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1883 One Hundred Hears Ago

July 2024
1min read

On March 26 occurred what was not only the most expensive party ever given in America to that date, but one which may still hold the record for conspicuous consumption in a single evening. Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt gave a fancy-dress ball at her new house on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. It was estimated at the time that she spent at least $250,000 for costumes, flowers, carriages, hairdressers, music, food, and drink. An equivalent sum today would be about $3 million. But after all, as The New York Times observed in a headline, it did mark “the end of Lent. ”

The Times produced some excess of its own. The day after the festivities its report ran to more than ten thousand words, all but a few devoted to the elaborate costumes worn by the great names in attendance. The day before the party a long article speculated on what might be worn: “Miss Marion Langdon will soar as a golden butterfly, while one of her ardent admirers will pursue her as an entomologist.” The most cryptic sentence in this preliminary account was: “Miss Kate Bulkley will congeal into ice.”

On the night of the party, the hostess appeared as a Venetian princess and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt as the Electric Light, in white satin trimmed with diamonds; and there was “a well-known young lady who represented a Cat. The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background. The bodice was formed of rows of white cats’ heads and the head-dress was a stiffened white cat’s skin, the head over the forehead of the wearer and the tail pendant behind. ” Throughout the ball, remarked the Times , music wafted from some upper gallery and, “in the words of Emerson, ‘poured on mortals its beautiful disdain.’”

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