Alva Vanderbilt, dressed as a Venetian princess, at her Vanderbilt Costume Ball
It’s not often that a single party changes the structure of New York society, but the Vanderbilt Ball, which took place on March 26, 1883, did just that.
Hosted by Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William K. Vanderbilt, the costume ball had a singular purpose from the start—to facilitate the acceptance of the Vanderbilts into New York high society.
Alva and William K. Vanderbilt
Weren’t they already in the upper ranks of Gilded Age New York society, you ask? Surprisingly, no. And the reason boiled down to a duo named Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the Mrs. Astor, and Ward McAllister, the self-appointed New York society expert, who was Mrs. Astor’s bestie. Together, they determined “the 400,” the list of the 400 people in fashionable New York society. Unfortunately for Alva and William Vanderbilt, they were not among them.
Indeed, Mrs. Astor considered the Vanderbilts arrivistes, too nouveau riche and vulgar for the Gilded Age of New York society, and snubbed them at every opportunity.
Caroline Schermerhorn Astor and Ward McAllister
But Alabama-born and Paris-educated Alva was determined to assume what she considered her rightful place in New York society. Her first order of business was to build a house befitting a society queen and her king. To do so, she enlisted architect Richard Morris Hunt, whose other projects included the façade and Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to design for them a magnificent French-style chateau at 660 Fifth Avenue. Complete with a grand, 60-foot-long entrance hall, the three-and-a-half story mansion included stained glass windows designed by Eugène Oudinot and exquisite antiques and tapestries.
The Vanderbilt House, also known as the Petit Chateau, and the mansion’s salon
Naturally, next on the agenda was a housewarming party, which Alva decided would be a grand costume ball in the European tradition. Alva sent—via servants in livery—invitations to 1,000 members of New York society—except, that is, to the Astors. Apparently, Mrs. Astor’s daughter Carrie, a young and single New York socialite, was distraught about the slight. She assumed that she would be attending the Vanderbilt Ball and had already started practicing her quadrille dancing (dances performed with four couples in a rectangular formation). When her invitation never arrived, she asked a friend to talk with Alva. Alva’s response was that she simply could not invite to the Ball anyone from a family that had never called on the Vanderbilts. The next day, Mrs. Astor dropped off her visiting card at Alva’s Fifth Avenue manse, and Miss Astor, Mrs. Astor, and Ward McAllister all received their hand-delivered invitations.
Bessie Webb, Alice Vanderbilt, and Kate Fearing Strong at the Vanderbilt Ball
No expense was spared as the grande dames of New York society dressed for the Ball. Edith Fish arrived as the Duchess of Burgundy in a dress covered in rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. Bessie Webb came as Madame Le Diable, dressed in a red satin dress trimmed with fringe that featured the heads and horns of devils, and Kate Fearing Strong, in a playful tribute to her nickname “Puss”, wore a taxidermied pussycat on her head and a skirt embellished with cattails. But it was Alice Vanderbilt, Alva’s sister-in-law, who created the biggest buzz dressed as “The Electric Light” to celebrate Edison’s recent invention, the light bulb. Her yellow satin gown, which was designed by Charles Frederick Worth, was embellished with pearls and beads in a lightning-bolt pattern, and she carried a “torch” that lit up, thanks to batteries that Worth had sewn into her skirt.
The “Electric Light” dress, which is preserved at the Museum of the City of New York
Newspapers across the country reported on the Vanderbilt Ball, with the New York Times calling it “a fairyland” and the social set deeming it a wild success. But the best part of all? Alva and Mrs. Astor were spotted chatting at the Ball like old chums, and Alva got what she so desperately wanted: a spot at the tippy-top of New York society.
The National Woman’s Party, of which Alva was a primary benefactor, picketing the White House in 1917
But the story doesn’t end there. Like so many great party hosts, Alva used her influence and entertaining skills to enhance the lives of others, becoming a women’s rights activist and opening her mansion doors for all kinds of rallies and events. Alva died in 1933. Per her instructions, her coffin was draped with a banner that read, “Failure is impossible.” Alva reached many goals in her life, including earning a legacy as a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement. And her Vanderbilt Ball started it all.
Would you like to read about more famous parties in history? Click here to read about The Surrealist Ball, which took place in Venice in 1972, and here to read about 1951’s Le Bal Oriental, which was known as the “Party of the Century.”
For more party inspiration, click here to read about the inspiring parties of today. Click here to read more about Strawberry Saroyan, this story’s author.