19th Century

1880′s fancy dress — it’s electric!

I’ve been itching to show off this dress for ages.

It’s from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  I saw (and photographed) it over five years ago, during their Glamour, New York Style exhibition.

I have searched at length, and cannot find any better contemporary images of this dress on the internet, so the best I can give you are my shaky photos taken without flash (and with the museum’s permission) in 2005.

Luckily, there is lots of information on the dress on the internet.  It was worn at the 1883 fancy dress ball thrown by Alva Vanderbilt (mother of the famously beautiful, and tragic, Consuelo Vanderbilt) as an excuse to get The Mrs Astor to recognise her and allow the Vanderbilts entrance to the upper echelon of New York society.

The ball involved 1200 guests and reportedly cost $3 million dollars.  It was held at the Vanderbilt’s newly completed French Renaissance style mansion at 660 Fifth Avenue.

This dress was worn by Alva Vanderbilt’s sister in law, Alice Claypoole Gwynn, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Mrs. Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt as “electric light” at the ball on March 26, 1883

Alice went as an electric light – what a fantastic celebration of the technological advances of the Victorian era!

The dress looks amazing in the photograph taken at the time, but the details of the extent gown are amazing.

The pick-up skirt front.  The tinsel trim.

The black velvet train, the gilt fringing!

The secret front buttons, and the frothed neckline….

Every bit is perfect.  The idea, the fabric, the execution.  Alice in her dress.

Isn’t it brilliant?


  1. Kathy P says

    That is one stunning dress. I’m glad you finally found a reason to share it with us.

  2. That is absolutely amazing. The bottom front of the skirt reminds me a lot of Art Deco styles. I know it’s not a rate the dress, but it would so get a 10.

    I’m curious whether the light effect in the photo of Alice was actually photographed or added during the exposure/printmaking process.

  3. Yes it is brilliant! And such a cautionary tale of transience too. The mansion clearly no longer exists (just google mapped it). The dress outlived the venue! Must have been an amazing event but oh imagine the undercurrents, tensions and back stabbing that would have gone with it!

  4. I’m shocked at the lack of tarnish on the tinsel. Or maybe that’s a sign of amazingly careful conservation treatment.

    • Or someone so posh that the tinsel on their dress was made of non-tarnishing materials! I’ve never really thought about it actually – I should ask my conservator friends!

Comments are closed.