The Greatest Ball of the Century in The Gilded Age

The first season of The Gilded Age comes to an end tomorrow, with the certainty that the series worked and found the needy fans of Downton Abbey. By abandoning the original idea of ​​linking the two stories through Cora Crawley, Julian Fellowes has introduced us to a new range of characters and is bringing diversity into the plot, with the character Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) and others.

In this first stage, The Gilded Age taught us that New York, at the turn of the century, faced the silent war between “new” and “old” money, with social customs extremely tied to what was allowed or not.

Our story’s naive Marian Brooks (Louisa Jacobson), who is as innocent as she is cheeky or stubborn, is clearly heading over the cliff to unhappiness with a suspect Tom Raikes (Thomas Cocquerel). The more she is warned about him, the more she believes she is right and others are wrong. The irritating thing about the equation is that while everyone has facts and examples to point to, Marian relies on nothing but the lawyer’s declarations of love. This story doesn’t look like a happy ending and shouldn’t end tomorrow. (More on this in other posts)

What we’ll finally see is the opening of the Russells’ ballroom and Gladys’s (Taissa Farmiga) entry into society. And with that, a representation of what was the ball of the century, a party that went down in New York history and that took place at the Vanderbilts house.

In the series, we saw Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) finding herself almost accepted by society, but shamefully shooed away through the back doors when Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) enters the room, making it very clear that she would still be far from reaching her goal of participating in equal in the hottest events in New York. And, from the trailer, we know she’s going to adopt Alva Vanderbilt’s strategy to turn the tide. Will be amazing.

The Ball of the century

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt remained determined to become part of New York’s high society and enter the List of 400, from which she was openly excluded and which “determined” who was worthy in the city. The list was “controlled” by Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister (in the series, Nathan Lane), the “Defenders of Ancient Money and Tradition”, as our beloved and fictional Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). As The Gilded Age fidelity shows, Ms. Astor and McAllister set themselves up as the authorities in all things upper-class, deciding who was respectable enough or of pure enough bloodline to become part of the elite. The Vanderbilts didn’t fit.

Unlike our fictional Russells, who have a mansion no one visits, when the impressive French castle-style mansion on 5th Avenue, the “Petit Chateau,” was completed, Alva decided to throw the biggest ball ever seen in town for its grand opening. And thus, break the resistance that prevented her from joining that list. We’ll be reviewing something close to the date of the original party, which took place on Monday, March 26, 1883. And watch out because it must be the inspiration for the final episode of The Gilded Age.

Alva’s ball was a fancy one and the invitations were hand-delivered by uniformed servants. The young socialites rehearsed the quadrilles, the dances with four couples in a rectangular formation, for weeks on end, according to the New York Times, the women were desperate to outdo themselves in their fantasies. With all the press anticipating the party, the ball became the most talked about topic in town and those who were not on the guestlist felt left out. Guess who Alva “forgot” to invite? The daughter of Mrs. Astor, Carrie, went into despair.

As we saw in the series, Carrie had been practicing the quadrille with her friends for weeks and was eagerly awaiting her invitation, but when everyone but her received theirs, she asked her mother to find out why. And it was Alva’s victory. She claimed that, like Ms. Astor had never visited the Vanderbilt house to formally introduce herself, had no address to send an invitation. To assuage Carrie’s despair, who would be the only one left out of the party, Mrs. Astor reluctantly showed up at the Petit Chateau and left her business card. The Astors received the invitation the next day and the Vanderbilts were officially accepted into the society. We will all see this in the final episode of the season.


What will not enter, as it is not an exact reproduction, is the following report, taken from Antique Trader.

The costume ball began at 10 pm, as 1,200 New York socialites began arriving in carriages at the mansion. Police had to hold back the crowds that had gathered to watch the event unfold and catch a glimpse of the men and women of society in their outrageous costumes and inventive costumes. Even Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister attended.

As at the ball, guests had the opportunity to have their photo taken at the event of the year, or perhaps of the century, by Mora, a dashing Cuban refugee who was the photographer of the rich and famous.

Alva dressed like a Venetian Renaissance lady and there was Miss Edith Fish dressed as the Duchess of Burgundy, with royal sapphires, rubies, and emeralds studded in the front of her dress. Alva’s sister-in-law, Mrs. William Seward Webb, was like a wasp, with an imported headdress made of diamonds. Miss Kate Fearing Strong went like her nickname “Puss” and wore a disturbing cat costume that consisted of a taxidermized cat head that she wore as a hat and seven cat tails sewn into her skirt.

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, in one of the most dazzling costumes of the night, represented “Electric Light”. The dress, designed by Charles Frederick Worth, was made of yellow satin and gold and silver thread and decorated with glass pearls and beads in a lightning bolt pattern. It even had a torch that it lit, thanks to the batteries hidden in the dress.

The Electric Light yellow satin dress was designed by Charles Frederick Worth. It is decorated with glass beads and beads in a lightning bolt pattern. This dress was just one of several spectacular gowns that served to make the event the official beginning of Alva Vanderbilt’s role as one of New York’s top socialites. The dress is preserved in the Museum of the City of New York.

At exactly 11:30 am, the ball officially began with the hobby horse square, the first of five squares in which society youth danced down the grand staircase in their luxurious attire.

The dancers in the Dresden gang wore all-white court costumes and looked eerily like living porcelain dolls. For the Opera Bouffe gang, the costumes were similarly elaborate. The New York Times described Miss Bessie Webb, who appeared as Mme. Le Diable, as being “in a red satin dress with a black velvet devil embroidered on it, and the whole dress bedecked with devil fringe – that is, with a fringe ornamented with the heads and horns of little devils”.

The ball actually went into full swing after the gangs ended. Dozens of Louis XVI, Venetian nobles, a King Lear “in their right mind”, Joan of Arc and hundreds of other costumed figures drank champagne and danced around the flower-filled house, including in the third-floor gymnasium that had been converted into a forest full of palm trees, bougainvillea, and orchids. Dinner was served at 2 am by a small army of servants. The menu included hot dishes of fried oysters, Maryland-style chicken and freshwater turtle croquettes, and cold dishes of salmon à la Rothschild, beef, ham and chicken in jelly, chicken salad with celery, sandwiches à la Windsor and various types of ice cream.

The dancing continued until sunrise and Alva led her guests in one last roll of Virginia. So, just like that, the big dance ended. The fantasy world Alva had created snapped back into reality as men in powdered wigs stumbled down Fifth Avenue toward the house.

Most contemporary sources estimate the cost of the ball at $250,000 (about $6 million in current values), including $65,000 for champagne and $11,000 for flowers. All the flamboyant pomp and pomp worked: newspapers across the country praised Alva’s tastes and elegance and reported on the most minute details. There was some reaction, however. The New York Sun published an article that criticized all the excess when there was so much suffering in the same city:

“Some people of good mind will argue that entertainment of this kind is both charitable and patriotic, for it makes money circulate and gives work to those whose destiny is to work. This is sentimental rubbish. The destitute American factory worker does not earn a penny from importing Worth’s dresses, buying new diamonds at Tiffany’s, or resettling old family jewels… from the work of many.”

But we’re guessing that all the revelers at the party, especially Alva herself, didn’t give a damn what The Sun thought of her extravagant costume ball, because on March 27, 1883, the Vanderbilts were on the list that was not limited to more than 400 people.

Perhaps that’s why Mora later added birds to Alva’s photo – to symbolize that she was finally flying as high as the other elites in society.

You can see more extravagant prom attire in the Museum of the City of New York photo album.

Topics for Season 2 of The Gilded Age

Many doubts will still be carried over to the next seasons, such as the question of Marian Brook’s fortune, the fate of Peggy Scott’s son, how Bertha Russell will “sell” Gladys for a title of nobility, and so on. There will be no shortage of drama!

Can not wait!

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