Making the American Aristocracy: Women, Cultural Capital, and High Society in New York City, 1870-1900

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Virginia Tech


For over three decades, during the height of Gilded Age economic extravagance, the women of New York High Society maintained an elite social identity by possessing, displaying, and cultivating cultural capital. Particularly, High Society women sought to exclude the Nouveaux Riches who, after amassing vast fortunes in industry or trade, came to New York City in search of social position. High Society women distinguished themselves from these social climbers by obeying restrictive codes of speech, body language, and dress that were the manifestations of their cultural capital. However, in a country founded upon an ethos of egalitarianism, exclusivity could not be maintained for long. Mass-circulated media, visual artwork, and etiquette manuals celebrated the Society woman's cultural capital, but simultaneously popularized it, making it accessible to the upwardly mobile. By imitating the representations of High Society life that they saw in newspapers, magazines, and the sketches of Charles Dana Gibson, Nouveau Riche social climbers and even aspirant middle and working class women bridged many of the barriers that Society women sought to impose.



Cultural Capital, Dress, Culture of Aspiration, Culture of Consumption, High Society, New York City, Speech, Posture, Women, Space, Gilded Age