How The Gilded Age’s Denee Benton Put A New Twist On Gilded Glamour

For Denée Benton, 2022’s Costume Institute Gala felt like kismet. “This kind of synchronicity makes me feel like angels are truly watching out for me,” Benton shared pre-event. “Like, what are the odds that the theme and the show I happen to be on would work out that way?!” As the star of Julian Fellows’ drama The Gilded Age, Benton has been immersed in the world of old New York society long before the year’s “gilded glamour” theme was announced, and in a way, the show’s period drama primed her for a stunning Met debut. “The period was such a turning point in the history of this nation, for better and for worse,” says Benton. “The way that the people expressed themselves through fashion was always such a big indicator of the culture.” 

Working with a designer who understood the intersection of fashion and culture proved essential, and in Prabal Gurung, Benton found the perfect collaborator. Introduced before Benton’s Broadway debut in 2016’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Gurung created the dress she wore for her first time at the Tony Awards. Six years later, he crafted her a masterful Met look out of upcycled red silk faille with a fuschia hand draped bustle skirt, all of which Benton adored. “It’s rare to find humans in our industry who lead with their warmth and without pretension,” she says. “[Prabal] has always greeted me with that kind of respect even before I worked professionally in New York. I remember being so over the moon for that [Tonys] moment, so this feels like another moment of synchronicity.” 

For Gurung, the ideal look had to honor the gala’s tremendous platform. “The Met is the one cultural event with the largest reach, [it’s] where different fields—sports, fashion, film—all come together,” he says. “There’s so much to consider; theme, period, how to interpret that with my vision, and how the look reflects the person wearing it. At the end of the day, it is truly about telling a story that encompasses all those elements.” 

Gurung’s sketch of Benton’s Met 2022 look

Sustainability and local craftsmanship (the entire look was made in New York) was key for the designer. Gurung incorporated elements from the style of the late 1800s. “The “Gilded Age” fashions inspired the silhouette but with a modern twist on that classic sophistication,” he says. “The gown is two pieces, a sculptural bustle skirt with upcycled, hand-cut flowers adorning the structured yet soft draping worn over a classic column gown.” Splitting things in two also allowed Benton to make a quick change for the after-parties. “Versatilely is always key in my designs,” says Gurung. “I love having the option to make subtle changes that result in an entirely different look.” 

Nodding to history was essential, but Gurung also wanted to showcase Benton’s innate charm. “We really wanted to celebrate Denée. She represents the ethos of the brand: femininity with bite, indelible style, and an astute sense of glamour,” he says.  Gurung utilized the house’s signature colors of red and fuschia to represent the passion and warmth of the star and her on-screen alter-ego, budding reporter and author Peggy Scott. “The way Prabal is so unafraid to masterfully work with bold color is one of my favorite parts of his designs,” says Benton. “I was truly in love with it; I couldn’t have dreamt up something better.” 

Given her familiarity with the period, Benton can see the parallels between the Gilded Age era and our present day, particularly as it relates to class dynamics. “What’s interesting about the 1880s is that industrialization created a hugely oppressive wealth gap and difficult living conditions, much like we see today,” she says. “The way people who had the wealth and privilege to do so counteracted the reality of the brutality of these conditions was by showing off how they could dress, live, and feast as decadently as possible. ‘Gilded’ actually implies that there is just a thin layer of gold covering up something of far lesser quality.”

Despite being acutely aware of the inequities in both eras, Benton found stepping into the rarefied world of the gala to be an inspiring full-circle moment. Intrigued by the director curated rooms of the ‘In America: An Anthology of Fashion’ exhibition and excited by the prospect of running into faves like Sza, she enjoyed every minute of her big night out. “Mostly [I was] trying to figure out what secret corners to squeal in, so everyone didn’t see me geeking out the whole night,” says Benton. “My inner child is still pinching herself that these dreams are coming true. It’s my first Met Gala, and I’m so happy that this moment in my life and career is happening.”