Inspired by the Gilded Age — a “time when Vogue [the host of the event] was established, a time when the Metropolitan Museum of Art was established, a time of opulence,” according to Keren Ben-Horin, a fashion historian and Mellon Fellow for Women's History at the New York Historical Society — the night’s theme was meant to celebrate the extravagance of the late 19th century, a time rife with opera gloves, bustles, gold jewelry, corsets, and feathers. With that in mind, some best-dressed attendees went the literal route with lots of gilded and crystal-adorned outfits that screamed wealth and referenced the opulence of the era.
Take, for example, Cardi B, who wore a gold dress made entirely from chains, paired with matching opera gloves, by Versace; or Kaia Gerber, who wore an embellished gown by Alexander McQueen; or Megan Thee Stallion who appeared to be dipped in gold in a gilded feathered dress by Moschino. Yet, for all the ostentatiousness and gold looks, there were also more modern interpretations of the theme. “I think the best-dressed people incorporated historical themes with works that seemed fitting for right now and also really played into this idea of glamour and over-the-top fashion,” says Ben-Horin.
The red carpet featured thoughtful nods to the city that gave way to the prosperity of the Gilded Age — New York — as well as the people whose labor made the intricate design elements that characterized this period possible. Blake Lively and Alicia Keys both paid tribute to New York City’s architecture. The former chose a gown by Atelier Versace that featured designs inspired by historic Manhattan landmarks like Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building, as well as an oxidized tiara by Lorraine Schwartz that drew from the Statue of Liberty. “If you think about where we are historically — coming out of the pandemic, coming out of a crisis — it symbolizes this idea of transformation,” says Ben-Horin, referring to how Lively’s dress changed color from copper to green once she dramatically let the skirt down. According to Rebecca Kelly, a fashion historian and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, this design also nods to the over-the-top nature of the time. “I think Gilded Age fashion was a lot about spectacle and creating these great moments,” she says. “So I think she kind of captured that as well.”
Meanwhile, Keys wore a black cape adorned with the city skyline on the train. While the look, by Ralph Lauren, may seem too modern for the theme, Kelly points to how the era gave way to the Manhattan we know today. “The Gilded Age really does mark the beginning of the New York skyline and the solidification of the city as becoming a fashion capital,” says Kelly. For Ben-Horin, the dress is a reminder of one of the most famous gowns from the period, the “Electric Light” dress worn by Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt to the Vanderbilt Ball in 1883 and designed by Charles Frederick. “This to me is a more contemporary interpretation,” says Ben-Horin.
The night’s attendees also showed an appreciation for the less glitzy fashion of the Gilded Age. Billie Eilish wore a corset-and-bustle gown adorned with a purple flower on the neckline, paired with lace green opera gloves and a black choker. While the Gucci dress looked pulled from the 19th century, it was made from upcycled materials with sustainability in mind. SZA also highlighted the legacy of the time period via a gown by Vivienne Westwood, a designer known for her modern-day takes on the corset. Then, there was Paloma Elsesser, who wore a bare-boned corset with garter and lace skirt custom-made by Coach that highlighted the construction of Gilded Age fashion. “Putting that corset on the outside you can see all the details including the garter,” says Ben-Horin. “It’s all the historical references in a modern outfit.”
Perhaps one of the most historically accurate nods of the night came when Sarah Jessica Parker paid tribute to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, a seamstress, civil rights activist, and the first Black woman to work in the White House as a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. The actress wore a black-and-white tuxedo-style dress by Christopher John Rogers, a Black designer who dressed Vice President Kamala Harris for the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, that featured a plaid-style print which Ben-Horin says is “a signature look of Keckley.” The outfit also supported the mission of In America: An Anthology of Fashion, which aims to highlight the unrecognized narratives in fashion history. “[The dress] really helps raise awareness to these historical [figures] that were overlooked,” says Ben-Horin.
Kelly adds that celebrating the people who created the fashions of the Gilded Age is imperative to understanding this period of extreme inequality: “As much as I have studied Vanderbilt and women of these really prominent families, I've also looked a lot into the dressmakers of the time period, the women who were working behind the scenes in the fashion industry, the women who were working as ladies' maids, all of these people are so important to the American fashion story.”
Beyond the opulent looks and historical references, both Ben-Horin and Kelly agree that the night’s theme was a fitting tribute to the significance of the Met Gala and the Costume Institute. “If we go back to this idea of the Gilded Age with its opulent parties, it was really all about, not just showing off wealth, but also really having fun with fashion,” says Ben-Horin. “I think it is important for the fashion industry to celebrate itself in this way.”