Sunday, March 16, 2014
Gilded New York In Print and In Person
Gilded New York book on the left, and a corner of the Gilded New York gallery, on the right.
New York City first rose to the stature of a world capital, on a par with London and Paris, during the Gilded Years - 1885 to 1905 - when new industries like steel manufacturing and railroads produced vast fortunes after the Civil War. New wealth led families like the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Astors to live with glamorous style which emulated European aristocratic luxury. These personal fortunes also bankrolled many buildings which still shape New York City today including the Frick Museum, the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. This fascinating era in New York City is explored in a new book from The Monacelli Press and in an exhibition now up at the Museum of the City of New York.
Recently I went up to the Museum of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 104th Street to see Donald Albrecht, the Curator of Architecture and Design at the museum, and a co-curator of the Gilded New York show along with Jeannine Falino, an independent curator, and Phyllis Magidson, the museum's Curator of Costumes and Textiles. I had met Donald before, when I worked on my Cecil Beaton story for Elle Decor magazine, and attended the seminar on Gay New York and the Arts in the 20th Century.
Donald met me at the new Tiffany & Co. Foundation Gallery where the Gilded New York exhibit is on display. He reported that the Tiffany & Co. Foundation supports this permanent gallery with a grant devoted to fashion, jewelry, and the decorative arts of any period. This Gilded New York show is up until Nov. 30, 2014.
The small elegant gallery is a jewel box of a room designed by William T. Georgis Architects. Windows offer pleasant views across Fifth Avenue to Central Park.
On display are paintings, fashions, accessories, and jewelry from the turn of the last century.
This large canvas on one wall portrays Cornelia Ward Hall and her children, painted by Michele Gordigiani in 1880. It captures a wealth of satin, lace, pearls, velvet and glossy Asian decor –
At the opposite end of the gallery are two evening dresses by the first brand-name fashion designer ever, Charles Frederick Worth, who was born in England and worked in Paris. The one on the left, called Electric Light, was worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II to the Vanderbilt Ball in 1883. Its metallic electric bolts in the fabric and shooting out from the shoulder celebrated the power of electricity which Thomas Edison had just invented in 1880 –
The accompanying book investigates the era further, with interesting essays and photographs about jewelry, architecture, fashion, and the famous balls.
The chateauesque Astor home at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street had a double-height ballroom with paintings hung salon-style from floor to ceiling –
The George Vanderbilt house was at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where Bergdorf Goodman now stands today –
Interestingly, as has been observed by fashion historian Caroline Reynolds Milbank, when the United States was born, its founders like George and Martha Washington did not want to dress in an ostentatious way which copied the European aristocracy, but rather desired a style which was simple and independent of Europe and reflected the values of their young democracy. And so the simplicity of American style was born. However in the nineteenth-century, with their new wealth based on new industries, Donald Albrecht said, the Vanderbilts and the Astors began to look to imitate European aristocracy with their castles, crown jewels and couture. "Americans in the Gilded Age were looking to the past and looking to the future at the same time," he noted.