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Inside the Forgotten Scandal of Caroline Astor’s Gowns

Inside the Forgotten Scandal of Caroline Astor's Gowns
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In late December 1890, two gowns that Caroline Astor (played by Donna Murphy on the new HBO series The Gilded Age) had ordered from maison Félix in Paris arrived at the U.S. Custom House in New York. Federal officers confiscated the dresses in an effort to catch scammers who were trying to skirt luxury duties. The dresses were then sent to a local shop for appraisal. The assessment came in at $694 (the equivalent of about $21,197 today), which was 1.5 times the price ($400; about $12.217 today) that Astor had paid the maison Félix. Meanwhile, the dressmaker’s agents tried to tell the Custom House that the dresses were only worth $200.

The saga of the famous Astor gowns—an embroidered apple-and dark-green silk and velvet dress and a sky-blue silk dress with ostrich-feather trimmings—played out in the international press over the course of 10 months. Many speculated about whether Astor would be able to pay the remaining duties and penalty of $300 to $400. Astor refused payment even after the case was elevated to the office secretary of the treasurery. The gowns were put up for auction. The price of the green gown went up due to competitive bidding. The Bloomingdale Brothers, department store owners, won it for $660. John Koster of Koster and Bial’s Music Hall bought the blue one for $770.

An 1890 portrait of Caroline Astor by artist Charles Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran.

Sepia TimesGetty Images

caroline astor

An 1887 dress by designer Charles Frederick Worth, similar to the one Mrs. Astor was importing. 


Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of The Brooklyn Museum, 2009, Gift of Edith Gardiner (1926).

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The Astor gowns episode took place at the height of the U.S. government’s protectionist efforts to discourage the purchase of foreign goods and encourage domestic production. The McKinley Tariff of 1890 became law just two months before Astor’s gowns were seized. Some fabrics were subject to tariff increases of up to 48 percent. A finished couture gown may be subject to a tax of up to 100 percent depending on the fabric weight.

caroline astor scandal

“New York Customs Officers Examining the Baggage of Returning Tourists,”A 1891 wood engraving on paper.

Courtesy of The Clark Art Institute

The United States had divided public opinion on tariffs. However, individual positions were largely guided by the possibility of personal gain. Caroline Astor was married to John Astor. He kept an eye on his railroad investments and real property. William Backhouse Astor Jr., was anti-tariff—a “free trader.”

Caroline Astor would have ordered her dresses from maison Félix when talk of tariffs was abuzz in national politics and dinner parties alike. She apparently planned to wear one of the gowns to a Patriarch’s ball in New York that she and society gadfly Ward McAllister were hosting. Although Astor could afford to pay an additional few hundred dollars to release the gowns from the Custom House, she stood firm, upholding her family’s and social circle’s objections to steep tariffs.

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Dressing up: The Women who Influenced French Fashion


She never paid anything and the gowns were then sold. Actress Jennie Joyce ended up wearing the one purchased by Koster and Bial’s. Astor was shamed in at least one newspaper for allowing such high-end gowns to fall into the hands of a music venue owner. Bloomingdale Brothers was happy to purchase the gowns and ran an advertisement in The Evening World boasting that the green silk dress and velvet dress were on display in their store. The advertisement was seen by half a million people.

Astor’s tax refusals are a constant trendsetter. Society women. In fall 1892, the Quantity of French clothingThe New York Customs appraisers’ offices could see up to 1,000 dresses per day passing through their doors.

The MIT Press publishes Dressing Up: The Women Who Inspire French Fashion by Elizabeth L. Block (October 2021).

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