the early 20th century. It was a time of corruption, income inequality, and laissez-faire capitalism clouded by excessive materialism and ostentatious displays of vanity. Fashion, as a reflection of self, was a seamless extension of one’s wealth.

Alva Vanderbilt. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

Although surnames like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie are most often associated with the “robber baron” monopolies of the era, women of the same lineage are significantly tied to American fashion history. And their status was fully displayed at Vanderbilt Ball of 1883.

Rumored to have cost US$250,000 (about US$7 million today, or CA$8.8 million), the ball hosted New York glitterati by the hundreds in their best clothes, hosted by Alva Vanderbilt, petite -daughter of the patriarch of the family Cornelius Vanderbilt. It bore a striking resemblance to today’s Met Gala with a grand setting, socialite-centric crowd and coveted designer costumes demanding attention.

While Alva posed with live doves dressed as a Venetian princess, family member Alice Vanderbilt wore a gold dress “Electric light” set embroidered with lightning bolts and stars. Designed by the “father of haute couture” Charles Frederick Worth, based in Paris, Alice’s costume had a deeper meaning. Accessorized with a battery-powered torch in hand, her outfit screamed wealth, privilege and status at a time when few households had access to Thomas Edison’s invention of the light bulb.

In our current climate, Gilded Glamor at the 2022 Met Gala feels a little self-referential, a little “Let them eat cake,” even — especially with a pandemic and the raging conflict in Ukraine — but the Met is proving itself in time and time once again to be a fitting stage for political fashion statements. Through meaningful dress, an opportunity to confront the contemporary injustice of the Golden Age arises.

Together to highlight men’s and women’s clothing in period pieces from 1805 to 1915, it can be assumed the Costume Institute upcoming exhibition will indeed briefly touch on the paths of the golden age. Thus, the costumes on the carpet at the 2022 Met Gala may echo common stylistic themes of the mostly grandiose nature of the era. Definition of the era corsets, gloves, hourglass figures and dresses adorned with lavish bows, textures and embellishments seem appropriate. The then recent creation of synthetic dye also means we can be in bright (and potentially garish) color combinations.

A historical approach to Gilded Glamor favors reflections of the Gilded Age, but ultimately anything goes at the Met. As it all unfolds, actors Regina King, Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds and Lin Manuel Miranda will co-host the event alongside honorary co-chairs Tom Ford, Instagram’s Adam Mosseri and Anna Wintour.

As long as opulence is in abundance, who’s to say what the limits of excessive glamor are? Whether you’re considering gold-encrusted dresses at Schiaparelli’s Spring 2022 couture collection or historically accurate period pieces, we’ve scoured the avenues new and old to predict what might be in store at the 2022 Met Gala.

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