What would Manhattan maven Caroline Schermerhorn Astor think of the dresses at the Oscars this week? The one Emma Stone chose was reminiscent of one worn by Mrs. Astor’s daughter at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. In her time, she set the style and tone for gatherings of the wealthy. Her family included husband William Blackhouse Astor and children Emily, Helen, Charlotte, Carrie, and John Jacob IV.
They were Knickerbockers: descendants of the Dutch in New York City: old money. They were long-established, and caretakers of family fortunes.
Railroad people, the Vanderbilts especially, were new money. The Industrial Revolution made it possible for men like Vanderbilt, Harriman, Carnegie and Frick to start with nothing and amass fortunes to leave their heirs (or in the case of Carnegie, philanthropic causes).
With secretary Ward McAllister, Mrs. Astor pretty much ruled over four hundred people who could be counted as members of “fashionable society.” One requirement of this group was that to be invited to a party, one must first have received an official calling card from her.
When daughter Carrie found out she was not invited to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s elaborate costume ball of 1883, her mother bit the bullet and left her card.
In the center of this sketch, the leader of the social register. Note the tiaras (wikimedia.org).
Mrs. Astor’s daughter Helen married “Rosy” Roosevelt, son of James Roosevelt and his first wife. Theodore Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor married Franklin Roosevelt, son of James and his second wife. An even more interesting twist to the family makeup is that Anna (Bamie) Roosevelt, TR’s older sister, had the opportunity to marry either widower, Rosy or James. Instead she chose an admiral in the United States Navy.
Once Bamie was asked how it was to be a part of history, living among the Four Hundred, and replied that that was just how life was. They didn’t think of it as being unusual.
Novelist Edith Jones Wharton (The Age of Innocence), herself included, described these elite as the “little inner group of people, who, during the long New York season, disported themselves together daily and nightly with apparently undiminished zest.” For dinners, cotillions and musicales, women wore elegant floor-length gowns (ankles were only to be seen by husbands or doctors) and expensive jewelry. Stiff-collared men in formal attire accompanied the ladies.
Mrs. Astor had a feud with her nephew, who replaced his father’s home next door to her mansion with the first Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She called it a tavern. Today it is the site of the Empire State Building, and the current hotel is further north on Fifth Avenue close to Central Park.
She suffered from dementia in her last few years, walking through her ballroom talking to people who had already passed away, and died herself in 1908. Four years later her son, John Jacob Astor IV, lost his life on the Titanic. He was worth $85,000,000. When his body was found, there were $2400 in U.S. bills — and 225 pounds in British notes — in his pockets.
Fashion always returns to certain themes, as does the show of monetary worth.