February 18, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
“Gilded New York,” an exhibition up at the Museum of the City of New York right now, showcases the ostentatious visual culture of late-nineteenth-century elites. A friend and I went last weekend, in the midst of a heavy snow. There are impossibly elaborate Worth gowns, impossibly ornate Tiffany jewels. There are idealized portraits and embellished vases. There are the McKim, Mead & and White mansions that dotted Fifth Avenue, and photo after photo of jam-packed (but highly exclusive) balls. If you’ve been reading any Wharton or James lately, I highly recommend it.
One portion of the exhibition features a slideshow of party-goers, many of them costumed, at the landmark balls of the era. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt’s 1883 fancy dress ball was one such: a game-changer that established the nouveau-riche Vanderbilts—and their brand-new Fifth Avenue mansion—as social forces to be reckoned with. There doesn’t seem to have been a theme, as such, to the costumes, other than general lavishness. As the New York Times reported, in the months leading up to the ball “amid the rush and excitement of business, men have found their minds haunted by uncontrollable thoughts as to whether they should appear as Robert Le Diable, Cardinal Richelieu, Otho the Barbarian, or the Count of Monte Cristo, while the ladies have been driven to the verge of distraction in the effort to settle the comparative advantages of ancient, medieval, and modern costumes.”
In the end, people seem to have gone for all of the above: while royalty and nobility of all eras and nations were well represented, the ball also featured Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II as “Electric Light” (interpreted by Worth/Mainbocher), and a King Lear “in his right mind,” while Miss Kate “Puss” Fearing Strong sported a taxidermied cat’s head as a hairpiece, and had seven real cat tails sewn to the skirt of her gown. Most of the costumes seem to have been recognizable enough, but one can’t help thinking that all evening long Ward McAllister must have had to go around saying, “No, I’m Comte de la Mole! You know, the Huguenot lover of Margaret of Anjou? Whose embalmed head she carried around?” (On the other hand, perhaps Gilded Age society was really up on their Stendhal. Or even their Dumas.)
The ball started with a set of five elaborate, themed quadrilles danced by high-society debutantes. Then, as Susannah Broyles writes in an excellent post on the MCNY blog, the guests “danced and drank among the flower filled house, including the third-floor gymnasium that had been converted into a forest filled with palm trees and draped with bougainvilleas and orchids.” The press went wild, readers around the world swooned, and the ball achieved its chief objective: attendance by the arbiter of high society, Mrs. Astor.
One leaves the exhibit feeling glutted as though on a very rich meal (perhaps prepared by the chefs of Delmonico’s and served at two A.M.), craving Danish modern. But the passing of that era feels melancholy too: that brand-new Vanderbilt mansion, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street, was demolished in 1927 to make way for Bergdorf Goodman. Now it is a Zara store. The Astor mansion, meanwhile, was torn down in 1926 to make way for Temple Emanuel, itself now a historic building.
In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton writes about the steady encroachment up Fifth Avenue of New York’s parvenu class; into her time, the blocks of lower Fifth were still considered the best addresses. As we walked the northern end of Museum Mile, past the stern facades of Mount Sinai Hospital, we came upon an interloper. There was a raccoon, sauntering down Fifth Avenue with the insouciance that may or may not imply rabies. We were near the park; maybe he had wandered out, lured by the premature dusk of the snowfall. Maybe things were going back to nature. Maybe he was rabid. Or maybe he just liked the real estate. And was, in fact, “in his right mind.” In any event, he dove into a garbage can.