The first season of HBO drama “The Gilded Age” recreates an era of extravagance and excess in American fashion that, even 140 years later, remains unmatched, in part because the skills and materials to make the clothes are are becoming increasingly rare.
Principal costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone aimed to faithfully reproduce every detail of New York’s high society style of the 1880s, a challenge that required international searches for exceptional materials and artisans with archaic skills to manufacture or assemble near of 5,000 costumes for nine episodes featuring such heavyweight characters. -hitters like Christine Baranski, Carrie Coon and Cynthia Nixon.
“We all did great shows. This one was on a whole other level. Just one giant thing after another,” Walicka-Maimone said from the Brooklyn production studio.
Walicka-Maimone and co-costumer Patrick Wiley estimate nearly 600 people contributed to building the wardrobe, including their 65-member costume team.
There were soldering bustles, molded hats, and fabrics decorated in methods almost lost to history.
The designers relied on workshops from Brooklyn to Budapest, Hungary, including Tirelli Costumi from Rome, Hero Collection from Poland, Peris Costumes from Madrid and Cosprop and Angels Costumes from London. They found vintage 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 J. Smith Esq in London.
And they’re just getting started. In February, HBO announced a second season of the drama from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. Walicka-Maimone promises the next round will be bigger, better and, for the crew, much, much easier.
With COVID-19 pandemic controls in place, they have become “a digital army” as they learn to communicate virtually through video conferencing and photo sharing. Color match? Everything but impossible from one screen to another. More complications: Coon, playing lead character Bertha Russell, was four to eight months pregnant during a production with corseted costumes that weren’t shot consecutively per episode.
Tension surrounded the entire costume-making process, coming as it did amid pandemic precautions, shutdowns and an ongoing shortage of sources and sewing skills. With Broadway shows, touring companies and hundreds of other productions on the back burner, designers had the rare luxury of having theatrical workhouses’ full attention locked in throughout the 2020 and 2021 shutdowns. This expanded access filled other gaps that were long in coming.
” A lot of [New York] Garment District is disappearing and many specialty manufacturers are disappearing for many reasons,” Walicka-Maimone said. “It’s not just the pandemic – it was an extraordinary additional blow that contributed to many closures.”
The crew continued inventorying as historic businesses close, such as the museum-like Tender Buttons, or those leaving New York, such as the 90-year-old Tinsel Trading Co., which moved to Berkeley. Last fall, the owners of Charles Lubin Co., a 121-year-old New York artificial flower wholesaler, announced their impending retirement.
“The reason we do period dramas and refer to the classics is that those stories resonate with us. Even though it’s set in 1882, that period was so powerful.
— Kasia Walicka-Maimone
“We were crying over this loss,” Wiley said. “Our buyers bought as much as they could, but when they left, they left.” The shutdown of the pandemic has almost led to the extinction of other sources. “Some companies told us that if it wasn’t for ‘The Gilded Age,’ they would have gone bankrupt,” he said.
Designers have found creative workarounds, especially for outdated clothing.
“There was this bustle made of metal springs that looked like bed springs,” Wiley said. A metalworker recreated them and a tailor made a lace cover. “You would never know it was bed springs,” Walicka-Maimone said.
Dresses could require 10 to 20 yards of elaborate fabric, some of which had to be designed with companies such as Jeff Fender Studio and Dyenamix of New York.
“We were printing to replicate fabrics that had been woven because we didn’t have the capacity to weave those fabrics, mainly because of the lead time. And the cost,” Wiley said. At $150 per yard, the price was “reasonable” compared to similar silks.
Research by two consulting historians, paintings, fashion plates and digitized museum collections guided the team to the asymmetrical drapes, heavy embroidery and sometimes contrasting, ultra-vivid colors of the 1880s.
“The artificial colors kicked in and people went crazy,” Walicka-Maimone said. “People ask, ‘What is Bertha [Coons] do in this neon yellow color?’ This color comes from a historic dress. Days of experimentation finally resulted in the right shade, which became the basis for a yellow-green and gray ensemble that looks like it belongs on a modern Parisian runway.
“The reason we do period dramas and refer to classics is that those stories resonate with us,” she said. “Even though it’s set in 1882, this period was so powerful. It was this time of change in fashion and industry and socio-economic dynamics. It was one of those huge periods that… for generations and generations, we draw from it.
As production on Season 2 kicks off, the team is protecting the identities of some special sources. People who understand historical costumes and the demands of the modern film industry are becoming increasingly rare.
“It’s something we spend a lot of sleepless nights worrying about,” Walicka-Maimone said. “We can imagine anything we want, but without them it doesn’t happen.”