Corsets, bustles, satins and ruffles: the Gilded Age’s fashion comeback could soon be complete after American Vogue announced it as this year’s theme for New York’s Met Gala.
This season’s flirtation with the corset trend is an experiment few are yet to try in earnest, but we could be eating our words next month after the Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, invited A-listers to arrive at fashion’s biggest night “embodying the grandeur – and perhaps the dichotomy – of Gilded Age New York”.
During the Gilded Age, a time of rapid economic growth in the US from the 1870s to the 1900s, society queens poured themselves into extravagantly embellished and corseted couture gowns. As “Regencycore” breaks free from being a TikTok trend to go truly mainstream – aided in part by two big-budget television programmes – society’s finest are set to bring it into the 21st century.
Julian Fellowes’s recent HBO series The Gilded Age mesmerised viewers with spectacularly grand costumes, for which actor Louisa Jacobson admitted to having to take “corset breaks”. Our fixation with Bridgerton’s bodicing is being catered for in retail – Asos reports that it has sold, on average, three corsets every minute this year – while #Regencycore has had 32.9m views on TikTok.
Television programmes aside, it is uncertain why the period, in which a select few became unimaginably rich through rapid technological advancement, has had such a resurgence. But aesthetically, the theme makes perfect sense in a post-Covid world, according to the author and Central Saint Martins fashion lecturer Harriet Worsley.
“It’s a real celebration of glamour; it’s incredibly positive,” she said.
Such a “nostalgic return to womanly extremes” is a timely antidote, she added, “after everyone’s been living in their ‘straight up and down’ pyjamas, people want to look sexy after all this undersexed androgyny.”
Perhaps the ultimate transformation from baggy joggers to pin-up was Billie Eilish’s internet-breaking Vogue cover last summer. But Patricia Maeda, the director of womenswear at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, believes the Met Gala will aid the corset in entering the mainstream – making it part of the fashion landscape in the way skinny jeans have been.
“Compared with other red carpets such as the Oscars, Golden Globes, etc, the Met Gala reigns supreme in terms of fashion influence,” she said. “Clearly there is a lot of research that goes into deciding the theme for the exhibit and its relevance within the fashion industry.”
On the fashion shopping app Lyst, where searches for corsets have risen by 85% over the last three months, these searches are most often combined with the words “lace”, “leather” and “black” – suggesting they are currently eveningwear. Maeda believes there will be “new iterations of the corset, featuring softer fabrics and flexible boning” without all the usual constraints, thus offering a broader appeal. Hybrid versions are expected for autumn, with “Fendi shirts that incorporate structured boning, and coats and blazers with corset details from Dior and Versace”. A corset that optimises a woman’s form, rather than subjugates it, is a welcome development.
Some have criticised the Gilded Age theme, with the fashion influencer Bryanboy tweeting “Golden glamour in times of war, let them eat cake”.
However, Maeda believes the point is to illustrate that “fashion can always provide us an escapist outlet to break free from our current reality, whether through Regency period style or a glamorous red carpet event”.