(As a prelude, we suggest reading our previous blogpost about the Gilded Age '400' which includes a bio on Alva Vanderbilt/Belmont.)
The Vanderbilt's are a prominent American family, once the wealthiest in America and key figures during the Gilded Age. They were part of the Nouveau Riche and as society leaders they influenced fashion, were idolized by the public for their style, spent thousands on shopping trips in Paris (particularly to the house of Worth) and gave us prolific designer Gloria Vanderbilt in the late 20th Century. But who were these wealthy fashionables we see in portraits wearing the gowns of Worth and Doucet?
'The gowns were a vehicle. They demanded attention that ultimately made sure their wearers could not be ignored. “One of the tools that [Alva] used to facilitate her ascension was the press,” says Fine Collins. “That, again, was something new, which the older money in America would have considered vulgar. It didn’t matter, because this was a time when the press began to assume so much power, and there were visuals accompanying the social columns. The public was clamouring to know more about the titans of industry and their wives’ activities. It was like watching movie stars.” (https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/gilded-age-fashion)
Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt
The matriarch of the Vanderbilt family for over 60 years, Alice was born in Ohio in 1845. She hailed from an old Rhode Island family. She was a teacher in New York when she married Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1867 and became a "400" member. They had 7 children including sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt.
She attended her sister-in-law Alva's ball in 1883 dressed in a Worth costume that highlighted a then brand-new invention: the electric light. Her gold satin evening dress, since named the Electric Light Dress, was studded with glass beads in a lightning bolt pattern. She also held a battery powered torch in the air, which gave her a resemblance to the statue of liberty all lit up. The image of her in full costume at the ball is well known and epitomizes the grandeur of the Vanderbilt family. The dress survives and is housed today at the Museum of the City of New York.
When Alice's husband died, their estate was worth over 2 billion in today's dollars. She passed away in 1934.
Meanwhile, Gertrude married Harry Payne Whitney, suppressing her real love for friend Esther Morris Hunt. She had an illustrious art career, founding the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1934, she was involved in the highly publicized court case for the custody of her niece, Gloria Vanderbilt (the fashion designer). She was portrayed by Angela Lansbury in the 1982 film "Little Gloria...Happy at Last". She died in 1942.
Above left: Gertrude in a costume by Leon Bakst, photographed by Adolf de Meyer, 1913.
Above right: Gertrude wearing a costume in 1909.
Emily Thorn Vanderbilt
Emily was born in 1852 and married William Douglas Sloane in 1872. She financed the creation of New York's Sloane hospital for women. She had five children including Emily Vanderbilt Sloane (below). She dressed as Little Bo Beep to the 1883 Vanderbilt Ball in a costume made by Irish-American dressmaker Catherine Donovan. She hosted musicales and large debutante parties to launch granddaughters and niece's into society at her mansion in the early 1920’s. Emily Thorn remarried after her husband's death and died in 1946. A named 400 member.
Emily's costume to the 1883 ball
Emily Vanderbilt Sloane Hammond
Emily was born in 1874. She was a keen pianist and felt guilt about being born into wealth, dedicating her time to religious, educational and charitable causes. She married John Henry Hammond I in 1899 and had 4 children with him including John Henry Hammond II who became a jazz impresario and record producer. His son in turn was John P Hammond who became a blues singer and guitarist. She authored a number of books and died in 1970. She is great-grandmother to actor Timothy Olyphant.
Florence Adele Vanderbilt Twombly
Florence was born in Staten Island in 1854. Her brother William married Alva and her sister was Emily Thorn (above). In 1877, she married businessman Hamilton McKwon Twombly. Sketches from their wedding appeared in The Daily Graphic (below).
Together they had 4 children. She passed away in 1952.
In 1946, her relationship to her wealth was summarized by Colllier's: "[Twombly] owns fifteen automobiles. She pays her chef $25,000 a year. Her butler has four footmen to assist him. Her New York mansion contains seventy rooms. At one of her country places she employs more than a hundred servants. And she does not crave publicity – she hates it!"
An exhibit at the Biltmore house in North Carolina in 2019 showcased recreations of 55 Vanderbilt outfits made by Academy Award winning costume designer John Bright. One of the highlights is an embroidered silk dress based on one that Florence wore, originally made by the House of Worth (below).
Consuelo was born in 1877, the daughter of Alva Vanderbilt/ Belmont.
She is one of the prime examples of a Gilded Age so-called "Dollar Princess" due to her advantageous but loveless marriage to the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill's cousin. Consuelo was opposed to the marriage but was coerced into it by her domineering mother, and subsequently became an influential Duchess (the Duchess of Marlborough).
Her dress was of lace-trimmed ivory satin with a five-yard train, huge sleeves and had a tight waist bound with a wide sash. She wore a tulle veil embroidered with seed pearls, held with a coronet of orange blossoms- which had become popular with British brides after Queen Victoria donned one for her wedding to Prince Albert. Even her gold underwear fastenings were reported on. Some sources say it was a Worth gown while others speculate an unnamed American dressmaker. In the obituary of New York dressmaker Catherine Donovan, it is she who is given credit for the gown.
The bridesmaids were decked in ivory satin, blue velvet portrait hats decorated with powder blue ostrich feathers, pearls hanging from their necks and matching blue velvet chokers with butterfly pins.
The couple lived apart for much of their 25 year marriage before it was finally annulled. Consuelo was such a great beauty that Peter Pan author JM Barrie once wrote that he "would stand all day in the street to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage." She embodied the slim and tight look that was in vogue during the Edwardian period.
Devonshire house fancy dress ball, 1897.
She remarried in 1921 to Lt. Col. Jacques Balsan.
Together with Singer sewing machine heiress Princess de Polignac, she built a hospital outside of Paris for middle class workers which is today known as Foch hospital.
She published her autobiography in 1952. A New York Times reviewer called it "an ideal epitaph of the age of elegance."
....The Vanderbilts splurged, led ferociously by Alva. In her memoir The Glitter and the Gold (1952), Alva’s daughter Consuelo writes of spring visits to Paris on her family’s new steamboat. “The Rue de la Paix was the fashionable shopping centre and names of the great dressmakers – Worth, Doucet, Rouff – were printed on small doors admitting one to modest shops. Inside, the array of lovely dresses, expensive furs and diaphanous lingerie fairly took one’s breath away,” she said. A sea-blue satin evening dress with a long ostrich feather-trimmed train and a rich pink velvet gown with sables were both fitted for her by Jean Worth, son of Charles...... while the older guard had a “waspy fear of stylishness, the Vanderbilts would never not want to be seen in the most recent, most flashy clothing”.
She died in 1964, one of the most famous heiresses in U.S. history.
With her father in Paris
Callot Soeurs gown owned by Consuelo.
These are just some of the many Vanderbilt women that graced the salons of Parisian couturiers in the Victorian period and into the Edwardian. You may recognize some of them next time you are in a gallery or spot a name in the attribution/ donation note of a museum gown or piece of jewelry. We wish there was more information with their portraits to tell us about the exact designers of their clothing.
It is interesting to compare to the socialites of today- not much has changed. The public still obsess over royal weddings like those of Megan Markle and Catherine Middleton just as they did for Consuelo Vanderbilt. Similarly, it is only the wealthiest few in society who can afford to buy designer luxury goods from Paris and it is indeed these people who keep those brands in business. At the turn of the 20th century, it was sketches in newspapers people studied to gain the latest fashion advice, but we now have Instagram and TikTok to influence our beauty standards with the Kardashian's leading the way.
Read our follow-on blogpost about iconic fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt: