When electricity itself was a fashion statement
by Priscilla Knight, Contributing Writer
Ever since people learned to use needles and thread, fashion has fascinated people. Today, Hollywood stars model the latest styles at award shows, but during the 19th century Gilded Age, many scions of business tycoons set the trends.
In 1883, William Kissam and Alva Vanderbilt’s costume ball dazzled the nation. Brand-new electric lighting in their enormous Fifth Avenue mansion amazed guests. So did the “Electric Light Dress” sister-in-law Alice Vanderbilt wore. If a reporter had asked Alice, “Whom are you wearing?” she might have said, “Thomas Edison.”
In some ways the Electric Light Dress symbolized the Gilded Age, from 1877 to 1900, when History.com says, wealthy tycoons, not politicians, “held the most political power.” Industrial magnates controlled the banks, oil refineries, railroads and steel. Thomas Edison opened the nation’s first electric station in 1882. But unlike European aristocrats who inherited fortunes and titles, American industrial capitalists earned their wealth — and such titles as “robber baron.” Some tycoons, including Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, gave much of their wealth away to benefit all Americans. But other captains of industry left fortunes to children and grandchildren who spent it and flaunted it — especially some of the Astors and Vanderbilts.
Before “businessman” entered the vernacular, two young entrepreneurs were advancing from almost “rags to riches.” Johann Jakob Astor (1763- 1848), a butcher’s son, sailed to America from Walldorf, Germany, in 1783 after the Revolutionary War. In time, fur trading, merchandizing and buying New York City real estate made the anglicized John Jacob the nation’s first multi-millionaire. Before the richest man in America died, he bequeathed money for an orphanage and library but left plenty for his descendants. Two of them tried to outdo each other by building the Waldorf Hotel in 1893 and Astoria Hotel in 1897. They revolutionized innkeeping by providing electricity and private bathrooms. (The Empire State Building stands where the original hotels stood. The Park Avenue Waldorf Astoria, built in 1931, will reopen in 2023 after extensive renovation.)
Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794- 1877), from the humble Dutch Van Der Bilt family, started ferrying passengers across New York bays and rivers as a boy. When the robust, uneducated sailor became a robust industrialist, The New York Times compared him to medieval robber barons who demanded tolls from river travelers. “Commodore” Vanderbilt used similar tactics with competitors, taking over much of the steamboat and railroad traffic in New York and beyond. Vanderbilt biographer T.J. Stiles wrote, “Probably no other individual made an equal impact over such an extended period on America’s economy and society. He vastly improved and expanded the nation’s transportation infrastructure, contributing to a transformation of the very geography of the United States. He embraced new technologies and new forms of business organization, and used them to compete so successfully that he forced his rivals to follow his example or give up.”
Commodore left a fortune when he died. Part of it funded Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University and other charities. The rest launched the Gilded Age.
A BOMBASTIC BALL
By the time Vanderbilt’s grandson William and his wife held their ball, new technology, hard work, and a dose of ruthlessness had created more than 4,000 millionaires in the U.S. In New York City, Mrs. William B. Astor Jr. included 400 of the crème de la crème on her exclusive list.
Viewers of HBO’s drama “The Gilded Age” will recognize how the ambitious nouveau riche tried to break into New York’s old-money society. To get on Mrs. Astor’s list, Alva Vanderbilt made sure her ball made history. It did. She invited reporters. The New York Times wrote, “The Vanderbilt Ball has agitated New York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years. Scarcely anything else has been talked about. … It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of both male and female social butterflies for over six weeks.”
One disturbed woman was Mrs. Astor. Alva Vanderbilt explained that she could not invite Astor’s daughter, Carrie, because Astor had not called on her. According to Anderson Cooper’s book about his family, “Vanderbilt, The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty,” society’s grande dame reluctantly sent her calling card to Alva. That worked. When the 1,200 guests paraded on a red carpet into the mansion at 11 p.m., the Astors joined them. Police held back excited crowds straining to see the chosen wearing resplendent costumes.
The New York World speculated the ball cost $250,000 — about $7.5 million today — for costumes, hairdressers, musicians, flowers, food and champagne. The New York Times said the ballroom looked like a “fairyland” perfumed with “a profusion” of orchids and roses.
Alva wore a Venetian Renaissance costume with diamonds and pearls, but Alice, married to William’s brother Cornelius Vanderbilt II, outshone her in the Electric Light Dress. Alice’s yellow satin gown sparkled with gold and silver threads, glass beads and diamonds. She carried a battery-powered light bulb torch over her head — two years before France sent the Statue of Liberty.
Not everyone praised the ball. The New York Sun wrote, “The festivity represents resents nothing but the accumulation of immense masses of money by the few out of the labor of many.”
Despite such censure, William and Cornelius Vanderbilt and their wives went on to build opulent “cottages” in Newport, R.I. Alva oversaw the 1892 Marble House. Alice topped her with The Breakers in 1895. Meanwhile, brother George Washington Vanderbilt completed America’s largest home, the Biltmore, in North Carolina, in 1895. Today, the public can tour all three estates and imagine living during one of the most audacious and newly electrified eras in American history — the Gilded Age.