The famous ball with which Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt crashed the gates of society in 1883 was admitted by the press to have been more magnificent than the entertainments of Alexander, Cleopatra, or Louis XIV. It was soon outshown by other affairs of New York's Four Hundred. In his Society as I Have Found It, Ward McAllister describes dinner parties with squadrons of butlers and footmen in light plush livery, silk stockings, and powdered hair; orchestras concealed behind flowered screens; and every out-of-season fruit and vegetable served on golden plates. At society's fancy-dress balls, men weighed down in suits of medieval armor tripped over their swords as they attempted to dance quadrilles; the women wore wreaths of electric lights in their hair to add a new luster to their diamonds.
"Everything that skill and art could suggest," McAllister notes at one point, "was added to make the dinners not a vulgar display, but a great gastronomic effort, evidencing the possession by the host of both money and taste." But always taste was secondary, and Crœsus was crowned society's Lord of Misrule. A marveling correspondent of the LondonSpectator found America's newly rich pouring out money on festal occasions as from a purse of Fortunatus, making feasts as of the Great King Belshazzar.
For one ball the host built a special addition to his house providing a magnificent Louis XIV ball-room which would accommodate twelve hundred. Another time a restaurant was entirely made over with a plum-shaded conservatory, a Japanese room, and a medieval hall hung with Gobelin tapestries especially imported from Paris. At a reception given at the Metropolitan Opera House, twelve hundred guests danced the Sir Roger de Coverley on a floor built over stage and auditorium, and were then served supper at small tables by three hundred liveried servants. It was a world of jewels and satins, of terrapin and canvasbacks, of Château Lafite and imported champagne -- "luxurious in adornment . . . epicurean in its feasting."