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June 28, 2022

Photographs of the Vanderbilt Costume Ball Showing the Lavish Lifestyles of the Gilded Age Elite

In the spring of 1883, the solemnity of Lent didn’t stand a chance against the social event on the mind of all of New York’s elite society: Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt’s fancy dress ball. The invitations had been hand delivered by servants in livery, young socialites had been practicing quadrilles (dances performed with four couples in a rectangular formation) for weeks, and amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes. The best dressmakers and cobblers had spent months poring over old books making costumes as historically accurate as possible.

Prior to the ball, Gilded Age New York society had been dominated by the Mrs. Astor. (Emphasis, hers – to even ask which Astor was a sure sign that you were thoroughly ignorant in the most basic points of New York’s social hierarchy.) Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and self-appointed “society expert” Ward McAllister were the authorities in all things upper class. It was up to them to decide if your last name was venerable enough or if your bloodlines were pure enough for entry into the upper ranks of society. They were the champions of old money and tradition.

But New York’s social hierarchy is not known for being static. Thanks to the meteoric increase in millionaires in New York due to the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, many of whose fortunes rivaled or even surpassed the oldest of families, Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister had a whole new challenge in deciding who of the nouveau riche was acceptable. This led to the creation of the famous List of 400 — the Four Hundred people who were New York’s high society. One family that they deemed wholly unsuitable were the Vanderbilts. The willful crassness of Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, the ambitious entrepreneurial shipping and railroad industry mogul, and patriarch of the family, was still the stuff of legends.

The Commodore’s grandson, William Kissam Vanderbilt, married the determined, pugilistic and socially ambitious Alva Erksine Smith from Mobile, Alabama (but schooled in Paris). Alva made it her mission to bring the Vanderbilts into what she thought was their proper place in society, and onto the list of the 400.

As grand as the mansion was, the ball which served as her housewarming party was even grander. On March 26, 1883 Alva threw one of the most incredible parties that New York had ever seen. With her access to seemingly endless amounts of money, she used every available resource – including the power of the press by inviting journalists to come in and preview the decorations before the ball began – to build excitement  and to make it bigger than any ball before it. According to an apocryphal tale, Alva used what was possibly the simplest weapon in her arsenal to gain admission to the New York 400: good old fashioned manipulation. The story goes, that like all marriageable young girls Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, was anxiously awaiting her invitation and even began practicing for a quadrille with her friends. Then the unthinkable happened: all of her friends got their invitations and hers never came. She immediately got her mother on the case. Due to complex social customs, Alva claimed she could not invite Miss Astor since Mrs. Astor had never called on the Vanderbilt home. Mrs. Astor really had no choice but to drop her visiting card at 660 5th Avenue, thus formally acknowledging the Vanderbilts. The Astors’ invitation was received the next day.

At ten in the evening carriages began arriving at 660 5th Avenue, dropping off nearly 1200 outrageously costumed members of the highest ranks of society. Crowds, held back by police, strained to catch glimpses of debutantes and society stalwarts attired in their costumes as they were escorted into the mansion. Even Mrs. Astor (with her daughter) and Ward McAllister were there.

It is easy to see the casual display of over-the-top excess of the ball in these portraits of attendees in their costumes taken by Mora.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alice Claypoole Gwynne) as “Electric Light” in a costume designed by Charles Frederick Worth. A built-in battery lit a light bulb she carried and could raise over her head like the Statue of Liberty.

A woman dressed as a goose at the Vanderbilt Ball, 1883.

Miss Kate Fearing Strong, known as Puss, in her disturbing cat costume.

Miss Elizabeth “Bessie” Remsen Webb, she of the demon-themed costume.

Mr. Charles Ross.

Miss Henrietta Strong, looking like a living porcelain doll.

Miss Edith Fish was dressed as the Duchess of Burgundy, with real sapphires, rubies and emeralds studding the front of the dress.

Cornelius and Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt II as Louis XVI and the Electric Light.

Mrs. Henry Lukemeyer.

Mrs. Elliot F. Shepard (Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt).

Alva Vanderbilt at her official opening of the chateau in March 1883, in her costume of a “Venetian Renaissance Lady.” The photographer apparently added the birds in later, for whatever reason.

José Maria Mora, Mrs. John C. Mallory (Jean Turnure) as an Egyptian princess.

Mrs. William Seward Webb (neé Lila O. Vanderbilt), dressed as a hornet and wearing a headdress of diamonds.

Miss Elizabeth "Lizzie" Pelham Bend, dressed as Vivandiere du Diable possibly for the Opera Bouffe quadrille.

The costume worn by Mrs. Frederic Neilson, heavily embroidered in gems.

(via Museum of the City of New York)


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