Is the Met Gala Theme Satire About the Gilded Age 2.0?

Miranda girl, what are you doing here?

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Tonight is the Super Bowl of fashion: The Met Gala. Every year entertainment and fashion elites walk the red carpet to officially open the exhibit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. This year’s theme is “Gilded Glamour,” and one has to wonder: is the Met getting a little…political? Think about it, the 30-year period following the Civil War was marked by extreme wealth inequality, various labor movements, and technological innovation; sound familiar?

What is a Met Gala Theme, Anyway?

In case you didn't know, the Met Gala has a theme that matches the corresponding exhibit. Over the years, there’s been hits and misses: there was the well-received 2018 theme “Heavenly Bodies,” a retrospective of the sartorial nature of religion. This was followed by the 2019 theme of “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” widely regarded as kind of a dud as the guests were far too glamorous to be camp (no need to try and dissect WHAT camp is, folks, the gala was three years ago, let it GO)

Met Gala 2019 Round-Up: Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, Kylie and Kendall Jenner and Cardi B
This was NOT camp, sorry, not sorry (Image Courtesy: Vogue)

This year’s theme is the second of a two-part exhibit on American fashion. Last year’s theme, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” highlighted both American heritage brands like Ralph Lauren AND emerging designers like Lou Dallas. Fitting, since America has always been the scrappy, younger sibling of its Western European counterparts.

While the image of singer Kim Petras dressed as an haute couture horse is emblazoned in MY mind, a night dedicated to obvious wealth based on a time period marked by obvious wealth is infinitely more interesting.

All that Glitters isn't Gold (AKA “The Gilded Age”)

Fashion and culture are intrinsically intertwined; like it or not, what we wear is a sign of the times (from bra burnings to low-rise jeans, and so on and so on). And the times, they are…a changing. But not for the first time, and historians have long said we are currently living in the second Gilded Age.

If you didn’t know, the “Gilded Age” is a term coined by American novelist and OG culture critic Mark Twain. It was a tumultuous period following the end of the American Civil War.

However, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad galvanized the American people. This 1,911-mile modern marvel connected the existing eastern U.S. railroad network with the west, making it easier than ever to travel the entirety of the country. The railroad made other advancements like factories and mining more feasible, and fortunes were made.

Map of the route of the first transcontinental railroad
The First Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869

The Rise of the Original “One-Percenters,” AKA Wealth Inequality Was Wild

Alas, these fortunes were not spread evenly. According to analysts and historians, in 1913, just FOUR families (the Rockefeller, Frick, Carnegie, and Baker families ) held 0.85% of the country’s total wealth. In comparison, the richest 0.1% of families today have surpassed Gilded Age levels. They own 10% of the country’s wealth — and it’s rising. The chasm between who is rich and who is poor is widening, much like it did during the Gilded Age.

There’s also that little issue of monopolies. No kids, it’s not just a board game. Politicians in the Grant administration were often accused of turning a blind eye and allowing corporate interests to “inform” policy.

Keppler’s 1889 political cartoon “Bosses of the Senate” (Source: Senate.Gov)

Monopolies like Standard Oil and the Sugar Trust were in direct violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, but that didn’t stop Gilded Age millionaires from raking in the dough. If you think monopolies are a thing of the past? Think again: three companies control 80% of mobile telecommunications, and just a handful of companies control the agricultural landscape, heavily influencing what we watch, make phone calls on, and even eat. The monopoly is alive and well, folks.

“Rich is Loud, Wealth Whispers!” Not During the Gilded Age, Sister

Gilded Age era socialite Alva Vanderbilt costumed for the legendary fancy ball she hosted in March of 1883. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Gilded Age era socialite Alva Vanderbilt costumed for the legendary fancy ball she hosted in March of 1883. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

As the wealth from railroads, steel, sugar, and other innovations began to add up, so did the need to display that wealth. Fifth Avenue mansions, 1,000-person costume balls, new dresses and draperies shipped in from the continent. Wealthy families like the Vanderbilts had no issue with public displays of wealth. In a country where the bottom half lived cramped in tenement apartments and scraps to get by, it’s no wonder the Average working American took to the labor movement so zealously.

They were sending a message: we can’t live like this anymore and we are going to do something about it.

We’re Still Fighting For Fair Labor Laws

Once working-class Americans realized how wealth was concentrated at the top and influenced their politicians, they were pissed. Between 1880 and 1900, American workers staged nearly 37,000 strikes — on both a national and local level, American workers took to the streets to protest starvation wages, long hours, and unsafe conditions.

Those exact words could be ripped right out of a 2022 headline, amiright? Look at what the Amazon and Starbucks Unions are doing. In fact, we even got a federal holiday out of the Gilded Age labor movements (Labor Day).

Is the Met Making a Political Statement? Probably Not :(

As much as I would love to believe that the committee made the decision to utilize the publicity and notoriety of fashion’s biggest night of the year to make a statement; they probably didn’t. After all, history has shown us that after times of great peril and death, fashion tends to get a bit more decadent (such as Dior’s voluminous post-WWII “New Look”), and now that we’re “post-pandemic” (major eye roll) it’s time to let the good times roll. And what better way to mark a new era in wealth than a callback to another era in wealth?

Or maybe the dresses are just really, really pretty.

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I write stories about the way fashion, culture and health impacts marginalised bodies; also writing my first book & some short stories :)

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Jess Sims

Jess Sims

I write stories about the way fashion, culture and health impacts marginalised bodies; also writing my first book & some short stories :)

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