The first season of the HBO drama “The Gilded Age” re-creates an era of American fashion extravagance and excess that even 140 years later remains unequaled, partly because the skills and materials to make the clothes are becoming increasingly rare.
Lead costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone was intent on faithfully reproducing every detail of 1880s New York high-society style, a challenge that required international searches for exceptional materials and craftsmen with archaic skills to make or assemble almost 5,000 costumes for nine episodes starring such heavy-hitters as Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Nixon.
“We have all done big shows. This one was a whole other level big. Just one giant thing after another after another,” Walicka-Maimone said from the production’s Brooklyn studio.
Walicka-Maimone and co-costume designer Patrick Wiley estimate that nearly 600 people contributed to building the wardrobe, including their 65 costume crew members.
Star Carrie Coon and costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone explain Bertha Russell’s finale look — and why it would make New York’s socialites ‘gasp.’
There were bustles to be welded, hats molded and fabrics decorated in methods almost lost to history.
The designers relied on workshops from Brooklyn to Budapest, Hungary, including Rome’s Tirelli Costumi, Poland’s Hero Collection, Madrid’s Peris Costumes and London’s Cosprop and Angels Costumes. They found Period Corsets in Seattle, master beader Polly Kinney in New Jersey, historic men’s shirts from Anto Distinctive Shirtmaker in Beverly Hills and bespoke hats from London’s J. Smith Esq.
And they’re only just getting started. In February, HBO announced a second season of the drama from Julian Fellowes, creator of “Downton Abbey.” Walicka-Maimone promises that the next round will be bigger, better and, for the crew, far, far easier.
With COVID-19 pandemic controls in place, they became “a digital army” as they learned to communicate virtually through videoconferencing and photo sharing. Color matching? All but impossible from screen to screen. More complications: Coon, playing lead character Bertha Russell, was four to eight months pregnant during a production with corseted costumes that didn’t shoot consecutively by episode.
Tension surrounded the entire costume-building process, coming as it did squarely in the middle of pandemic precautions, shutdowns and an ongoing scarcity of sources and sewing skills. With Broadway shows, touring companies and hundreds of other productions on hold, the designers had the rare luxury of having the undivided attention of stalled theatrical workrooms throughout 2020 and 2021 shutdowns. That expanded access filled other gaps that have been a long time coming.
“A lot of the [New York] Garment District is disappearing, and a lot of the specialty makers are disappearing for many reasons,” Walicka-Maimone said. “It’s not only the pandemic — that was an extraordinary, extra hit that contributed to a lot of closures.”
The crew has been chasing inventory as historic firms close, such as the museum-like Tender Buttons, or ones that leave New York, such as the 90-year-old Tinsel Trading Co., which relocated to Berkeley. Last fall, the proprietors of the Charles Lubin Co., a 121-year-old New York artificial flower wholesaler, announced their imminent retirement.
“The reason why we do period dramas, and refer to the classics is because those stories resonate with us. As much as it is set in 1882, that period was so potent.”
— Kasia Walicka-Maimone
“We were crying over that loss,” Wiley said. “Our shoppers bought as much as they could, but when they’re gone, they’re gone.” The pandemic shutdown nearly brought more sources to extinction. “Some businesses have told us that if it wasn’t for ‘The Gilded Age,’ they would have gone out of business,” he said.
The designers found creative workarounds, especially for obsolete garments.
“There was this bustle made out of metal springs that looked like bed springs,” Wiley said. A metalworker re-created them, and a tailor made a lace cover. “You would never know they were bed springs,” Walicka-Maimone said.
Dresses could require 10 to 20 yards of elaborate fabric, some of which they had to design with firms such as New York’s Jeff Fender Studio and Dyenamix.
“We were doing printing to reproduce fabrics that were woven because we don’t have the capacity to weave those fabrics, mostly because of the time frame. And the cost,” Wiley said. At $150 a yard, the price was “reasonable,” compared to similar silks.
Research from two consulting historians, paintings, fashion plates and digitized museum collections guided the team toward the asymmetrical draping, heavy embroidery and sometimes clashing, ultra-vivid colors of the 1880s.
“Artificial dyes stepped in and people went crazy,” Walicka-Maimone said. “People ask, ‘What is Bertha [Coons] doing in that fluorescent yellow color?’ That color came from a historical dress.” Days of experimentation finally yielded the right hue, which became the foundation for a yellow-green and gray ensemble that looks like it belongs on a modern Paris runway.
“The reason why we do period dramas and refer to the classics is because those stories resonate with us,” she said. “As much as it is set in 1882, that period was so potent. It was this time of change in fashion and industry and social-economic dynamics. It was one of those enormous periods that … for generations and generations, we draw from it.”
As production for Season 2 gets underway, the team is guarding the identity of some special sources. The people that understand historic costumes and the demands of the modern film industry are growing more scarce.
“It is something we spend a lot of sleepless nights worrying about,” Walicka-Maimone said. “We can dream up all we want, but without them, it doesn’t get made.”