The costume design of HBO’s The Gilded Age will make your jaw drop to the floor. In just nine episodes, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone has plunged us back in time to one of the most exciting times in American history, and she was anxious to incorporate modern technology into the citizens of New York City as they clashed over power, money, and status. Every piece is more beautiful than the last.
There was an enormous pressure on Walicka-Maimone simply because she had never taken on something so huge before. Through hours of research, she did present herself with one major challenge.
“I’ve never done anything deep period, but I kept thinking that I needed to honor the time. I needed to create clothes that would be as exciting as the innovations that came out. That was my challenge, and we had to put a lot of filters on our eyes. We have to look at it without all of the coding that we have in our heads.”
It’s tempting to think about yourself in the costumes we see in The Gilded Age, but with so many characters, who do you idolize first? Would you want to own a closet filled with old money or new money? Walicka-Maimone reminded me that she was in love with the designs of all the characters, and the status of the characters didn’t extend to preferences for the fittings.
“Personally, I would hesitate to answer. I detach myself from the world that I portray. It’s almost as if my personal taste stops existing. My job is to serve the characters, and I’m equally obsessed with the maids’ clothes as I am with Bertha’s clothes. We have a democratic process with the fittings, and time was so precious. No fitting was shortened because of the status of a character. We made sure we put care into everyone and developing the story for any person that shows up on screen.”
The costume journey that intrigued me the most was Carrie Coon’s Bertha Russell. Her and her husband, Morgan Spector’s George Russell, have wealth beyond human comprehension, so it would be tempting to let Betha wear anything she wanted. Every time she steps out of the house, her costumes makes a statement. She is making an impression but, at the same time, she uses those clothes as an armor to the women in the society she so desperately wants to be a part of.
“With all of our characters, I had to find ways to portray their backstories and the nuances of their journeys. How do they find themselves? What does money represent to them? The characters are coded with so much historical information. Bertha and George Russell represent an incomprehensible amount of money–what they could spend on leisure was unprecedented. But they want to be part of a society that they are not established with. It’s a fine line of newness and wanting to grasp those new fashions. I based Bertha’s designs in the European fashions and translated them just for her. I drew a lot on historical research but then translated it through the scripts written by Julian [Fellowes]. This woman is ferocious in her pursuit of the society, but it’s actually a hard balance to not provoke that society. She embraces the newness. One day, I asked to see all the inventions that were made during this revolutions. Those inventions, in one way or another, were incorporated into the design. The Empire State Building has a specific vocabulary and the Statue of Liberty does too. They are extracted some way and put into our designs. We feel it with this new class and the dynamic of invention.
The peacock dress that Bertha wears is a highlight of the season, and Walicka-Maimone revealed that the peacock has a long history in fashion. In some ways, Bertha is a peacock as she walks through New York City. Her wearing it represents something to her character and it would be something different if, say, Christine Baranski’s Agnes donned a similar outfit.
“The peacock has a long history, I think because it is a very symbolic creature. It was incorporated into men’s wear in some instances, and I found pictures of it in clothes from the 1860’s. There were so many representations of the peacock that I struggled to find the vocabulary for it. I had about thirty-five thousand images brought to us by our phenomenal research team. That’s the beginning. At the same time, I come from fashion, and fashion brings excitement. Blending all of those elements, it felt intuitive to put Bertha in that dress. The peacock has been brought back over and over again, and this is her version of it. It comes from very traditional costume. Very historically grounded. With Bertha, I wanted a slimmer silhouette. Agnes was based more on 1870’s which is probably the height of her fashion love. Her bustle is bigger and a more silhouette. Bertha’s silhouette is more feminine. This period is endlessly inspiring. There is a shocking level of asymmetry, for example. A lot of the shapes that originated in this period feel very much like John Galliano.”
Cynthia Nixon’s Ada spends a lot of time with her sister, Agnes, but pay attention to Walicka-Maimone’s color choices whenever they are together. Most of the time, Agnes is in a more serious, deep purple while Ada is in something yellow or light green. When you have these clothes off the actor’s body and sitting on mannequin, you would be able to tell who belongs to what garment.
“With Ada, I put a fall palette together–the moment when the fall is dying but it’s still very vivid colors. Rusts and oranges and dark greens. Without being too heavy-handed, I pulled out that board when I was building dresses for Ada. I might shift away from it, because Julian’s writing gives us so many twists and turns. Cynthia [Nixon] had so many ideas to add to the character. She had a birdlike quality that is very curious, but then she is heavily influenced by her sister.”
A character that everyone likes to talk about but not associate with is Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Mrs. Chamberlain. An outcast from society, Mrs. Chamberlain has her mountains of money to keep her company as the world swirls around her. Walicka-Maimone was so drawn to a particular piece of art, and it inspired Chamberlain’s loneliness and resilience.
“Michael Engler is the one who opened up this period to me. He encouraged me to treat it as an art project, and it was like unlocking it. So much inspired me in the character of Mrs. Chamberlain. Firstly, Julian’s scripts, on the page, filled me in on a lot of her character. She is an art lover, so her home if filled and filled with exquisite art. That created a starting point of a woman who may have come from an obscure painting of this period. I can’t remember the name of the specific painting, because I saw thousands when I was doing my research. But it was a huge painting and there was a lot of fog, and you can this woman in this painting had a lot of mystery. We needed that mystery for the Mrs. Chamberlain to chase the idea of discovery. That opened up the idea of taking prints and elongated them to make them bigger. It was like morphing of a few elements to create a vocabulary inspired by art and paintings and the dynamics of pairing unusual colors. It’s always a collaboration, and this character emerged. Michael walked by this painting, and he asked if it was the inspiration for Mrs. Chamberlain. He loved it. If he can see what I’m seeing in this painting, it opened up for me. It all emerged from the fog for me.”
The Gilded Age is streaming now on HBO Max.