1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume

When Kate Feering Strong (below) received her invitation to Mrs. Alva Vanderbilt’s “fancy dress” ball, scheduled for March 26, 1883, she decided not to settle for a more traditional costume—like a Medieval princess or fairy tale character.


Nope, Miss Strong went as a cat—complete with an actual (dead) white feline as a head piece and a gown sewn with the body parts of real kitties.

“The overskirt was made entirely of white cats’ tails sewed on a dark background,” commented the New York Times.

Mrsvanderbilt'schateauThe ball was arguably the most incredible social event of the year, and it also served as kind of a housewarming for the new Fifth Avenue Vanderbilt mansion.

“The bodice is 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. A blue ribbon with ‘Puss’ inscribed upon it, which hung a bell, worn around the neck completed the dress.”

Here are some of the other outrageous and ostentatious costumes, including the battery-powered “electric light,” worn by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law.

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19 Responses to “1880s New York’s most insane fancy ball costume”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    I wonder if a somewhat earlier ‘Russian Ball’ was the true inspiration for this grandoise New York City event?

    There was an overly-elaborate costume affair, with international publicity (at the time) held in 1903. It was the Romanov Ball, hosted at the elegant Winter Palace. There are many vintage photos of the fantastical wardrobes worn by the guests. (This was the FINAL big event prior to all the royals being ‘invited’ to sit somewhere other than the Russian throne!) I saw the Czar’s glorious attire a few years ago. His cloak was wearable-art and a treasure of great value; the intricate designs, marvelous threadwork and the unbelieveable adornments plus the buttons were uncut precious gemstones the size of English walnuts! (Look up the photos and description on the Internet – you’ll be impressed!)

    I don’t recall any such extreme ‘pet animal’ trimmings at the earlier Ruskie Ball, but the ‘feline themed attire’ from NYC leaves a lasting impression. It was a different time, values were not as they are today… Perhaps this young woman, (so incorrectly, sweetly nicknamed: ‘PUSS,’) believed she was pretty and this was a clever, attractive tribute to white cats. WRONG.

  2. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Oh dear God! What a blunder! I hope she was “shut out” of all future parties!! Sheesh!!!!!

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think she was probably a big hit. The Vanderbilts and their crowd probably loved the novelty of the costume, and it gave the newspaper society writer something to cluck about.

  4. Keith Goldstein Says:


  5. theannjackson Says:

    The first Catwoman, perhaps?

  6. Shaun Hervey Says:

    Cruella de Vil, only with cats

  7. Michael Towers Says:

    Born in 1851 and passed away in 1907. Married to a British officer, More interesting, I learned something about the context of the costume. Apparently, at the time of the ball, there was a craze for “nature” – people wore lots of feathers, insects, other animals. The feather obsession almost resulted in the extinction of some birds. In fact, there were a lot of cat costumes too. I think she was the only one in history, though, who wore a dead cat.

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks MT, great detective work! The nature angle is very interesting. Feathers I get, but insects? I’m going to look into it and perhaps see what else turns up for another post.

  9. strangeaddiction78 Says:

    There is a part of me that hesitates to like on this because of the cats who gave their life for this costume. However, the other part of me is fascinated by the weird and bizarre and has a complete morbid fascination with the whole idea. I am so torn right now. LOL.

  10. justme3362 Says:

    Amazing! And gross!!

  11. Greenpixies Says:

    This is purely a thought but I wonder if the obsession with nature in the 1880’s had to do with the groundbreaking work On The Origin Of Species that was picking up popularity beginning in America in the 1860’s? It would make sense that the intellectual and social elite would be progressive in their embrace of such a progressive book for it’s time and emulate it in play, dress and art.

  12. Greenpixies Says:

    I visited the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, NC last October and I’m trying to wrap my mind around what the relation between Alva Vanderbilt and George Washington Vanderbilt II would have been? Aunt-in-law and nephew? I realize she divorced her Vanderbilt husband.

  13. Josh642 Says:

    How were these cat parts accumulated, I wonder? Are there still roving prides of alley cats in NYC, by the way, the way?
    This is a fascinating blog.

  14. Hermione Says:

    I prefer to just show up covered in cat hair.

  15. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    This last comment was LATE COMING TO THE DANCE,
    but it was ‘The Best by Farrrrr.’
    Keep it up, Hermione – great line!

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