James Hazen Hyde costume ball 1905

Gilded Age Costume Balls

Part 4 our Gilded Age series. Check out the other 4 parts under 'The Gilded Age' tab. 

1883 Vanderbilt Ball

Alva Vanderbilt’s 1883 ball was the grandest New York had ever seen. 
She dubbed her fifth avenue home ‘Le Petit Chateau' and christened it with an historic masquerade ball for over 1000 guests in 1883. It is estimated that the party cost $6 million in today's dollars. As a result, Alva became part of the triumvirate of New York high society with Mamie Fish and Tessie Oelrichs, taking the mantle from Caroline Astor. 
Throngs gathered to see which guests were dressed in which costumes and eventually swelled to the point that police had to hold them back in order to keep some semblance of order.
The best dressmakers spent months poring over old books making historically accurate costumes for their clients from a multitude of eras.


The hostess


Alva dressed as a Venetian princess (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 Vanderbilt 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.

The costume selections were derived from handbooks such as Ardern Holt’s ‘Fancy Dresses Described: Or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls’, first published in 1879.

Constance Rives Borland came as a hornet in yellow satin and a brown velvet skirt.

Borland was not the only hornet that night: Eliza (Lila) Osgood Vanderbilt Webb wore nearly the same costume (with an imported headdress made of diamonds), a testament to how closely readers adhered to Holt’s suggestions.

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

Dresden Quadrille dancers like Miss Henrietta Strong wore all-white costumes and powdered faces to resemble Dresden China. They looked like porcelain dolls.

Bessie Remsen Webb was dressed as ‘Madame Le Diable’ in a red satin gown with a black velvet demon embroidered in it and the entire dress trimmed with ‘demon-fringe’ (fringe ornamented with the heads and horns of demons!)

Kate Fearing Strong dressed as her nickname ‘Puss’ with a taxidermied cat on her head and 7 cat’s tails used as trim on her dress. 

Emily Thorn Vanderbilt Sloane opted for a Little Bo Beep costume made by New York dressmaker Catherine Donovan. 

“Cora Brown-Potter came as the eponymous opera character Madame Favart, holding a mandolin. Worth created a phoenix-themed gown for Emily Taylor Lorillard, the long train of which was decorated with a crimson cashmere border embroidered with “leaping flames.” 

‘In Alva’s memoir, she wrote that “Many of the costumes, including Lady Mandeville’s (Consuelo Yznaga) and mine, came from Paris.” She recalled that her own dress was of white satin with elaborate gold embroidery, a velvet mantle, diamond diadem, and additional diamond and emerald jewelry completed the outfit.’
- Both quotes taken from Dressing Up by Elizabeth L. Block. 

Other costumed characters included Louis XVI, King Lear and Joan of Arc. 

Couturiers in that time created a range of garments from evening gowns to day dresses and fancy dress costumes. The latter was not seen as a lesser endeavour as it would be in the 20th century. 
The ball began at 11.30pm and finished when the sun came up on that March morning. The wealthy guests did not have to worry about appearing on time to work that morning, or any morning. 
The event 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. 
Portraits were taken by Cuban photographer Jose Maria Mora and were distributed widely via cabinet cards.
Godey’s Lady’s Book also covered the ball thoroughly. 
The extravagant house was torn down in 1927 but not before Alva had gotten what she wanted from it- to be envied by all for her wealth and good taste, climbing to the very top of high society in the process.  

The Devonshire House Ball of 1897

While the Gilded Age was an American enterprise, there were of course many famous fancy dress balls also happening in Europe. One such ball worth mentioning was the Devonshire House ball. It was held on 2nd July 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. It was the social event of the year in London and was attended by many aristocrats, society figures and European royals. The Duke of Devonshire invited the London photographic firm of James Lafayette, who had been awarded a Royal Warrant ten years previously, to set up a tent in the garden behind the house to photograph the guests in costume during the Ball. In 1899, the studio of Walker & Boutal published 286 of the magnificent Lafayette photographs. These can be viewed online on the National Portrait Gallery website. 


Consuelo Vanderbilt and her husband, the Duke of Marlborough attended. The Duke arrived dressed as the French ambassador to the court of Catherine the Great, in what was reportedly one of the most expensive costumes at the ball. The 5,000 franc costume was made by the House of Worth. It was velvet and embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made of gold and white damask. 

The Prince of Wales dressed as the grand master of the Knights Hospitallers of Malta. The Princess of Wales dressed as Queen Marguerite de Valois.

The ball’s host, the Duchess of Devonshire, dressed as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. Her costume was described in great detail by The Times newspaper. 

“The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead."

The ball was reproduced on stage in London a few months later to the amusement of the ‘commoners’. The producers of the play (The White Heather) had purchased some of the costumes that had been worn to the ball. The nobility were scandalized. 

James Hazen Hyde’s 1905 Ball

Photos taken by Joseph Byron of the guests at James Hazen Hyde’s 1905 costume ball at Sherry’s restaurant in New York. These photos have a comic element to them and provide a somewhat candid look at this historic ball, which is not typical of other photographic examples at other events. 

The 600 high society guests dressed in 18th Century Versailles-themed costumes. In attendance were members of the Astor, Vanderbilt and Fish families. They came in the finest ensembles their money could buy; silk gowns with bustles and rosettes, hunting jackets, military uniforms and more.

The party cost $200,000 at the time. Scandal ensued as rumour (falsely) had it that the 23 year old Hyde had used money from his company to pay for it and subsequently lost his job and left the country!

 Bradley-Martin Ball of 1897

*The Bradley-Martin Ball of 1897 was tied in with the Cornelia Sherman Martin section of our '400' post, so check that out to learn more. 

Here is one costume we wanted to highlight as it has survived and is today housed at The Museum of the City of New York. 

This dress was worn by Miss Kate Brice, a socialite and frequent customer at Parisian couture houses.

‘The Brices spent each summer in Europe, traveling and ordering clothes, before heading to Newport late in the season. In 1896, the New York World reported on the twenty wealthiest and most eligible Newport “maidens,” including Miss Helen O. Brice and Miss M. Kate Brice, who were surely among the thirteen on the list then in Europe who would “return at the height of the Newport season, their trunks laden with the latest Parisian frocks and hats.” '- Stories @museumofcityny 

She came dressed as the Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain as depicted in a 1660 portrait by Diego Velázquez, when she was 11 years old.
Kate was 24 at the time of the ball, never married and only lived to be 38.

Despite the efforts of Cornelia Martin to encourage guests to order their costumes locally in order to boost employment and the economy, many still ordered from Paris as they always did. This dress was ordered from the House of Worth (at that time headed by Jean-Phillippe, Charles’ son) and made within 24 hours to ensure prompt delivery to New York for the Ball.

The illustration is by George Barbier of a Worth design published in Gazette Du Bon Ton (a French fashion magazine active from 1912-25) in 1924. An obvious reference to the Margarita gown worn by Miss Brice.

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