It was the ball of the century. The red carpet in spades. The event was Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s fancy-dress ball on March 26, 1883, when 1,200 elite guests danced the night away in extravagant costumes at the Vanderbilts’ newly completed mock French chateau on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.
The mansion dazzled “in a blaze of light,” and police officers were on hand to keep throngs of curious onlookers in order. Newspapers recounted every thrilling detail for their enraptured readers. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years. . . . It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks.”
At 11 o’clock the maskers began to arrive in numbers. . . . Handsome women and dignified men were assisted from the carriage in their fanciful costumes. . . . Pretty and excited girls and young men who made desperate attempts to appear blasé were seen to descend and run up the steps into the brilliantly lighted hall. Club men who looked bored arrived . . . in hired cabs, and whole families drove up in elegant equipages with livried [sic] coachmen and footmen. New York Times, March 27, 1883
The fête was a spectacular Gilded Age triumph and a personal victory for the social-climbing Alva Vanderbilt.
Another legendary ball was given by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Brevoort in 1840. “Dancing was kept up all night, mingled with eating, drinking, flirting, courting, sighing, and sweating,” the Morning Herald reported on March 2, 1840. Washington Irving was there, “in the dress of a Chargee,” accompanied by his nieces, who “looked very beautiful.” There was an “abundance of female domestics in attendance for the belles,” and “frizzeurs [friseurs, i.e., hairdressers], valets, etc., . . . for the beaux.” Tongues wagged when Matilda Barclay eloped from the ball in her mogul princess costume with Mr. Burgwyne of South Carolina. It was said that the couple—still dressed as the lovers in Thomas Moore’s bestselling 1817 narrative poem Lalla Rookh—were married before breakfast. This “beautiful belle . . . made havoc with many hearts at the Ball . . . and is now playing the fancy dress character of a married lady,” the Herald tattled with a sarcastic twist. The scandalous episode cast a moral shadow over society’s love affair with costume balls.
Public balls and subscription balls were alternatives to parties held in private homes. For example, fancy-dress balls sometimes took place at summer resorts and mineral-spring spas. On August 5, 1851, the New York Herald published “The Grand Costume Ball at Cape May,” which described “the first grand fashionable fête of the season at the watering places.” A Highland lassie, a jockey, the Lady of the Lake, “Night,” Charles I, a French fop, and a Swiss peasant girl were among the many costumed guests at the New Jersey seaside resort. A few party-poopers wore ball gowns. And on August 12, 1848, the Herald reported on a “Grand Fancy Dress Ball at Saratoga [Springs].” (Levin R. Marshall, a Bartow neighbor, was one of the organizers.) This festive gathering had a few rules. “No person shall be admitted without costume, except heads of families entering with their children or wards in costume. . . . Masks of every description excluded [more on that later]. Ladies and gentlemen are particularly requested to name their costumes to the Director.”
Did people wear masks at 19th-century American fancy-dress balls? Not usually. They did, however, use their imagination (and money) to create lavish costumes based on historical, literary, multicultural, and allegorical figures. Newspaper accounts of the period describe these ensembles in great detail. We can also learn more in Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt. “But what are we to wear?” the author asks in the introduction. He provides the answer with several hundred costume ideas for “Fancy-ball-goers,” including Charlotte Corday, Queen of the Butterflies, Dresden China, Air, Photography, Pompeiian Lady, and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, to name a few. He also has tips for children, sisters, blondes and brunettes, elderly ladies, and hairdressing and powdering.“A marked feature at most Fancy Balls is a specially-arranged quadrille [similar to a square dance or contredanse],” Ardern Holt wrote. At the Vanderbilt ball, there were six of these dances “comprising in all nearly a hundred ladies and gentlemen,” who moved “in a glittering processional pageant down the grand stairway and through the hall,” according to the Times. The ball began with the “Hobby-horse Quadrille,” which featured realistic horse costumes “attached to the waists of the wearers.” Gentlemen wore white satin vests and yellow satin knee breeches, and the ladies donned embroidered white satin skirts in the style of Louis XIV. Men and women also wore red hunting coats.
Fancy-dress balls were not to be confused with masked balls. In general, masked events were considered degenerate, because partygoers were in disguise—or even anonymous—which was thought to encourage improper behavior or worse (although there were exceptions, such as celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim). In fact, masked balls were sometimes illegal in the United States. But it was a different story in Europe.
Paris, as everybody knows, abounds with masked balls during the brief season which intervenes between the commencement of the year and the first days of Lent. . . . It has been calculated that an experienced ball-goer might spend every night of January and February at a masked ball without going twice to the same place. “Musard and the Paris Masked Balls,” Harper’s Weekly, April 10, 1858
Tableaux vivants were another excuse to dress up in costume and indulge in some amateur theatricals. An 1884 edition of Webster’s dictionary defined a tableau vivant as “The representation of some scene by means of persons grouped in appropriate postures, and remaining silent and motionless.” These “living pictures” depicted scenes from art, history, literature, or other genres and were popular entertainment in parlors and at evening parties.
In Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age novel The House of Mirth, “a dozen fashionable women” are asked to perform at an evening reception in tableaux vivants based on Old Master paintings. Wharton’s protagonist, the beautiful Lily Bart, “was in her element on such occasions” and played the part of Mrs. Lloyd in the portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. “The unanimous ‘Oh!’ of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds . . . but to the flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart.”
It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas. . . . Her pale draperies and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm.
“That experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne,” remarked: “‘Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!’”
Tableaux were also performed in schools, where they were regarded as instructional. In 1865, for example, the Prospectus of the Vassar Female College noted that “under proper instruction, [tableaux may] be made to conduce to far higher ends than those of mere amusement.” How-to books such as School and Parlor Tableaux, Suitable for Schools, the Drawing-room, Church Entertainments, etc. (1879) provided suggestions for costumes and tips on staging and lighting.
Why was dressing up in costumes a popular pastime? In the 19th century, there was an enormous interest in history, which was expressed through literature, art, architecture, collecting, and even fashion. This included dressing in historical fancy dress. Or rather, interpretations of historical dress. In addition, advances in the publishing industry and education meant that people read a lot more—works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—on all kinds of subjects. Furthermore, modern transportation networks increased travel and global awareness. All of these things sparked people’s imaginations when the time came to give a party or choose a costume. Hostesses like Mrs. Vanderbilt took advantage of the novelty of fancy-dress balls to enhance their social status.
In the 20th century, the legacy of costume balls lived on in Truman Capote’s fabled Black and White Ball. The glamorous masked party was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel—a few blocks away from the site of the 1883 Vanderbilt ball—on November 28, 1966, in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. But this time, revelers wore masks. Capote’s black-and-white dress code was inspired by Cecil Beaton’s costumes in the Ascot scenes of the motion picture My Fair Lady (1964). Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow were there. So were some of the Vanderbilts, the poet Marianne Moore, Claudette Colbert, William F. Buckley, and a young Candice Bergen, who wore a fur-trimmed strapless black velvet gown and a bunny mask. They joined “540 diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons, and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things,’” the New York Times reported.
These magical evenings were full of fantasy, but eventually it was time to call it a night (or make that, call it a morning).
Margaret Highland, Historian
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