Industrialization led to a significant increase in the number of millionaires in the United States. The invention of new technologies provided opportunities for growth in industries like steel and railroads, resulting in big profits for some businesspeople. In New York, these wealthy families lived lavish lifestyles. The incomes of these families continued to grow, often at the expense of working-class Americans who labored for long hours for low wages.
The Vanderbilts were one of the nouveau riche families eager to climb up the ranks of New York society. Women controlled the hierarchy at the highest levels of society. Mrs. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, who preferred to be called Mrs. Astor, decided who was an official member of New York’s high society. She was a member of two of the oldest families in New York. Mrs. Astor was concerned about “new money” families like the Vanderbilts, who she considered to be unsophisticated. Mrs. Astor created the List of 400, in which she determined the 400 New Yorkers who were members of high society.
Alva Vanderbilt was married to Cornelius Vanderbilt’s grandson, William Kissam Vanderbilt. Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt made his fortune in railroads and shipping. His net worth was over $100 million when he died in 1877. On March 26, 1883, Alva hosted the Vanderbilt Costume Ball at the newly built Vanderbilt Mansion. The French style house took up an entire block on Fifth Avenue.
Alva Vanderbilt was determined to gain admission to the List of 400. She invited journalists to preview the decorations as a way to build up anticipation in the press. Supposedly, she did not invite Mrs. Astor’s daughter, Carrie, to the ball. Mrs. Astor had no choice but to leave her visiting card at the Vanderbilt mansion to secure an invitation for her daughter. This was a smart manipulation of social customs by Alva to earn Mrs. Astor’s official acknowledgement.
The photographs show the lifestyle excesses of the Gilded Age elite. Alva Vanderbilt is dressed in an elaborate Venetian dress. Her sister-in-law, Alice Claypoole Vanderbilt, wore one of the most eye-catching costumes of the event. Her “Electric Light” dress celebrates the modern inventions of the Industrial Age. Her costume even lit up thanks to batteries hidden in it. The party cost an estimated $250,000, or approximately $6 million in today’s money. Newspapers reported this included $65,000 for champagne and $11,000 for flowers.