Fancy Dress Party


"It was the best-ordered, the most cool, delicately lighted, and enjoyable fancy dress party ever given in New York."



IT is very rarely the case that an entertainment is so widely talked about and so long and so eagerly anticipated as was this — a ball which had even invited a rumor so disagreeable, even so frightful, as that the Communists meant to attack the house and to sack it, with its immeasurable wealth of jewelry, bric-à-brac, silver and gold, and objects d'arts, on this eventful evening. It is seldom that such an entertainment goes off so serenely, without accident and without a single untoward event, as did Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt's ball of March 26,1883.

The guests on arriving at the white marble doorway in Fifth Avenue for the fancy dress party were told to order their carriages at four o'clock. All around the neighborhood a black dense mass of figures waited to see the guests alight. A large force of policemen kept back this crowd, which looked dangerous. Whether the great question of wealth versus poverty, which agitates all minds now, was uppermost in their minds, or whether it was merely curiosity, one can not say. It was a picturesque contrast — the cold gloomy night without, the unrivalled light and luxury within.

Marie Stuart Fancy Dress Costume
the Princess of Whales, as Mary Stuart, at the Waverley Ball, wore a petticoat of cloth of gold embroidered with pearls, a dress of ruby velvet with point-lace, the bodice made with a satin habit-shirt quilted with pearls; the sleeves with a puff at the shoulders coming to the wrist; the bodice ruby velvet, the stomacher worked with precious stones; head-dress of ruby velvet studded with diamonds and pearls; veil of lisse, jeweled girdle, and fine parure of jewels. Costume worn by the beautiful Countess of Bective at one of her own fancy balls: Satin dress, front of gold brocade covered with jewels, high bodice jeweled, jeweled ruff, sleeves with puffings at the shoulders of gold brocade and red velvet; train of ruby velvet bordered with ermine, embroidered with fleurs-de-lis, etc.; white satin pointed cap of the Marie Stuart form, covered with jewels.


Costume- Bunch of Sweet PeasAs one entered the spacious hall for the fancy dress party, and was led by a powdered footman to the wide staircase, a sense of vastness overcame the gazer. It was like Milan cathedral, this wilderness of white marble and stained glass. The broad staircase, like that in a feudal château, was wide enough for a troop of cavalry to ride up, and with its gradual ascent, broken by frequent turns, it might be ascended by horses. Indeed, a charge of the light brigade of hobby-horses was made later down its splendid extent. The ladies were shown into a grand state bedroom, where a four-poster hung in tapestry stood at one end — just such a bed as one sees in palaces abroad, or in the pictures by Lacroix. Out of this apartment opened a fairy-like dressing-room, all mirror, painted over with apple blossoms, and with an alabaster bath-tub fit for Undine to take her swim in. Beyond this room another magnificent apartment opened, where sat a little nun writing, a regular "bonne soeur de bon secours", very pretty, and her black robes a contrast to the gay and glittering dresses which constantly arrived.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary Fancy Dress Costume
Pink quilted petticoat edged with colored pictures of “pretty girls all in a row,” bordered with silver cord; pink satin tunic with silver bells, having garlands of cockle-shells and primroses; the bodice a low square, with long sleeves trimmed to match; satin hat with primroses, bells, and cockle-shells; silver châtelaine of spade, hoe, rake, and watering-pot; tiny watering-pots for earrings; cockle-shell necklace; mittens; high-heeled satin shoes.

Here gathered the ladies in their fancy dress costumes - Marie Stuart, Lady Washington, Mother Goose, Mary Quite Contrary, Carolina Cornaro, a Gypsy, and all the characters of the opéra bouffe, ready to go down to the fancy dress party when the time came. It was eleven o'clock before the company descended to the superb French drawing-room — a room à la Louis Quinze — where Mrs. Vanderbilt and Lady Maudeville sat to receive their guests. They had been standing long, and were worn out.  Both were in Venetian or Italian fancy dress costumes, Lady Mandeville wholly in black, Mrs. Vanderbilt in light colors, with a Milan bonnet covered with diamonds. The student of fancy dress costume will find this Milan bonnet in Shakespeare's play of All's Well that Ends Well, in Knight's Pictorial Shakespeare. It radiates from the face like a halo, and is very becoming. Mr. Vanderbilt, the host, wore a superb fancy dress copy of the dress of the Duke of Guise, the trunk-hose, long silk tights, and puffed sleeves, being one of the most becoming dresses a gentleman ever wore, and in this case especially so.

Lalla Rookh Fancy Dress Costume
A rich Oriental dress. Petticoat and trousers full to ankles, of gold tissue over pink; long green satin skirted paletot with over-sleeves trimmed with gold, girded round the hip with orange and heliotrope scarves, ending in pearl tassels; the front of the bodice pink, embroidered in gold, silver, and jewels; pink under-sleeves. Green satin cap with heron’s plume like a fez, fastened with jewels; gold-spangled veil; green satin pointed shoes; the hair in two plaits entwined with pearls, fringe of pearl and emeralds round the neck; pointed sandals for shoes.

As the guests in fancy dress costumes of Lalla Rookhs, knights, princes, and courtiers, dukes, king., queens, fairies, peacocks, pheasants, and opéra bouffe "Monsieur le Diable" and "Madame le Diable" came in in groups to the fancy dress party, this scene became enchanting. The next move was to the grand dining-room, with its wonderful stained-glass window of the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," and other almost equally beautiful windows, and its extraordinary height. It is a banqueting hall of the Middle Ages, and is unusually magnificent. Its great extent, the wonderful carving, the medieval fire-place, the carved buffets, all made it a fitting spot for a fancy dress party.


Springtime in JapanSoon the groups began to wander to the grand staircase to see the quadrilles come down in fancy dress. First the Hobby-horse Quadrille, wonderfully funny. The horses and artificial outside legs of the riders, who were in the pink coats of the hunting field, the long skirts of the lady riders, and the energy and élan of this dance, in which all the movements of the circus were laughably attempted, gave the ball that spirit of fun which should ever open an entertainment. After these energetic riders in fancy dress costumes had galloped off, the Mother Goose Quadrille entered. This was a very pretty sight, as all our old friends in fancy dress costumes - Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, with the pig under his arm which he feloniously had captured, and the Grenadier, and the Old Woman in a Shoe, followed each other through the mazes. Then came the Opéra Bouffe Quadrille, too mixed in color to be quite as effective as that which followed it, the Dresden China Quadrille. All in purest white, in court dresses, with the little mark of the two crossed swords hanging on their breasts, these imitators of Dresden china made an effective sweep of white color in the midst of medley.

Music Fancy Dress Costume
White satin dress trimmed round the edge with tulle and black velvet, to represent the keyboard of a piano, and above this two rows of notes and lines formed with velvet and buttons; a scarf draped across the skirt has the treble and bass clefs on the fringed ends; the low bodice has winged sleeves, a lyre on the shoulders and in front of the bertha, the same in the centre of the coronet, and on the white satin shoes. Two sisters might appear as Music and Painting. Or, soft dress of crêpe de Chine, classic gown, the bodice low and full, fringed with gold; belt embroidered with ivy leaves along the top, the same carried round the pendent sleeves from elbow: head-dress a crown with golden bars lined with blue; a lyre carried in the hand.

They were all very handsome and effective people, the dresses of white satin and brocade very pure and elegant; the powdered wig — like the one worn by Frederick the Great— was most becoming, and the dance was stately, elegant, and refined. This was the success of the evening. After it came the Star Quadrille, a dance not so striking as the last, but very pretty; it was danced by young ladies, each adorned with a diamond star on the forehead, and with wands tipped with stars. The electric light intended to add its radiance to this quadrille had to be abandoned as a too uncertain guest.

The fancy dress party now began to present a saturnalia of color like a picture by Alvarez.There were Cardinals of the Holy Roman Empire, Eastern Fakirs, and officers of the Cent Garde, Dress of Louis XVI Periodnoblemen of every age and country, and Commander Gorringe as an Arab Sheik in his best clothes. The women were resplendent in diamonds. A Joan of Arc walked about in full armor; an Egyptian Princess with a gold Sphinx on her head maintained all the royal state of Queen Hashop, sister to Rameses I. Birds and hornets, butterflies and fishes, mingled in the crowd. Yellow, that deep color of beaten gold, was seen in profusion. Miss Fish wore the beautiful pointed cap of Mary of Burgundy, and the long regal cloth of gold. Mrs. Paran Stevens in a red wig was magnificent as Queen Elizabeth. Mrs. Pierre Lorillard wore a resplendent dress as a Phoenix arising from its ashes. Mrs. Eliot F. Shepard was very gorgeously arrayed as a Venetian Lady in high pearl collar. All the Vanderbilt ladies were splendidly and correctly dressed.


Fire Fancy Dress Costume
Black tulle evening dress over red silk, with tongues of flames formed of red tinsel at the hem, fringed bodice and skirt covered with red sequins, as also the veil; coronet of tinsel to resemble flames; ornaments, garnets. Torch carried in hand. It may also be carried out with black and crimson velvet embroidered with flames, or in flame-colored and orange lisse.

Comet Fancy Dress Costume
Long blue satin train draped with stars, spangled yellow gauze, the front of the lightest shade of gold, trimmed with gold fringe; blue gauze cuirass bodice shot with amber, bordered with stars; hair flowing, a star of electric light in front; star ornaments.

Ice Fancy Dress Costume
A short white satin dress, draped with crystal fringe, icicles, silver tissue or swansdown, and tulle; spangled silver veil. Hair covered with powdered glass; icicle wreath; shoes and stockings embroidered with crystal beads. Long gloves; bracelets and chains of icicles, girdle of same. Tiny silver bells, frosted holly, and a robin redbreast nestling on shoulder may be added.


One of the most effective fancy dress costumes of the night's fancy dress party was that of Richard M. Hunt, the architect of this beautiful house, as Cimabue, from the painting by Giotto. It was a happy thought, for the early Florentine dress of white and gold, the hood and short cape, was one of the most distinctive dresses present. How pleased must have been this man of genius to thus stand amid his thoughts, now expressed in deathless marble, and to see a pageant pass far finer than anything since the palmy days of Lorenzo de' Medici, in one of the most gorgeous houses of modern times, into which he has brought the learning, thought, and culture of all the ages!

Fifth Ave New York
Fifth Ave mansions, including the W.H. Vanderbilt residence.

Another effective and well-carried-out fancy dress costume at that night's fancy dress party, was that of a Chinaman. A veritable Indian chief's dress, fresh from the plains, was very effective. A "Daughter of the Forest," with the skin of an animal wrapped around her, with ferns and butterflies and jewelled lizards, was exceedingly striking. Then came the eccentric fancy dress costumes — Fire, Ice, Snow, and the Comet. Black and cream-colored was the Comet, with streaks of gold thread artistically woven through, and an embroidered comet on the skirt; the hair, wild and flowing, had streamers of gold radiating. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt was very charming as the Electric Light, Fire was illustrated by a curious gleaming red substance which flamed up the skirt and around the neck; it was an impressive dress; and the lady wore those now rare old-fashioned deep orange topazes which our grandmothers loved. Snow is, of course, always simulated by eider down and the frequent interpolation of crystals or diamonds. Amongst these impersonal dresses one to resemble Music was most ingenious. A dress of white satin, trimmed with five rows of black velvet like the music staff, had here and there musical notation; the bodice, cut low and square, was trimmed with little brass musical instruments; a music scale was embroidered on the bodice; the cap of red satin was trimmed with triangles, bells, and balls. The lady carried a Spanish mandolin. Then came Autumn with her grapes — a beautiful dress — Spring with her apple blossoms, and a lovely dress called "Cherry Ripe," in which red cherries, white blossoms, and the "overhanging bough" were all realized in flowers and embroidery.


Spring Fancy Dress Costume
a green or white dress trimmed with spring flowers, daisies, primroses, crocuses, and violets; a gossamer veil falling over the shoulders, a wreath of the same; the flowers maybe arranged round the skirt in a lattice-work, the tunic edged with a fringe of green grass. Less hackneyed renderings are as follows; Green silk short skirt trimmed with snowdrops and violets; white polonaise and low bodice, with long hanging sleeves caught up on one side by a swallow; a ruff of lace and flowers round the neck; green and white cap with flowers; green satin shoes.


Then came the religious orders in fancy dress. Mr. Hurlburt, of the World, had an especially correct and beautiful costume as a Spanish Knight of Calatrava, a sort of religious Knight Templar order, with long white cloak, with black satin hood, red cross on the arm, and a black velvet suit of the seventeenth century, with collars and cuffs of old point de Venise. This was one of the most striking of all the dresses. Capuchin Friars and splendid Cardinals elbowed each other at every turn.

The stage, of course, afforded the ideas for the greatest number of fine fancy dress costumes. Mr. Hewitt, our well-known Congressman, went as King Lear, with his mind, and with his three daughters. Mr. and Mrs. Laurence Turnure were splendid as Huguenots. Miss Townsend, as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, wore a very handsome dress, white embroidered in gold. Madame Nilsson came as Marie Stuart.


Dress of George III PeriodThe opéra bouffe as we have said, sent many representatives. The Comic de Brie, Charles Surface in the School for Scandal, Romeo, the Huguenot Count de Mole, Marguerite in Faust, and Harlequin all had their copyists. Historical characters like Sir Walter Raleigh, Don Carlos, Christopher Columbus, and Charleses I, II, and IX all were in order. Henri Deux is the most picturesque of kings to copy. There were no classical dresses, no Greek, Roman, or Neo-Greek white draperies; the absence was conspicuous. There were some very fine knights in armor, especially one, Mr. Hoyt, who married a daughter of Chief Justice Chase; his dress of chain-armor of the time of Edward the Black Prince was very much admired. Mr. Butler Johnstone, the owner of the Raphael at the Museum, personated in a beautiful dress of the age of Louis XII., dead gold satin embroidered in gold, gray hat, and white plume, the Marshal Tribulzi of Milan.


Joan of Arc Fancy Dress Costume
White plaited cashmere skirt; a suit of armour, with helmet and plume, mailed feet, gloves; red cloak on shoulders. Or, as she appeared at the coronation of the French King, skirt and tunic of clue satin, spangled with fleurs-de-lys; silver helmet with white plume; coat of mail, mail on arms, gauntlets, feet encased in long boots; sword with cross on hilt, and shield; the hair floating on shoulders. The suit of armour may be of silver, burnished steel, or what is called scale armour. But it can also be made by cutting out in strong brown paper the various pieces required, copied from an illustrated history, or from Knight’s “Shakespeare,” pasted over with silvered paper, and strips of linen inside strengthen them, so that tapes may be sewn with which to tie them on. The hair should be rolled under, after the manner formerly called Joan of Arc; and a cloak of cashmere to match the skirt should float from the shoulders.


But all this glory was human, and needed supper. Ascending again the grand staircase to the third story, a banqueting hall was discovered in a large room called the Gymnasium. Here the walls were lined with roses, and the most fabulous floral display made this room as redolent of nature as the lower rooms had been of art.

Here sat a lady in the dress of Madame Thermidor, of that eccentric dress of the French Revolution (not quite the Incroyables, but as eccentric), looking delightfully pretty in an enormous hat, talking to a Venetian of 1450 and to Don Carlos. Blue-Beard and the Phoenix took a glass of champagne together, and two of the most extravagant Incroyables walked and talked with my Lady Washington; a dignified Queen's Counsel joked with Joan of Arc and with Monsieur le Diable, and so on; the contrasts were endless. The supper was luxurious in the extreme, and it was long after daylight before the superb French château of Mr. W. K. Vanderbilt had been cleared of its motley troop and late revellers. It was the best-ordered, the most cool, delicately lighted, and enjoyable fancy dress party ever given in New York; and for magnificence, quite unprecedented, and creditable to host and hostess.

[Photograph of Fifth Avenue: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-D4-12528] [Color prints and Costume Description from: Fancy Dresses Described, Arden Holt, 1896.]