Think about the word “hype” as it is today. There was a social media storm when Kim Kardashian wore black Balenciaga from head to toe as she entered the 2021 Met Gala. This look was inspired by the all-American T-shirt and spawned thousands of memes and tweets. The headlines quickly followed: Kim Kardashian leads the revival of fetish facial wear; Kim Kardashian responds in kind to criticisms of her Met Gala look. Kim Kardashian reportedly covered her face at The Met Gala 2021.
The entire design was meticulously crafted, down to the last detail. Kardashian is the focus of much attention, but she does have agency. This stunt proliferated Kardashian’s image while also promoting Balenciaga. It was a commercial win-win. In the months that followed, she has worn at most a dozen catsuits by the same designer. She has worn spandex and feathers to present Saturday Night Live, pink velvet to go to CVS, black spandex for the interview, and blue spandex to celebrate passing her Baby Bar exam.
Although her image is ultra-contemporary, Kardashian is following the path of her American forebears, the Gilded Age society queens who master the media. This is the theme of Julian Fellowes’s new drama, The Gilded Age. It can be seen on Sky Atlantic in the UK and Now in the US.
New York was a hotbed for social climbers in the late 1800s. If it was a socialite, no expense was too high – and none more so than Alva Vanderbilt (1853-1933), born Alva Smith. She was the daughter of America’s wealthiest dynasty. Alva married William K Vanderbilt and became the granddaughter-in-law of Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt (1794-1877), a titan who turned a $100 loan into a $100 million railroad, shipping, and financial fortune in the mid-1800s. Amy Fine Collins, a renowned journalist, fashion, and art historian, says that the sheer wealth of the money was much greater than in the previous generation. It would have been equivalent to Google and tech today.
The Astors’ wealth was new, but their success in the fur trade had made them a household name for decades. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor (1830-1908), was called Mrs Astor. Although the family was more wealthy than the US Treasury, earning respect from society was another game. She saw the Vanderbilts as flashy and vulgar and refused to invite Alva to her annual society ball. Alva’s mission was to make Mrs. Astor laugh at the expense and expense of everything else. She spent $6 million on lavish Vanderbilt palaces to throw balls and was clad in gold gowns and corsetry.
The tension between Old Money and New Money increased as America’s middle classes exploded, and industrialization enabled some families with average means to make unheard-of fortunes. Fine Collins claims that this was the beginning and end of a cycle that is still evolving. “It’s an unusual phenomenon in America because they don’t fit into any old model in America, the idea about social classes and how hierarchies have changed. An early group could be considered upper-class: the Dutch original families, the Anglo-American immigrants from the 17th century, and the Quakers. They looked down upon the Robber Baron class, just like the Vanderbilts.
Fashion is a way to show the differences between these two groups. The earlier groups were proud of their lack of interest in clothes, considered vanity. However, the new socialites are determined to make themselves appear more wealthy than they are. Fine Collins says that there was more interest in clothing and more displays of wealth with each successive group. Access to Europe and the idolization of its royals and monarchs distinguished the high-fliers and has-beens. Fine Collins says that families used steam yachts to go on shopping trips [to purchase] clothes and husbands. To rise socially, you had to be a part of the European idea of aristocracy. This was reflected in the art and clothes you bought in Paris.
Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), an English-born Parisian designer, was the inspiration behind many steamboat trips to France. Worth outfitted Napoleon III, and Empress Eugenie were his patrons: the royal connections made him an American idol. New York Magazine’s Phyllis Magidson stated that a Worth dress was a status symbol. “He never made house calls for royalty. If Worth approved, clients had to travel to Paris to have their fittings. Fine Collins says that Worth dresses were the most expensive garments of their day. He also states that Americans had to pay an extra tax because there was not much respect for American clients. They were assumed to be the wealthiest clients and were therefore charged more.
This is how Alva Vanderbilt led the Vanderbilts to splurge, and this is what they did. Alva’s daughter, Consuelo, writes about spring trips to Paris aboard her family’s steamboat. “The Rue de la Paix, the fashionable shopping center, was where names of the great dressmakers, Worth, Doucet, Rouff, were printed on small doors that allowed one to access modest shops. She said that the inside was filled with beautiful dresses, diaphanous and expensive lingerie, which took one’s breath away. Jean Worth, Charles’ son, fitted her with a sea-blue satin evening gown with a long ostrich feather-trimmed taffeta-trimmed train and a rich rose velvet gown with sables. Fine Collins says that while the older guard was afraid of style, the Vanderbilts wouldn’t mind being seen in flashy, new clothing.
They were a vehicle. They demanded attention, which ultimately made it impossible for their wearers to be overlooked. Fine Collins says that the press was one of Alva’s tools to help her ascend. Fine Collins says, “That was something that was new and which older Americans would consider vulgar.” The media began to gain so much power, and visuals were available with the social columns. The public wanted to learn more about the activities of the industrial titans and their wives. It was like being a movie star.
Alva was a master at feeding the public interest, the hype. Her most well-known moment was her 1883 masked ball. The Petit Chateau was her elegant house at 660 Fifth Avenue. She hosted 1,200 guests, but Mrs. Astor was not invited. Alva was forced to ask for permission to invite Mrs. Astor. It was a clear admission to defeat that society writers loved. The ball was itself a considerable media opportunity. Alva and her guests posed in their gowns alone against elegant backdrops (Alva with live birds), making for some stunning photographs that the media couldn’t resist. Her Instagram account would have been hugely successful. Fine Collins says, “The costume ball that had the glamour of the period as a base, but was also able to add embellishments and cost more – with the idea you wanted to be proud among your peers but also the public – feeds directly into her power.” Fine Collins says that the old way of thinking is no longer relevant. She made changes and harnessed the power of the press to change the rules.
Alva was dressed up as a Venetian princess by Mrs. Astor. Anderson Cooper’s Vanderbilt book describes that she wore a yellow and white brocade gown with an underskirt made in pale butter and deep orange and a bodice and overskirt made in blue satin decorated with gold beads. The peacock on her velvet tiara was adorned with pearls from Catherine the Great. Cooper wrote, “Alva had outscored Mrs. Astor at every level.” Other guests grabbed Alva. Alice Vanderbilt, a family adversary, was dressed in a symbolic electric light in a yellow and white satin gown by Worth. The bodice was decorated with silvered lace, feathers, and diamonds. She also carried a torch powered by a hidden battery in her right hand. Remember Katy Perry’s attendance as a chandelier? It feels very Met Gala to me now.
The Vanderbilt party was featured on the New York Times’ front page. “The Vanderbilt Ball has agitated New York Society more than any other event that has taken place here in many years.” It has disrupted sleep and occupied the waking time of social butterflies for more than six weeks… The ladies were driven to distraction to settle the relative advantages of modern, medieval, and ancient costumes. Cooper wrote in Vanderbilt that the press used superlatives to describe the evening, drawing parallels to the Orient, European courts, and the ancient world – all using references that highlighted the otherness and inaccessibility that comes with that level of privilege and luxury. It is possible to compare one woman’s costume party to ancient Rome’s indulgence, which would lead to Gilded Age society being viewed as the natural successor of these great things.
It has been a legend for centuries. In a 1995 essay for Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne wrote about the event: “Alva’s blindingly magnificent costume ball in 1883 in this country was an occasion that involved spectacular extravagance like nothing had ever been seen before and has seldom been matched since.” When it came to displaying their wealth, none of the large spenders in the 1980s had anything to do with the Vanderbilts.
Eleanor Lambert, an American fashion publicist, created the International Best Dressed List (in 1940). Fine Collins says, “It was an amazing idea, understanding how competitive it is to get dressed.” This directory had more value than the Social Register because of its social cachet. You get first access if you are the preferred client of the designer. It was like a passport through clothing.”
We can draw parallels between the Gilded Age social queens and their contemporary counterparts. It’s hard not to. These modern analogies are used to help us understand historical events. Fine Collins says that the Kim Kardashian comparison is not an error. It’s about the power and dominance of publicity through manipulating public interest and feeding this desire for extravagance, thrills, and frissons.
“With the important difference that in the Gilded Age group, part of their aspiration was to be somewhat cultured in old-world history, style, and taste. This is not the case with the Kardashians. Yes, the consumption. The visibility, yes.”
The Gilded Age marked the beginning of the brand partnership. This was the first step in the commercial relationship between designer/muse. It pioneered the concept of advertising through visibility. Fine Collins adds that the women were billboards. They created desire. Bold images, meticulously designed poses, and unique looks? Glamour lust? It sounds genuine.