Carrie Coon’s Costume Corner: Reversal(s) of Fortune

Taissa Farmiga as Gladys Russell, Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell take tea in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Taissa Farmiga as Gladys Russell, Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Barbara Nitke/HBO

Another week, another opportunity to marvel at Kasia Walicka Maimone’s costume design work on The Gilded Age. We are back to talk exclusively about Carrie Coon’s costumes in her role as the beautiful and socially ambitious nouveau riche matron Bertha Russell. Not that the many other costumes aren’t fascinating and worthy of conversation, but Bertha’s gowns are more adventurous, more exuberant, more statement-making, more everything. Also, this week’s other main plot is about the death of the Reverend Mr. Luke Forte, aka Mr. Ada Brook, and I’m tearing up just thinking about how heartbreaking every moment of Robert Sean Leonard’s and Cynthia Nixon’s soulful performances are. Musing about moiré and beading is the antidote I need.

(A quick editorial note regarding the title of this week’s column – it’s a fun little Easter egg for fellow fans of the 1987 film of the same title, which features an extremely memorable young Christine Baranski as Claus von Bülow’s hyper-supportive (and casually anti-semitic!) girlfriend. Fun facts: the film is based on an absolutely bonkers true story, partly takes place in Newport, and its real-life leads are played by Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close (with Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz). Reversal of Fortune is rentable on many streaming services.)

In “Wonders Never Cease,” Bertha seems to strike two significant blows in the Opera Wars, but she has yet to deliver the coup de grâce to Mrs. Astor’s (Donna Murphy) Academy of Music. We’re going to have to wait for next week’s season finale to learn whether the Metropolitan Opera will make it, after all. For those who don’t fret about spoilers regarding actual late 19th-century history, some recent photos of the Gilded Age cast out for an evening on the town may shed some light!

Gown of the Week: The Russell Variations

Harry Richardson, Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon, and Morgan Spector as the Russell family watch the fireworks in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Harry Richardson, Taissa Farmiga, Carrie Coon, and Morgan Spector as the Russell family in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Barbara Nitke/HBO

I was faced with a tough choice for Gown Of The Week, as Bertha wears four costumes, and two are particularly impressive, but I have to give it to her Brooklyn Bridge opening party look, which incorporates a beautiful variation on the patriotic red, white, and blue color scheme of the celebrations, and some astounding jewelry. Let’s call it The Russell Variations.

The Russell Variations is a vision of cranberry red and powder blue, a somewhat unexpected and fresh way of thinking about the classic patriotic color scheme. The gown as a whole is very complex-looking, and I believe it’s the first we’ve seen on Bertha that doesn’t treat the bodice and skirt as separate pieces. Giving it the look of a single garment, whether real or a masterful illusion, is the lustrous red fabric that crisscrosses the bodice, providing modest little peek-a-boo moments for the icy powder blue contrast fabric to peek through. The fabric is richly beaded at the neckline, with the beading applied at a 45-degree angle, and at the upper arm, it’s a beaded fringe. 

Descending to the skirt, the red fabric forms an overskirt with an open central panel, allowing the blue to shine through again. Based on the closest close-up I can see, that central panel is moiré (also called watered silk, an effect achieved by treating a woven fabric with a combination of water and specially-designed pressure rollers). But wait, there’s more! At the bottom of the bodice and the top third of the skirt, there are bold circular appliqués in blue and white that look like peppermint swirl candies or pinwheels. As the scene concludes with a triumphant fireworks display, I realize that the pinwheels on the dress may even be fireworks rendered in fabric. Nearly everything about The Russell Variations is shiny, light-refracting, or both. I respect the maximalism!

I haven’t even mentioned Bertha’s jewelry, which is the lavish equal of her gown overall. We have another ornate diamond-white gold-pearl tiara, which rises to a high point at the center. Her hair is cleverly styled to mirror the tiara’s height. My compliments to the hair and makeup department! The coordinating necklace is another in the bib style Bertha’s necklines are always designed to highlight. There’s a diamond-encrusted flower at the center (a slightly abstracted apple blossom or orchid), with several drop pendants cascading down. If the necklace & tiara aren’t two pieces of a matched parure, they still coordinate beautifully and may be my favorites of the season. 

First Runner Up: An Unexpected Triumph

Donna Murphy as Mrs. Astor Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell hit an unexpected truce in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Donna Murphy as Mrs. Astor Carrie Coon as Bertha Russell in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2


Returning to Bertha’s first gown of the episode, we have An Unexpected Triumph. Bertha is having tea with Mrs. Astor, who is there to inform Bertha that wonder of wonders, a box at the Academy of Music has opened up, after all, and is hers for the taking. That should put an end to the Opera War, shouldn’t it? 

In retrospect, the color palette of An Unexpected Triumph sets the stage for The Russell Variations, which is Bertha’s last gown of the episode. The main fabric is a blue-and-white horizontal stripe featuring deep red orchids. I can’t quite tell if the flowers are printed or appliqué, but they are, as we know to expect from Bertha, quite dramatic. The squared-off neckline is filled by a rather adventurous, almost spiderwebby, geometric lace insert forming a stand collar. 

The skirt and bustle are relatively simple, ending in a long-ish ruffle of 6” or so, and flanked by voluminous swoops of blue-and-white striped fabric at the hips. The twist here is that the stripes are vertical rather than horizontal, and the contrast fabric doesn’t include a floral design. 

Honorable Mentions

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector as Bertha and George Russell on the couch canoodling in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector as Bertha and George Russell in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Barbara Nitke/HBO

Kiss Goodnight

Naturally, Mrs. Astor’s offer of a box at the Academy is a development that bears discussing with George (Morgan Spector). Bertha sweeps into his bedroom that evening, unceremoniously setting his book aside, planting herself in his lap, and kissing him with equal measures of relief and passion. She’s not really there for seduction, though we’d be excused for thinking that’s her purpose, swathed as she is in Kiss Goodnight, a deep teal silk dressing gown featuring short flutter sleeves atop mid-forearm length arm capes that end in dramatic points. Arm capes are such a thing for Bertha this season, and I am a big fan (see also: A Living Corinthian Column in “His Grace, The Duke”). They provide maximum dramatic movement and dynamism at a very reasonable yardage cost, which, if you think about it, is a bargain! Lest we start thinking absurd things about Bertha embracing anything approaching austerity, though, it’s worth noting that the dressing gown isn’t just floor-length – it’s got a train. Aside from this slinky number’s jewel tone, it owes a not-insubstantial something to Morticia Addams’ aesthetic. 

We see only glimpses of Bertha’s nightgown, a simple creamy silk confection. The soft romance of the ensemble as a whole is topped off by Bertha’s hair, which is down from its daytime updo in what we’d now call beachy waves. 

Taissa Farmiga and Carrie Coon as Gladys and Bertha Russell taking tea during battle in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Taissa Farmiga and Carrie Coon as Gladys and Bertha Russell in 'The Gilded Age' Season 2

Barbara Nitke/HBO

The Teatime Battle of the Society Doyennes

At a fundraising tea at Aurora Fane’s (Kelli O’Hara) house, Mrs. Astor publicly announces that the Academy has seen fit to extend the offer of a box to the Russells. Bertha announces right back that she can’t accept the offer, leading to Mrs. Astor’s abrupt departure. Poor Aurora! It’s really uncool of Bertha and Mrs. Astor to have it out at her gathering like this, but this time, Bertha’s just finishing what Mrs. Astor started. Fortunately, she’s in a nearly futuristic battle dress for The Teatime Battle of the Society Doyennes.

When I say this gown looks nearly futuristic, I’m talking specifically about the geometric color placement of the bodice’s central panel. The elongated diamond shape of the hot acid green fabric, flowing from the neck to the waist, and flanked by white-and-slate blue vertical chevron stripes, is suggestive of Art Deco, a style that wouldn’t come into vogue for another 40-ish years. The acid green fabric also appears down the back of the dress, flowing into the bustle, and pops up again on the underside of the wrist-length sleeves. The slate blue main fabric forms an asymmetrical overskirt – by now a classic design for Bertha – atop an underskirt that alternates panels of acid green with a blue floral on a white background.

The rest of the ensemble is almost restrained: the matte fabrics, the understated gold brooch, and drop earrings, and the white gloves are all quite simple, especially in comparison with the exuberant Easter egg palette and shiny silks that most of the other women are wearing. The one exception, and a return to quasi-futurism, is Bertha’s hat. It’s white, and in a fedora-ish shape, featuring wide, white organza ribbons wrapped around the crown. The combination of the hat’s crown and the way the ribbons stack up around it suggest the spiral ramp design of the Guggenheim Museum. The hat’s crowning glory is its exuberant and structurally dazzling arrangement of white feathers and fabric flourishes that match the green and blue shades in Bertha’s dress. 

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Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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