Another week, another opportunity to marvel at Kasia Walicka Maimone’s costume design work on The Gilded Age. This column covers exclusively Carrie Coon’s costumes in her role as the beautiful and socially ambitious nouveau riche matron Bertha Russell. Not that the other costumes aren’t fascinating and worthy of conversation, but Bertha’s gowns are more adventurous, more exuberant, more statement-making, more everything.
In “Close Enough To Touch,” Bertha is very busy coordinating with her household staff to ensure that everything goes smoothly for the dinner she’s hosting to open her first full season in Newport, aka When Bertha Poached The Duke, aka the social coup of the summer. Perhaps as a consequence of her work as a superior hostess being front-and-center, Carrie Coon wears exactly three costumes in this episode, and one is a rerun.
This is Bertha’s week. It seems like every week is Bertha’s week, even when she feels her heart and trust have been trampled upon by George; even when Gladys is flailing around trying to be a big grown-up girl who chooses her own gowns; even when Larry is getting day-drunk because his mother has put the (entirely justified) fear of Bertha into his erstwhile ladylove Mrs. Blane; even when it takes her a few more chess moves than she’d like to put Mrs. Winterton’s nose so completely out of joint that even a gifted plastic surgeon of the future would think twice about trying to straighten it. Such is the power of her combined will and intelligence! But I’m here to tell you that of the many weeks that have been Bertha’s week thus far; this one is the Most Bertha’s Week that it’s possible for a week to be (title subject to change; we do have three more episodes to come this season, after all).
Gown of the Week: Victory Lap
Bertha’s Victory Lap pulls out many of the stops we love to see, and that shows off her figure to its best advantage while also being sufficiently modest not to scandalize anyone. The wide, square neckline, with a bit of lace detail just above her décolletage, provides plenty of room for her massive diamond necklace, which itself looks quite lacy. The style combines tall choker and bib, featuring a series of concentric circles around the neck and lots of graceful little swoops and multiple drop pendants down the center. The choker’s concentric circles may have some filigree to maintain its structure and keep the circles in place. She’s also wearing a magnificent floral-style diamond tiara, and long, vertical diamond drop earrings. In almost any other situation, the earrings alone would be the center of attention, but they’re the most restrained element of her accessories.
Back to the dress itself, the primary fabric of the bodice and skirt is ivory, with widely spaced florals in watercolor shades of pink, yellow, lavender, and green. Where I can see the full blossoms, they look like anemones, and based on the contrasting degrees of luster in the pattern, I think it’s a damask. The main fabric’s texture is enhanced by a partial lace overlay in the same creamy shade as the background color, covering the bodice and extending to the shoulders and the top quarter of the sleeves.
Bertha loves a contrast fabric, and the Victory Lap features a rather bold choice. It’s a matte, slightly caramelized shade of peach for the (surprise!) Basque waistline stomacher, which laces up the back, corset-style. The contrast fabric then flows into a large, exuberant bustle. The contrast fabric has lots of body, just enough so that it drapes, and by God, it stays where it’s been draped, or Bertha’s modiste will know the reason why. Some interfacing for added structure and stay-put-ness (a very real word I did not just make up) may be involved.
The contrast fabric also appears on the skirt as panels between some of the wide pleats on the front, and of course, no important Bertha Russell gown is complete without an asymmetrical sash and bow at the left side of the neckline. Bertha’s Victory Lap is well-earned and once more signals to everyone that while she’s aware of current trends and expectations, she also knows how to tweak any of them she likes to make a look uniquely her own.
Even More Crisp, Summery White
Part of what makes Victory Lap so noteworthy is its many marked contrasts to the other two gowns she wears in “Close Enough To Touch,” both of which are white and fluffy. The first is Even More Crisp, Summery White, whose high, knife-pleated collar puts me in mind of a restrained version of the collar worn by the Evil Queen in Snow White (without being a signifier of actual eeeeevil, merely queenly imperiousness). The bodice includes many small, fabric-covered buttons marching down the front, flanked by tiny vertical pleats on each side.
Taking as close a look as possible at the bodice, I see that this is a monochromatic look, but by no means flat, thanks to its symmetrically appliquéd jacquard flowers — oversized chrysanthemums, I think, in another nod to the Japonesque influence of the era — and the further textural detail of the knife pleats at the cuffs as well as the neck. Even More Crisp, Summery White is otherwise fairly straightforwardly Berthanian, with a large bustle and soft overskirt covering most of a knife-pleated underskirt. It’s lovely and subtle.
The Return of Almost Casual Bertha
Back in my write-up of “Some Sort of Trick,” I dubbed this frothy all-white voile number Almost Casual Bertha. It’s still lovely, and I’m pleased to report that my problem with its bodice has been remedied! My earlier critique was:
The collar and front of the bodice are a tiny bit of a let-down; the collar should be standing up all the way around to frame her face, but the fabric doesn’t seem to be up to the task, so it’s a bit floppy as it marches down into the vertical ruffles that flank opaque, flat bows.
The collar has been restored to suitably, crisply upright, and the vertical bodice ruffles are now visible as little triangles cascading down the center like a parade of miniature flags. It’s visually very reminiscent of the dashing and chic frockcourt uniform of the Household Cavalry that Prince Harry wore at his wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018.