Posts Tagged ‘Alva Vanderbilt’

The most famous party dress in New York history

December 9, 2013

AlicevanderbiltdressIt was the party of the century—the 19th century, that is.

Alva Vanderbilt, the super competitive wife of William K. Vanderbilt, was throwing a masquerade ball at her new Fifth Avenue chateau. On the guest list were the highest members of New York society.

While Alva Vanderbilt went as a Venetian Renaissance Princess and some of the 1,200 guests came as Daniel Boone, Queen Elizabeth, and Father Knickerbocker, her sister-in-law Alice upstaged everyone by showing up as “Electric Light.”

MCNYelectricdressHer stunning gown was made of white satin and trimmed with diamonds. It came with hidden batteries, so Alice could light up like a bulb.

Electricity was all the rage at the time—some streets were now illuminated with electric light, and Thomas Edison’s generating station on Pearl Street had opened the year before.

The ball wasn’t just another social event for rich New Yorkers. It was designed to gain Alva Vanderbilt acceptance into the city’s old-money society world, then ruled by Caroline Astor.

AlicevanderbiltelectricdressBy first denying Caroline Astor’s daughter an invitation to the ball, Vanderbilt forced Astor to pay her a social call and thus deem her worthy of the city’s social scene.

Alva’s plan worked, she officially joined New York society, and her ball became a legend.

The electric ball gown, meanwhile, joined the collection at the Museum of the City of New York, where it is on display now at Gilded New York.

[Top photo: Alice and her electric gown; middle, from the MCNY; bottom, Alice and her husband, Cornelius, who came to the ball as Louis XVI]

A French chateau on old Fifth Avenue

April 22, 2009

In the early 1880s, W.K. Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius) and his wife, Alva, moved into this French Renaissance–style mansion on pristine Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, near where various Vanderbilts had also constructed luxe gilded-age houses. 

Alva, who later became a prominent suffragist, helped architect Richard Morris Hunt (he also designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) plan it out. She was determined to make her mark on New York’s movers and shakers.


Her efforts probably paid off. It’s a pretty impressive home.

Sold in 1926 to a real-estate developer, the mansion was demolished and replaced by—no surprise—an office building.