The World’s Most Extravagant Women

SUN MAGAZINE April 1 1906

The World’s Most Extravagant Women

SUN MAGAZINE April 1 1906

The World’s Most Extravagant Women


The women of New York can well claim to be the most extravagant in the world. Their expenditure for dress and enterta ning reaches almost a fabulous sum. Compared with the amount their mothers spent, they far outst ip h m Not content with a few fine dresses, the societ / woman must have dozens and dozens of them, Ten thousand dollars a year is a minimum dress allowance.

THE increasing splendor of New York’s wealthy people in their clothes, their houses, their pleasures, their entertainments and the cost of maintaining this splendor are popular topics just now with persons both in and out of fashionable society, both in this and in other countries, for the fame of New York’s prodigal expenditure crossed the ocean long ago.

A discussion of these topics always develops a big difference of opinion. Old World fashionables, for instance, lean to the opinion that, take them all in all, wealthy Americans are the most recklessly extravagant people on earth, and Americans who have lived for months at a time in European capitals and are quite at home in fashionable society of other countries agree with this opinion. Said one of the latter the other day:

“The expenditure of New York’s wealthy women indicate an appalling extravagance not equalled in any other country.”

Descendants of the Knickerbockers who helped to shape New York’s early history sometimes shake their heads warningly and hint that the same fate which overtook other high living, recklessly extravagant countries in the long ago will eventually overtake New York. To their minds the emulation among New York fashionables who wear costly clothes and exhibit them by costlier medrums proves that sooner or later they will tie up every dollar of surplus capital

in finery and furnishings in laces, furs, bric-a-brac and racing machines.

For the most part it is the older, more conservative element in fashionable society, the comparatively small section blest with more family tree than dollars, that entertains this view. Younger and richer and perhaps less pedigreed generations are not worried on that score. The fate of effete monarchies of centuries ago is left out of their calculations.

“Pshaw,” they say, “what parallel do those old countries offer for America? America is unique. Never before was there a democracy which multiplied over and over again its millionaire class in less than a quarter of a century. Never before was there a city like New York which includes multi-millionaires by the dozen in its population. Wealthy New Yorkers are lavish, but not extravagant spenders, and their lavishness is justified.”

Naturally the average New York woman, wealthy or well to do, prefers the latter view. Talk with any woman of the fashionable class and she scouts the idea that she herself is extravagant, even while admitting that some of her friends may be. Most of these women laugh at a comparison of past and present splendor in New York’s clothes and style of living. Said one, whose clothes aro the despair of her enemies:

“Compared with her great-grandmother the up-to-date woman doe9

seem to be a spendthrift. But think of how differently she lives.

“I remember being taken when a small child to call at the house of Commodore Vanderbilt in Washington place, considered a handsome dwelling in those days, and there were horsehair chairs and sofas in the drawing room, which was heated with a big stove. I presume that thiee or four servants were ample to look after the entire establishment.

“Before the late William H. Vanderbilt moved into his new house at Fifty-first street and Fifth avenue his menage was of the most modest description, and even after taking possession of his new home I can’t remember that the family gave even one entertainment which would be called smart in these days.

“The late Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife, both before and after moving into the palace they built at Fifty-seventh stieet and Fifth avende, lived unostentatiously. It was not till the eldest daughter, now Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, was almost grown up that they did more than give family dinners and days at home, and Mrs. Vanderbilt, despite her wealth, cared not at all for fine clothes.

“Mistress of one of the handsomest houses in New York, she continued to dress plainly rather than richly, and the sum the family spent in entertaining wouldn’t make much of a hole in even a very small fortune. The circumstance is often quoted to her credit when comparing the mode of life of the older and the younger generations of Vanderbilts, although some of vus think the younger, considering the size of their fortunes, are far more consistent in their spending—for no one can accuse Mrs.

Vanderbilt’s sons, Cornelius, Alfred and Reginald Vanderbilt, or their wives of being parsimonious, or of showing any distaste for fine clothes.

“By many Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt is considered the best dressed woman in New York. She spends fabulous sums on her clothes and gets the worth of her money, too, every time. As a result, when Prince Henry visited New York he openly expressed his admiration for her costumes, and German royalty, with which Mrs. Cornelius has since hobnobbed, shares Prince Henry’s opinion—and justly.

“I do'ubt if the wardrobe of any member of the German imperial family could touch in style or cost that of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. In all probability her mother-in-law, Mrs. Vanderbilt, when a young matron spent a twentieth part or less of the sum Mrs. Cornelius spends on her clothes. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the latter doesn’t spend a cent too much. She can afford to spend the money, so why should she not?

“Simple entertainments are not in fashion now, even young folk’s parties costing a tremendous sum. Take for example the ball given by Mrs. Watts Sherman at Sherry’s the other day to introduce her two daughters to society.

“It is doubtful if anything so fine was ever before given for a debutante. Many of the guests remarked that with one or two exceptions there had never been a costlier or handsomer entertainment given in New York. Hundreds of guests were present, including all the shining lights from the ranks of the debutantes up to the ranks of the dowagers.

“Sherry’s whole place was engaged for the night. There were costly favors for every figure of the cotillon,

which was preceded and followed by an elaborate supper. The floral decorations were exqniisite. I heard some one say that the affair did not cost a cent less than $15,000. I am of the opinion that it cost much more.

“My friend who spends about $2,000 a month for entertaining does not give balls nor hire high priced soloists to amuse her guests, nor does she give continuous house parties at her country house in the season, nor take her friends off on trips in a private car. If she did probably $10,000 would have to be added to her entertaining account.

“Last March I took a party of six friends with me on a trip to California and around home by way of Mexico in a private car. We were gone not q'uite seven weeks, and the jaunt cost $6,000. This is almost a common way of entertaining now.

“I could name dozens of my friends who never spend less than $50,000 a year for entertaining, and that does not include the amount spent in keeping up their automobiles and other accessories, like an opera box and two or three out of town cottages, which are maintained quite as much for their friends as for their own diversion.”

When these figures were quoted to a man whose, expenditures are large he reflected a moment and then said slowly.

“Small, very small; that is, if one is estimating the amo'unt spent on his acquaintances and friends by the very rich men of this city—the men who have built the couple of miles or so of palatial dwellings in the section above Central Park East and West, and most of whom count their fortunes away up in the millions. In fact, I don’t see how any one can

separate the sum he or she spends in entertaining from the isum total of living expenses outsidei of clothes perhaps, for the reason that, willy nilly, the wealthy are bound to entertain, and their houses, furnishings, and eqruipages are means to that end. From that standpoint $50,000 is a mere bagatelle.

* 1 Extravagant ? Why, certainly, society is getting to be more extravagant every minute. Entertainments which my wife thought very elegant ten years ago she turns her nose up at now. Her dinners alone now cost ten times as much as they did then.

“•Of course I and a good many others are able to stand the racket all right, but I often wonder how some of my associates manage to foot the bills their families run up for this sort of thing. I have done a good bit of globe trotting of late years, and there can be no question but New York’s wealthy people live more luxuriously and spend more lavishly than the grandees of any other land.

“When Americans go in for anything they don’t know how to pull up nor where to stop. Take the automobile, for example. It is the Americans who now spend the biggest pile on! them and demand the finest models in the market.

“Some New Yorkers are spending every year on motor cars alone what would have been called a small fortune in the old days. But a manufacturer can tell more about that phase of New York extravagance than can I.”

When one of the so called smart set was asked for an opinion as to the relative cost of a fashionable woman’s wardrobe now and a score

of years back, she answered reminiscently :

“Strange that question should be pmt to me. It was exactly twenty years ago that one day when in a small company of friends I asked an older woman, who was looked up to as an authority in dress, how much money she thought a woman in fashionable society need spend in order to be suitably gowned, and I remember her aswer was that, taking one year with another, she could manage well on $1,000 per annum.

“On another occasion about ten years ago the same question came up at a luncheon, and one of the guests remarked that $3,000 a year was all that a fashionable woman need spend for wearing apparel. Now here is the Question again, when it is harder than ever to answer.

“In fact it is imposible to answer that question offhand, for the reason that in these days it is not so much a question of what a woman needs to spend as of what she thinks she needs to spend. In other words, the attitude of most society women now is not how much they can save on clothes or the least sum with which they can manage to present a suitable appearance, but how much money they can get hold of to spend on their wardrobe.

“It is true that ten years ago some women did make quite an elegant appearance on $3,000 a year. To-day a society woman’s lingerie, negligees and slippers alone cost that much often.

“This may not be right. I am not defending it. I frankly admit that New York society women are getting to be outrageously extravagant. At the same time they need ten times as many clothes as their grandmothers

needed, for the reason that they entertain continuously and are on dress parade all the time.

“Besides this, the standard of elegance in dress has gone up tremendously. Who considers a black silk dress elegant now? No one, not even a housekeeper. One elegant costume and a few quite plain ones were considered sufficient for a fashionable woman of olden times, whereas now fashionable gowns must all be elegant and they must include costumes suitable for morning, afternoon, evening, for formal and informal occasions.

“Instead of a woman having one gown suitable for dinners and the opera, she must have at least ten such gowns to get through the season without looking shabby. At least, I find I must have that many. Of course it all depends on the standpoint. I don’t care to wear the same gown more than half a dozen times in a season, and I have friends who will not wear the same costume oftener than three or four times.

“The cost of a handsome dinner or opera gown? Anywhere from $300 to $700. Real lace will bring the price in some cases up to $1,000. Average eight evening gowns at $400 and $3,200 is gone at once. Add to them eight more evening gowns for the Newport season or the season at any ■watering place and there goes another $3,200, and nothing done about reception and street costumes, tea gowns, cloaks, -wraps, Burs and hats, either.

“There are plenty of tea gowns seen in New York drawing rooms which cost $500 each or more. The materials are the moet exquisite of foreign fabrics, hand wrought and trimmed with superb lace; and one

tea gown doesn’t make a season’s outfit by any means.

“Very few of the carriage and reception gowns worn by fashionable women cost less than $300. No, the price is not exorbitant. The fabrics used in such creations justify the price.

“'Many of the smart street costumes consisting of a cloth skirt and short coat cost almost as much if made by the best costumers, and a well dressed woman must have at least two of the latter and four reception gowns in her outfit. This means an outlay of at least $1,200, to which sum add another thousand for tea gowns and lingerie.

“Five hundred dollars is not an exorbitant price for an opera cloak, and the two long carriage cloaks which are necessary in addition to the opera cloak will cost from $100 to $200 each, the price depending largely on whether they are trimmed or not with expensive fur.

“Then the women who go to a southern resort when Lent sets in must get a fresh summer wardrobe, including at the least six or eight hats and as many parasols, and practically duplicate this wardrobe afresh for the summer campaign, because there is no one place on earth where a woman’s clothes get old so quickly as at a resort like Palm Beach, for example. A three or four weeks stay at a place like that will leave one’s kowns looking like old duds.”

“What is the minimum sum a fashionable New .York woman can dress on?”

“A woman who attends the opera, goes to dinners, entertains and is entertained constantly cannot, in my opinion, manage on less than $10,000, and then she will have to scrimp. I

have one friend who manages with $8,000, she says, but she told me in confidence, it was never possible for her to order more than eight new gowns in the spring and the same number in the fall, and that she couldn’t think of getting a new fur coat or jacket of tener than once in two or three years, which must be a trial, considering how very fashion able short jackets of all sorts of furs are this winter.”

“How much do you spend for clothes in a year?”

“Generally in the neighborhood of $20,000, which does not cover, of course, jewels or some sets of furs. For example, my husband gave me a $20,000 sable coat and muff for a Christmas present. A big price, yes, but any furrier will explain that sables cost twice as much as they did ten years ago, and are scarce at that. ’ ’

In contrasting the expenditures of the fashionable woman of to-day with her predecessor of twenty years ago a New York furrier said that among his customers are women who own $50,000 worth of furs and that twenty-five years ago the woman who owned a seal coat trimmed with sea jotter valued at $500 thought she had something quite worth while.

“We find ready sale for Russian sable coats worth $20,000,” said he. “There are a few in the city which cost $40,000. We sell a very great number of sable sets at $5,000 to $10,000 each.

“To be sure, twenty years ago furs cost only about half as much as they cost now; therefore customers got twice as much for their money. Nevertheless, it was the exception then for even a fashionable woman to have more than one fur garment

or set of furs, and of these she took such care that when it was damp or rainy, she was chary of putting them on.

“To-day, many fashionable women have ten or twelve sets, and four or five sets is about the minimum number. We have sold sets of ermine, chinchilla, black fox, baby lamb and mink and sable, all to one person this winter. Some of our customers have bought Eton fur jackets with muff and stole to match as if they were made out of cretonne.”

“But.” it was suggested, “these furs will last a long time, surely? The wearers will not be likely to want anything more in the fur line next winter?”

“It used to be like that, but not now,” was the answer. “Old fashioned people took great care of their furs. As soon as the spring came they were swathed in layer after layer of paper, lastly a sheet, and then packed carefully in a box, and they didn’t mind at all wearing a fair garment rubbed at the edge or faded a trifle.

“(Not so the woman of fashion now. She takes no care whatever of her furs and for the reason that she travels about so much, going to cold climates in summer, and vice versa, that she, keeps her furs in commission all the time. Women with handsome neck pieces of sable show them off at seaside resorts all summer long, and by October 1, sometimes sooner, they get out muffs and fur jackets.

“Such treatment as this tells on even the best of furs, which in less than a year begin to look jaded. This

seals their fate with the fashionable New York woman, who refuses to wear a fur garment, no matter how’ much it cost, which is a bit off color even, let alone rubbed at the edges. Neither will she wear it if the cut happens to be behind the top notch of style; and, of course, in fur garments as in silk or cloth costumes there are new styles every year.

“Few of the wealthiest of our patrons care to have the average run of furs made over, preferring to select the newest designs and combinations of furs in the market every season. This is one reason why New York women of means spend twenty times as much on their f urs as did the wealthiest women twenty years ago. ’ ’

“What becomes of all the costly gowns, hats, furs and cloaks which society turns down after a few wearings?” an opera box owner was asked.

“Sometimes they are given away by trunkfuls, of tener they are sold to second hand dealers for a fraction of what they cost,” she replied. “Every spring and fall many of my friends send for a dealer, who comes and inspects a dozen or more costumes, hats and cloats, and a bargain is struck for the lot then and there.

“Most second hand dealers pretend to pay a third of the original cost of a gown, but they never do unless it is absolutely new, which happens occasionally. I myself have sold a gown after wearing it once ¡because it was unbecoming. The proceeds of a sale like this often are enough to purchase one or two new imported costumes. ’ ’