HBO’s The Gilded Age (2022) looks extremely grand, which is fitting for the show’s portrayal of the conflict between the waning aristocracy and the robber baron class in 1882 New York. I think the show’s opulent setting and exquisite costumes are all part of a necessary ruse to keep viewers (me) hooked onto a show that doesn’t offer much in the way of narrative suspense or character development. In fact, managing editor John and I have been giggling our way through conversations of the show’s various fails, like Gladys Russell (Taissa Farmiga) sneaking out of her house through the front door, or Oscar van Rhijn (Blake Ritson) conspiring openly with Bertha Russell’s (Carrie Coon) lady’s maid literally in front of both their residences.
But one non-fail topic of our conversations is the spectacle of Carrie Coon’s hats, purely because of how massive, grandiose, and delightful they are. [“No idea why we call them ‘Carrie Coon’s hats’ and not ‘Bertha’s Battleships.’ Maybe it’s a way of separating Carrie Coon from the rest of the show?” –John, exercising Screen Speck’s first mid-article editorial privilege.] Costume design is the backbone of every film and television setting; in the case of Bertha Russell, the colossal size of her extravagant hats loudly signals a new age where money, not cultural capital, is power. In contrast to Bertha, women who hail from the aristocratic class, like Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), wear muted jewel tones which foreshadow their eventual decline and irrelevance. Bertha may not know whether the expensive clocks in her mansion are bought from the Palazzo Borghese or the Hôtel de Soubise in the Marais (neither do I), but she certainly has the money to flaunt them.
And mostly her hats are just really fun to look at. As Coon’s Emmy-snubbed, breakout television role as Nora Durst in The Leftovers (2014-2017) served notice, she is irresistibly electrifying on-screen — but even more so when the size of Bertha’s hats matches Coon’s talent. The woman supplying these peerless chapeaus is costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, whose impressive work is also featured in, among many other shows and films, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and J. C. Chandler’s A Most Violent Year (2014).
In anticipation of The Gilded Age’s first season finale, we present the first definitive ranking of Carrie Coon’s hats, in all their sizeable and avian glory.
5. The Peacock (Season 1, Episode 2)
After Mrs. Morris (Katie Finneran) secretly decides not to use her ballroom for the charity bazaar, Bertha rolls up to the same bazaar in a garish peacock-themed dress. She absolutely does not want Old New York to think she will be belittled into disappearing. In many ways, the women organizing the bazaar are peacocking about, helping poor orphans by selling tiny handmade ornaments when pawning their own earrings could feed ten times more families. Charity bazaars by the rich are for the rich; at least Bertha flaunts her obscene wealth by putting numerous patterned feathers on her pretty little head.
Where I Would Wear This: A queer studies academic conference, an event that is almost always fueled by narcissism.
4. The Vulture (Season 1, Episode 6)
This one just completely obliterated me. With her feathers out and about, Bertha walks haughtily into the board meeting of the Red Cross…just as the recently widowed Mrs. Morris tells the room that Bertha does not belong in society. The massive black feathers on Bertha’s hat exceed the frame of the shot and upend everyone else’s physical height. Having piles of cash mean Bertha belongs anywhere, and she knows it. If Carrie Coon had turned her head the merest bit more, her feathers might have actually slapped someone in that room. The larger the check, the more menacing the hats!
Where I Would Wear This: The bus, during peak hours, so I could slap everyone out of my personal space.
3. The Baby Blue Rose (Season 1, Episode 1)
I have nothing snarky to say about this hat. I actually think it is the loveliest hat that Bertha has worn thus far. Carrie Coon is gorgeous and the metallic blue hues of this entire outfit make her look like a warm and inviting person. Something Bertha is not.
Where I Would Wear This: To a first date, maybe. I’m a very awkward person in real life and need hats like these to signal for others that I am actually very nice.
2. The Turkey Legs (Season 1, Episode 1)
This hat resembles a turkey doing an Amanar vault with its legs akimbo. It looks like the turkey’s head planted onto the ground, except that the head in question is also glued to Bertha. I guess barging your way into polite society for the first time does scream confusion about the rules of respectability. Turkey drumsticks are indeed an effective way of making a grand, rude, and above all, visible entrance.
Where I Would Wear This: Visiting my relatives during Chinese New Year. It has been a little more than twenty years of existence, and I still feel like an unwelcome oddity at these gatherings.
1. The Chicken Strawberry Shortcake Trifle (Season 1, Episode 8)
Naming credits for this one go to John! In this scene, Mr. McAllister (Nathan Lane) decides to give Bertha an unscheduled tour of Mrs. Astor’s new property in Newport — except Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) turns up prematurely and Bertha is forced to flee the house out the back entrance. Joining the cooks chopping up dinner in the backyard, Bertha’s red hat resembles the red crowns of the chickens sent to slaughter. This crude parallel almost showed us how Bertha’s working-class background prevents her from full assimilation into high society. But I was too busy noticing how her costumes finally went back to where they belong: at home with our feathered friends in the great outdoors.
Where I Would Wear This: To the hawker center to buy my weekly chicken rice for lunch. The pandemic has robbed me of social life; I might as well dress up like the prettiest possible chicken to buy my poultry.
The Gilded Age‘s Season One finale airs on March 21st on HBO Max. We may need to update this list after that; stay tuned.