In case you haven’t heard, the Met Gala will see its timely return on Monday, May 2nd in New York City. The theme is part two of “In America,” which originally began in September 2021. This time, however, the event will have a Gilded era twist. The guests will arrive wearing their best renditions of the style from the late 19th century in New York City. According to Vogue, “The 2022 Met Gala will ask its attendees to embody the grandeur — and perhaps the dichotomy — of Gilded Age New York.” How well they’ll do it is something we’ll have to wait for. In the meantime, though, let’s look at the modern parallels between the fashion then and now.
At the time when Gilded glamour was at its peak in the years between 1870 and 1890, fashion was getting cheaper because the technology used to make it was advancing. Not only was fabric becoming easier to get, electric machines made production significantly more efficient. Factories were also growing due to an influx of workers migrating in from around the world. According to the American History Museum, at the same time that the Vanderbilts hosted lavish balls full of women in their most over-the-top gowns, the garment workforce numbers in America increased from 120,000 to 206,000. The conditions, however, were atrocious — with many of these factories operating as sweatshops, using child labor, practicing wage theft, and keeping workers in extremely dangerous conditions to get clothing made. In today’s world, advancing technology through social media and the internet creates demand and, in turn, profits. Similar to well over a century ago, the workers are expected to work harder without seeing any of the rewards.
What’s more is that the fashion icons of the time, the men and women of the wealthy elite, embraced some of the changing social norms but, of course, mostly on the surface. The Smithsonian explains that there was “no place better underscores Gilded Age wealth and inequality than New York City.” While in NYC, there was certainly a push toward women’s liberation and civil rights, sweatshops were taking advantage of workers for profit at an alarming rate. “Many immigrants were unskilled and willing to work long hours for little pay,” History.com writes. “Gilded Age plutocrats considered them the perfect employees for their sweatshops, where working conditions were dangerous and workers endured long periods of unemployment, wage cuts and no benefits.” Interestingly, that very idea gave way to the unionization of garment workers at the turn of the century — not dissimilar to the movement of fashion workers we see happening around the world and in the United States this year.
So what does this have to do with the Met Gala? It’s about seeing the full history instead of simply celebrating the surface. Can love of fashion and recognition of its disturbing flaws coexist? Yes. Recognizing the artistry and meaning of a garment is an important part of doing justice to the work that went into it. However, I also believe that reading into a garment’s meaning has to go beyond its history and cultural reference — we have to look at the people behind it too. With this in mind, perhaps the theme is actually a perfect metaphor for fashion. What is gilded is not gold, it is covered in gold, simply hiding what’s underneath.
Thank you for reading!!