American Socialites & Fashion - The Gilded Age '400'

The 'Four Hundred' was a list of the cream of New York Society during the Gilded Age in America. It was a group that was led initially by Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. In February 1892, the official list, provided by Samuel Ward McAllister (a confidante of Mrs. Astor's), was published in the New York Times after years of speculation about who exactly was on the list. Upon Mrs. Astor's death in 1908, her role was filled by the triumvirate of American society: Mamie Fish, Thersea Fair Oelrichs and Alva Belmont.

Mrs. Astor was a champion of Old Money and tradition. She wanted to codify proper behaviour and etiquette at a time when immigration into New York was growing high. It is speculated that the number of 400 was arrived at in relation to capacity at the Astor's Rhode Island ballroom and other prestigous venues in the city. 

The list consisted of mostly lawyers, bankers, brokers, real estate men and railroaders. It included a mix of old money (like the Astor's) and the Nouveau Riche at the time (like the Vanderbilt's). There was significant criticism at the publication of the list and backlash to McAllister himself, who was dubbed 'Mr. Make-a-Lister'!

Interestingly, the list contained far fewer than 400 names!

In order to maintain prestige and control, this class of people sought to align themselves with European ideas of aristocracy, royalty and nobility. They wanted to appear richer than rich and spared no expense when it came to their wardrobes. They displayed their lavish wealth on their bodies with the finest clothing from French designers. Many of them travelled to Paris for fittings with Charles Frederick Worth where they were charged more than their French counterparts on the assumption that they were wealthier. 

Elizabeth L. Block published her book 'Dressing Up: The Women Who Influenced French Fashion' in 2021, detailing the influence wealthy American women had on fashion in the 19th Century. An excellent source on this topic. 

Below is a selection of some of the most notable women on the list who dictated fashion at the time. 

Caroline Webster "Lina" Schermerhorn Astor 

Caroline Astor

Caroline was born into wealth in New York in 1830, a descendent of the original Dutch settlers there. In 1853, she married William Backhouse Astor Jr.,  Despite the Astor families' enormous wealth, Caroline was seen to have the superior pedigree. She held elaborate parties for herself and others of elite New York society, by prestigious invitation only, including an annual ball held every January. These social gatherings were dependent on overly conspicuous luxury and publicity. To be excluded was social doom. She found the earned rather than inherited wealth of the Nouveau Riche distasteful and was reluctant to allow the Vanderbilt women into her circle but was ultimately forced to do so.

She ruled as the queen of New York society for four decades. She favoured dark colours – usually black but often a regal purple and could be seen bedecked in diamonds at her parties. 

In December 1890, two dresses (an embroidered apple-and dark-green silk and velvet dress and a sky-blue silk dress with ostrich-feather trimmings) she had ordered from Maison Félix in Paris (a late 19th century couture house on equal standing as Worth or Doucet) were seized by U.S. customs and a ten month saga ensued. At the time, the U.S. government was attempting to discourage the import of foreign goods. The appraisers placed the dresses at 1.5 times their actual price and Mrs. Astor refused to pay the penalties. The dresses ended up at auction and the green was bought by the Bloomingdale brothers (who put in on display) and the blue by John Koster, a music hall owner. 

"Always the trendsetter, Astor's tax refusals were copied by other society women. By fall 1892, the quantity of French garments passing through the New York Customs appraisers' offices could reach up to 1,000 dresses per day." https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a38952075/caroline-astors-gown-scandal/

Caroline's nephew purposefully built the Waldorf hotel next to her house in order to overshadow it and her status within. She eventually tore down her house and built the Astoria hotel in 1897. The two hotels merged to become the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, an institution that revolutionized New York society. It was eventually razed to make way for the Empire State Building, and the current Waldorf-Astoria was then built on Park Avenue. Her son founded the St. Regis hotel chain in the early 1900s. She passed away in 1908 and her daughter Carrie erected a 39 foot tall cenotaph in her memory at Trinity Church Cemetery. Carrie was at this time a highly respected member of society herself and many of her couture gowns still survive (from names like Worth, Doucet and Callot Soeurs), now housed at the Met Museum. 

She is portrayed by Donna Murphy in HBO's The Gilded Age. 

Ruth T. Livingston Mills

 

Ruth was born in 1855 into the prominent Livingston and Baylies families. She married financier Ogden Mills in 1882. In 1890, she inherited her childhood home. She frequently held social parties at her houses. She passed away in Paris in 1920, having tried on gowns at French couture houses only the day before. She is buried in a mausoleum at St. James Cemetery in NY. The mansion home she shared with her husband is now part of Ogden Mills & Ruth Livingston Mills State Park in NY. 

Julia Dent Grant

Julia Dent Grant

The granddaughter of president Ulysses S. Grant. She was born at the White House in 1876. She married the Russian Prince Mikhail Cantacuzène and became a princess. Her aristocratic title was Countess Speransky and she enjoyed the pomp and splendour of Russian city life for 20 years before the revolution. She was an author and historian, providing important accounts of events during the Russian Revolution which helped to provide an income after the family moved backed to the States. The couple divorced in 1934. She died in 1975 at the grand age of 99 in Washington.  

Julia Dent Grant

The Washington Star described her as “a sprightly and witty grand dame of Washington society…who lived history that her contemporaries could only read about.”

Cornelia Sherman Martin 

Cornelia was born in 1843, an heiress to a wealthy merchant. She married Bradley Martin in 1873, after meeting the previous year at Alice Vanderbilt's wedding, where Cornelia was a bridesmaid. The couple are best remembered for throwing the Bradley-Martin costume ball at the Waldorf hotel in 1897. Cornelia organized the event, intending it to be "the greatest party in the history of the city". It was certainly one of the most ostentatious. About 800 guests spent thousands of dollars imitating kings and queens during an evening of decadence. The couple spent almost $10 million in today's money to throw the ball. 

The idea for the party was to provide economic stimulus to the city by giving such short notice that only local businesses could be employed rather than ordering in from Europe. 

The suggested attire for the Bradley-Martin Ball was the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and within the costumed crowd there were at least two George Washingtons, three Catherine the Greats, eight Madame de Manintenons and ten Madame de Pompadours. Mrs. Astor went as Mary Stuart in a blue velvet gown and $200,000 of jewels, but was outdone by the hostess herself, also dressed as Mary Stuart, but in a costume valued at over $400,000. Mr. Martin was dressed as Louis XV.

Jewellers were cleaned out of antiques and family heirlooms long kept hidden in vaults were brought out for a spin. 

"The interior of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was transformed into a replica of Versailles, and rare tapestries, beautiful flowers and countless lights made an effective background for the wonderful gowns and their wearers."- 'Things I Remember' by Martin Frederick Townsend. 

A list was compiled and published in the New York Times three days prior to the event, listing guests and the historical characters they were going to impersonate and what costumes they were going to wear. It is worth your time to read more about this famous ball online and to browse the photos published in the New York Times newspaper. 

After the ball many ministers preached against its excessive consumption and the authorities promptly raised Bradley-Martin's taxes (as well as those of their friends and fellow-attendees the Astors) quite out of proportion to those paid by anyone else. Afterward, the couple moved to England and the Ball is remembered as the end of the excesses of the Gilded Age. 

Cornelia passed away in 1920. 

The three women who took over from Mrs. Astor:

Marion "Mamie" Graves Anthon Fish (named in the 400 list)

Mamie Fish

Mamie was born on Staten Island in 1853. Despite being born into wealth, she received little education and could barely read or write. She was noted for her quick wit and sharp tongue. She said of First Lady Edith Roosevelt that "It is said [she] dresses on three hundred dollars a year, and she looks it."

In 1876, she married Knickerbocker Stuyevant Fish, the president of the National Park Bank of New York.

She was a self-styled 'fun maker' and grand dame of high society.

The Newport Daily News writes:

"A symbol of ultrafashionable society, at the height of her reign Mamie was a favourite topic for the newspapers, whether it was a bit of speculation about the plans for her latest party, a description of an outfit, or a rumor regarding her most recent social squabble."

She was known to have feuds with other members of high society including with Mary Goelet and Tessie Oelrichs. She also spoke out against women's suffrage declaring that “A good husband is the best right of any woman.”

She died suddenly in 1915 at the age of 61. 

In the HBO series The Gilded Age, Mamie Fish is portrayed by actress Ashlie Atkinson.

Thersea Alice "Tessie" Fair Oelrichs (her brother-in-law was on the 400 list) 

Tessie was born in Nevada in 1871. Her father was an Irish immigrant who worked in the mines of California and she grew up in mining camps. Her father and 3 partners discovered the Comstock lode silver deposit in Virgina City and became millionaires. Tessie married businessman Hermann Oelrichs in 1890 and joined high society life in New York, Newport and Europe.

Where Alva (below) was the extravagant hostess and Mamie threw exotic and often raucous parties, Tessie was known as the martinet, the drill sergeant, of the three, enforcing the rules of polite society. Hermann's niece Blanche once described her as "strongly addicted to Society as business."

She and her husband soon became estranged and upon his death, he left her nothing in his will. She died in 1926 and today, her grand Rosecliff estate is open to the public in Newport. 

Alva Erskine Smith Belmont (Alva Vanderbilt)

Alva was born in Alabama in 1853, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and granddaughter of a cotton plantation owner. The family moved to New York before the Civil War and later, Alva attended a private boarding school in France. By the time the family moved back again to New York, their wealth was gone. Luckily, Alva was introduced to and married William Kissam Vanderbilt in 1875, and became part of one of America's richest dynasties. She dubbed their fifth avenue home 'The Petit Chateau' and christened it with an historic masquerade ball for 1000 guests in 1883. It is estimated that the party cost $5 million in today's dollars. 

Alva dressed as a Venetian princess to the ball (as did Mrs. Astor), decked out in an extravagant yellow-and-white brocade gown with an underskirt in deep orange and pale butter, and an overskirt and bodice hand-worked in blue satin and decorated with gold beading. Her velvet tiara featured a peacock, and a string of pearls that had belonged to Catherine the Great stretched across her waist. “Alva had out-Astored Mrs Astor on every level,” wrote Anderson Cooper (Vanderbilt descendent) in his memoir. However, her sister-in-law Alice outdid her, in a costume (created by Worth) highlighting 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.

Read more about the costumes here:

https://www.metmuseum.org/perspectives/articles/2021/9/gowns-and-mansions-dressing-up-women-influence-french-fashion

The ball raised the bar as to what was to be expected from high society entertainment and brought extravagance to excessive heights that had not yet been seen. 

Alva owned nine mansions throughout her life and what was the world's largest yacht at the time. 

She was among those who founded the Metropolitan Opera House after the snobbish Academy of Music would not admit members of newly-wealthy families to their opera house. 

Alva's ostentatious displays of wealth helped to fuel American public interest in the lives of the rich and powerful, and, coupled with the opulent and decadent lifestyles by America's rich and their apparent disregard for the wellbeing of the working class, helped to also fuel fears that America had become a plutocracy.

  

Alva Vanderbilt shocked society in March 1895 when she divorced her husband who had long been unfaithful, at a time when divorce was rare among the elite, and received a large financial settlement said to be in excess of $10 million, in addition to several estates.

She remarried in 1896, to politician and banker Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. Upon his death in 1908, she became a women's suffrage activist. She organized the first picketing ever to take place before the White House in January 1917 and was elected president of the National Woman's Party, an office she held until her death. She purchased their headquarters in Washington DC and the building has since become the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument. 

She was noted for her energy, intelligence, strong opinions, and willingness to challenge convention.

She moved to France in her later life to be near her daughter and died there in 1933. Her New York funeral featured all-female pall bearers. 

The character of Bertha Russell in HBO's The Gilded Age is based on Alva. 

*We wrote a separate blog post for the Vanderbilt family. Read it here:
https://iandrummondvintage.com/blogs/news/american-socialites-fashion-the-vanderbilts

Conclusion

The fashionable ladies of Gilded Age New York kept many of the top French couturiers in business and provided excellent marketing for these brands by wearing their gowns to society balls and fashionable events. All the while, the press tripped over themselves to write stories containing exclusive details about what the socialites wore. These society wives and daughters spared no expense on outfitting themselves in appropriate attire from Worth, Doucet and Hallée. Included in the expense was shopping trips across the Atlantic as well as shipping charges and import duties coming back into America. The cost mattered not to these fashionistas and trend setters!

Writing for Vogue, Eilidh Hargreaves notes that "The Gilded Age was the beginning of the brand partnership: the mutual commercial relationship between designer and muse that reigns over fashion and celebrity today, where the brightest young thing is snapped up and hyped up (today Emma Raducanu by Dior and Princess Olympia of Greece by Louis Vuitton; once Inès de la Fressange by Chanel and Audrey Hepburn by Hubert de Givenchy). “It pioneered the idea of advertisement through visibility. The women were billboards: they created desire,” adds Fine Collins (fashion historian). Bold images, painstakingly crafted poses and one-of-a-kind looks? A public lust for glamour? It sounds very now. Read this article here.

 

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