In 1973, the writer Mark Twain coined the phrase ‘The Gilded Age’ to describe the post-Civil War period of 1870-1900. He referred to a glittering era of American society, which he claimed was also underpinned by corruption. Think about this in term's of women's dressed appearance. We can quickly draw comparisons to the secret undergarments which lay hidden beneath a skirt. In the latter half of the 19th century, crinoline cages, crinolettes and bustles were crucial components of fashionable dress in Europe and America. Working hand-in-hand with the corset, they remoulded the natural female form. Guests to this year's Met Gala who took the shapeshifting values of women’s undergarments and ran with them, put forward the most interesting propositions of the night.
The Met Gala takes place every year on the first Monday in May, and is the biggest fundraising event for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It also marks the opening of the museum’s annual fashion exhibition. In America: A Lexicon of Fashion opened in 2021, spotlighting contemporary American fashion designers. This year, the second chapter, In America: An Anthology of Fashion, looks as far back as the 18th century. Guests to the 2022 edition of the Met Gala were invited to hone in on the grandeur of American fashion during the Gilded Age of the 19th century, a period which has provided endless inspiration for fashion designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.
During the latter half of the 19th century, popular fashion focused on a woman's skirt, with a protruding emphasis on the back bookended by a fuller, more circular silhouette. In the 1860s, the cage crinoline structure evolved into the crinolette, which projected the skirt silhouette further backwards. Then, in the following decade came the bustle, which tied around a woman's waist under her petticoat, elongating the silhouette even further. Later came bum pads, which were closely associated with the emerging independent New Woman, giving her greater ease and freedom to walk around the streets. As the emphasis on a fuller skirt moved fully towards the back, waists became smaller and hips were more pronounced with the help of corsets, allowed by industrialisation and innovations such as the sewing machine and steam moulding. Mass-production also meant that these constructed silhouettes became more accessible, regardless of class.
Guests to the Met Gala are dressed by the brands and designers they accompany as muses, who in turn have been bestowed an invitation by Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Together with their stylist, they conceive outfits in response to the given theme. Taking a cue from history to the most literal effect this year was the musician Billie Eilish. Choosing to go down the vintage route, Eilish wore upcycled Gucci by Alessandro Michele. Diet Prada were quick to highlight the similarities between her duchesse satin corseted gown featuring bulbous hips and a padded bustle, and a painting by John Singer Sargent from 1885.
Hips were also the order of the day at Versace, who dressed Emily Ratajkowski in a vintage Atelier Versace dress from 1992 featuring a silk train. The model and actress' book My Body was published last year and investigates her experience of being fetishised, together with an exploration of body politics in the 21st century. Departing from the Gilded Age, when women were dressed to be paraded in a society ruled by men, Ratajkowski and other women on the red carpet reclaimed the female form as their own.
Louis Vuitton womenswear's artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière is another master at remixing time and dress codes to create contemporary fashion. In the spirit of the Gilded Age, he made a brilliant play on the female silhouette, dressing 14 ambassadors for this year's Met Gala in archive designs. Choosing to exaggerate women's hips for the occasion, Ghesquière modernised historical fashion for the modern female, although it's worth noting that it was Emma Chamberlain’s crop top look which went viral. Actor Gemma Chan’s dress featured domineering panniers dripping in silver beads and sequins. A focus on almost horizontal hips was mirrored in Cynthia Erivio's white lace gown, whilst Phoebe Dynevor's S/S 22 black dress featured gathered tulle, creating a more subtle emphasis on the female form.
Kim Kardashian’s bottom could be described as a bustle in itself, which comes as no surprise as she's always highlighted her voluptuous figure at the Met Gala. By wearing skin tight looks by Balenciaga and Thierry Mugler, and not forgetting the marmite 'couch dress' by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, Kardashian's outfit choices for the Met Gala in previous years have closely aligned her hourglass body shape with her brand image. Rather than employing artificial constructions like the crinoline cage, (rumours of her own artificial enhancements have never been confirmed), Kardashian once more chose to take agency over her own body. Somehow, she got her hands on the crystal dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The star admitted to losing 16lbs for the event, and in a nod to the Gilded Age of Hollywood, she is aligning the influence of her body on 21st century beauty standards with that of Monroe's in the 1960s. The difference is, the power's in Kardashian's hands, who has made a billion dollar brand out of her shapewear brand Skims.
Others on the red carpet took the natural form and abstracted it, no one more successfully than singer Chloe Bailey in a bespoke, liquid gold creation by the young New York brand Area featuring bulbous projecting forms around the hip and breast areas. Using the oldest trick in the book, the corset, Burberry dressed model Bella Hadid in a black leather corset, lace leggings, chiffon wrap skirt and shawl. Model Paloma Elsesser also went for a figure-hugging affair in Coach, whilst as Lizzo's cut-out corset dress Thom Browne featured small panniers to playfully extend the musician's silhouette. Kourtney Kardashian’s dividing cummerbund number by Thom Browne actually hit the nail on the head; the deconstructed shirt and skirt look was intended as an extension of her fiancé Travis Barker's three-piece suit. Kardashian, Elsesser and Lizzo's elongated silhouettes were reminiscent of the contour created by steam-moulded corsets and bustles during the Guilded Age, which evolved into bell-shaped skirts in the 1890s.
Other designers looked to these fuller skirts and the influence of the original couturier Charles Worth, an Englishman who established the concept of Haute Couture and whose ballgowns became all the rage in Europe and New York in the 1880s. Sarah Jessica Parker wore a giant number by the young American designer Christopher John Rogers, and Kylie Jenner represented the late Virgil Abloh on the red carpet wearing a full skirted white bridal gown by Abloh's OFF-WHITE brand. Prada decked out Kendall Jenner in a 295 metre silk black dress, whilst as Nicki Minaj wore a Burberry tulle ruffle creation by Riccardo Tisci. During the Gilded Age period, women’s dresses featured a mixture of lace, ruffle and bow adornments, made cheaper and more available due to electric and steam-powered looms. Jenner's ruffle-trimmed dress was brought up to date with a sheer crop top, whilst as Minaj’s look was finished with a black leather baseball cap and harness. Surprisingly, those who decided to deconstruct the skirt too much fell flat: Camilla Cabello and Ashley Park’s Prabal Gurung looks are case in point.
It was a shame, however, not to see any of the protruding, shapeshifting creations by the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo on the Met Gala red carpet last night, such as their Comme des Garçons so-called ‘Lumps and Bumps’ S/S 97 collection. Suzy Menkes, the revered fashion journalist, recalled to SHOWstudio the catwalk’s reception as having ‘Caused a feeling of alarm…because of these extraordinary changes of shape', and patriarchal society's fears about female empowerment when the form moves away from traditional concepts of what is deemed attractive or appropriate.
The American singer SZA was the only guest to rock up to the Met Gala wearing a design by the British punk designer Vivienne Westwood, whose archive holds a rich array of silhouettes incorporating period dress references as tools to defy societal conventions. Aspiring against the thinness of the 1990s in fashion, the designer looked to fuller figures in history, first incorporating the bustle and bum pad into their A/W 94 collection. Yohji Yamamoto is another notably absent designer with a penchant for bustles. In Nick Knight’s 1986 catalogue for the designer, the silhouette of a black wool coat featuring a European-style bustle fashioned on the style of the 1880s highlights Yamamoto’s reinterpretation of Victorian dress codes and his own meditation on the female elegance this was originally meant to imply.
However, there’s no point tying yourself up in knots over the Met Gala. The outfits on the red carpet always divide opinion, which usually sits across three camps; who interpreted the theme with the most accuracy or with flair? (the fashion crowd), would I wear this? (your mum who asks you ‘But WHERE would you wear that?), and the plain bad (both camps). In other words, it's a matter of opinion with no right or wrong. For every other internet critic who agrees with you, there are ten who don’t. The joy of this year’s Met Gala is the precise historical underpinning of the theme, which the most unassuming onlooker can perhaps find some of themselves in. On a more serious note, the way women fashioned themselves on the night suggested the guise of a modern society where we have autonomy over our own bodies. The currently political climate in the US, where abortion in the US could be made illegal if Roe vs Wade is overturned, cinches a metaphorical corset and shakes us into an antediluvian reality.