The GIlded Age Redux

Leah Cox

The celebrities on the carpet and the fans waiting frantically outside are living in two different worlds and realities. 






The First Monday in May marks a historical day in modern global society and culture: The Met Gala. This year The Metropolitan Museum of Art held its Gala on Monday, May 2nd. The Met Gala is an annual themed fundraising ball to benefit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Known as the world’s most prestigious fashion event, it’s invitation-only and marks the point in one’s career when they have truly “made it.’  

The price to attend (even with Anna Wintour’s approval) is $35,000 per ticket, with tables costing between $200,000 to $300,000). 

Celebrities hailing from all over the world, ranging widely in their paths to fame and fortune, gathered on the Met’s famous steps to debut their expensive, and often custom hand-crafted, looks to the world. This year’s gala theme was “Gilded Glamour” (think Gilded Age fashion). The theme itself is part of a new exhibit called “In America: An Anthology of Fashion,” which is meant to recontextualize the way fashion helped craft American identity since the mid-19th century. 

When thinking of the Gilded Age, you should imagine bustles, corsets, big sleeves, and trains. You should also imagine a period of extreme income inequality. 

The period known as the Gilded Age takes place right after the American Civil War and before World War I, between the 1870s and the early 1900s. This was also known as the second Industrial Revolution. As Time states it, the Gilded Age “exemplified…the very wealthy flaunting their newly extravagant lifestyles,” which was a result of the century’s great social and technological changes. 

Ninety-nine percent of the American population, however, wasn’t included in that wealthy few. It was the top 1%, or Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Cargenie who owned an overwhelming amount of the country’s wealth. According to a blogpost from Cornell University, a professor explains that these monopolies “often exercised unjust and unethical practices to heavily exploit others and amass their great wealth.”

It was essentially a period of “pure, unchained capitalism.” Economic insecurity and poverty ran rampant in urban areas. According to the professor, “The same economy that gave corporate titans the ability to amass among the largest fortunes in history also required a massive amount of unskilled labor. Thus, those who found themselves a job in the industrial line of work often experienced extremely dangerous working conditions…long working hours, and meager wages.” While some might argue that these workers could have revolted against the upper class, the truth is, they actually did revolt. But at the end of the day, when money and power are involved, sometimes it becomes much easier to just let go and give in. 

The Gilded Age was a period for the wealthy and influential class in America to reap the benefits of the working class through lifestyle changes, wonderful living conditions, and of course, luxury, luxury, luxury. 

If you’re on the same page as me, the realities of the Gilded Age might make you skeptical of this year’s Met Gala theme. I mean sure, the period gave birth to many fashion trends that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Like corsets for example. But, I can’t help but be attuned to the fact that the Gilded Age was literally gilded. According to the Oxford Languages dictionary definition, gild as a verb means to “give a specious or false brilliance to” something. If you really think about it, the Gilded Age was like an iceberg. It may look beautiful and majestic on the surface, and what you can see is small and seemingly insignificant. But below the surface is a massive ugly problem. 

When the celebrities step onto the Met carpet, they look glamorous - no matter how (objectively) good or bad their outfits may be. But if you’ve read online articles or watched TikTok videos like I have, you often see large masses of people waiting outside the gala, screaming and even crying to get the attention of celebrities who, more often than not, end up ignoring them anyway. I’ve seen videos of fans reaching arms and hands out to get as close as they can to the wealth and status they don’t have themselves. These fans are reaching out to touch a lifestyle that is likely completely inaccessible to them. Sure they can see it, but they aren’t living it.

The celebrities on the carpet and the fans waiting frantically outside are living in two different worlds and realities. 

I mean truly think about it. Even the paparazzi and photographers on the Met steps are barricaded by (actual) barricades in the disguise of bushes. They are so close, yet so far.

The average person hasn’t even seen the inside of the gala itself. Every year we get very few photos of the actual gala. It’s almost like the celebrities are giving little sprinkles of fairy dust to make us satisfied.

I find it interesting how history repeats itself when issues go unresolved. The Met Gala itself, the entire day and the months leading up to it, are just a mirror image of the country’s past and present-day issues. Just like during the Gilded Age, we still have the uber-rich, middle class, and the lower class. With the Gilded Age, a middle class developed due to an increase in disposable income and access to leisurely activities. And today that group still exists in a huge way that supports our economy. But even with this income and the major role they play in America’s economy, they still don’t have access to the extravagance the celebrities attending the Met Gala do. And still, our country still faces challenges with income inequality, wealth disparities and unequal distribution, a growing class divide, workers’ unions, demands for immediate and long-term social change, and environmental issues that continue to leave a lasting effect on the environment. We’ve seen this story unfold before, yet we continue to walk deeper into the forest, blindly.

Don’t get me wrong, watching content creators and fashion students review and critique the plethora of custom looks that arrive on the Met steps, is actually really attention-grabbing. This year I spent time waiting and watching for my favorite celebrities to arrive while studying for math. It was riveting. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to come to our senses about the role this gala plays in reflecting the political, economic, and social standings of our country and world. Events like these, gilded and glamorous, give a false impression of the immense wealth and prosperity of our country. However, we can lose sight of the issues a majority of this country’s citizens face. For many, the goal is not to “make it” in a world of glamor, but just to make it through the day.
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