LLNYC recently visited the Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) long-running “Gilded New York” exhibit to get a firsthand glimpse into how the one percenters of yesteryear lived.
And judging by their bling — jewelry, clothing, accessories and furnishings — not a lot has changed. Sponsored by Tiffany & Co. and housed in a single room, “Gilded New York” explores “the visual culture of elite New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in this collection of costumes and portraits.” In other words, you can check out the most opulent wares of those living the truly luxe life long ago, up close. Just don’t leave any drool on the sparkling display cases’ glass.
The exhibit is comprised of some 100 works, many of which were housed in the lavish homes of American aristocracy, such as:
· A Tiffany & Co. diamond tiara created for the 1894 wedding of Julia Kemp, the daughter of pharmaceutical magnate George Kemp.
· The “Rehan Jewel,” named for then-famous stage actress Ada Rehan and made around 1900 by the New York firm Marcus & Co. Fashioned as a cluster of translucent morning glories, it is fabricated in gold with plique-à-jour enamel.
· Decorative objects for the fashionable home: a French gilt bronze annular clock; ceramics by Brooklyn-based Union Porcelain Work, and a gilded chair by Herter Brothers. And accessories for the fashionable woman: an engraved glass flask in the shape of a swan’s head, an evening fan of eagle feathers, and a silver purse ornamented with mermaids.
Interestingly, the collection is juxtaposed with other less flamboyant displays such as “Affordable New York” and “Jacob A Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half,” which incidentally mimics the makeup of our actual city, where poor and rich live in close proximity.
Upon entering, the gallery is divided into various sections. Most noticeable are several display cases around the perimeter featuring ornate jewelry of the time — the majority was designed by Tiffany or Marcus & Co. Literature provided in the studio explains that by The Gilded Age, American’s taste evolved from archaeological-style ornaments of Italy to pearls and diamonds made in Paris.
A variety of brooches featuring fine gemstones are featured.
A dog collar necklace adorned with diamonds and pearls is a real standout…
…as is this Marcus & Co. necklace.
As with the uber-rich of any time period, clothing styles and quality separated them from the masses. During the late 1800’s Parisian design was de rigueur, with gowns by couturier Charles Frederick Worth being the most coveted.
According to the Museum’s curator Phyllis Magidson, because Worth never traveled, those desiring his fancy and exorbitant threads would have to travel to Paris multiple times for fittings. This spoke volumes about their financial capabilities. So much more significant than simply bearing a fancy handbag with a designer logo on it!
Closer to home in Manhattan, “Ladies Mile” — an area devoted to the highest fashion designs for women — ran from 14th to 23rd Streets from Broadway to Sixth Avenue.
Because of the fragility of the costumes’ fabric, clothing pieces are rotated at least every three and a half months, according to Magidson (so the dress featured above may or may nor be on display when you stop by).
The current exhibit features a rather theatrical burgundy velvet dress by Worth. The floor-length skirt has a pronounced bustle, finishing in an extensive train and the skirt even has a small pocket on the seam.
It is displayed against a backdrop of an ornate marble fireplace and gilded chandelier which were once housed in the home of Henry Harkness Flagler, the wealthy son of a financier.
In a nearby display case leather opera gloves bearing mother of pearl buttons are highlighted as well as a glove stretcher. In surrounding display cases reside elaborate fans, hairpins and vanity sets that were common for affluent women to possess, as well as luxe masculine personal items such as a men’s dresser set, gold lighter, silver flask and ivory, gold and wood cane.
Display cases devoted to decorative arts of the time period also abound, illuminating elaborate silver pieces, ceramics and crystal displays, as well as ornate Venetian glass vessels.
Lastly, the gallery’s perimeter showcases portraits of key players of the American aristocracy in all their glory.
It was common for many affluent New Yorkers to commission portraits to be painted abroad — a sort of nod to many affluent celebs’ selfie obsessions today. A pamphlet explaining the background of the highlighted paintings explains that the portraits on view capture a range of the city’s most prominent families such as: Mrs. William Bayard Cutting, whose husband was a member of the merchant aristocracy; Virigina Stern, wife of department store owner Isaac Stern; and the family portrait of “Cornelia Ward Hall and Her Children.” (Think: Kris Jenner and her brood of Kardashians.)
An accompanying book may be viewed in the gallery or purchased in the Museum’s gift shop.