A look at the outrageous costumes donned at Alva Vanderbilt’s legendary ball

Alva Vandebilt
Alva Vandebilt

We tend to think we are living in the poshest and most flamboyant of times — our city’s rents are astronomical, purses can go for high six figures and the toniest of cars can cost in the millions. We gasp at celebs in “naked dresses” and (sometimes) flinch at furs. But the 2010s have nothing on the 1880s.

660 Fifth Avenue
660 Fifth Avenue

Up until the early 1880s, New York society was dominated by the Astors. But when William Kissam Vanderbilt married the socially ambitious Alva Erskine Smith, and built an opulent mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street, the race to the top of the society list was on.

Alva Vandebilt, now one of the wealthiest women in New York City, was determined to secure her place in old money society and become part of the “Astor 400.” So when Avra threw a ball (rumored to have cost $250,000 in 1883!) under the guise of a housewarming event, it quickly became the talk of the town.

Kate Fearing Strong wearing an actual stuffed cat on her head
Kate Fearing Strong wearing an actual stuffed cat on her head

Club Kids of the late 1980s partying in Limelight and Red Zone adorned in their platform shoes, primary-colored hair and facial piercings paled in comparison to the over-the-top outfits that were worn in the way back. The top designers of the time commissioned to painstakingly craft costumes costing more money  than your rent today.

The site Ephemeral New York tells one such tale.  Young socialite Kate Fearing Strong wasn’t content with an elaborate princess costume. In Hannibal-esque fashion, she “went as a cat—complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties.”

“The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background,” according to the New York Times. The article continues to explain, the topper on the outfit was a blue ribbon she wore around her neck that was inscribed with the word “Puss” from which a bell dangled.

The sea of affluent guests at the fancy dress occasion also included historical figures, medieval characters, royalty and a battery-powered “electric light,”covered in white satin and trimmed with diamonds worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law. Ada Smith, Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister dressed as a peacock, and naturally her costume featured a real peacock’s breast and feathers.

PETA would have had a field day!

The electric light costume
The electric light costume