The Sky’s the Limit

The architecture-inspired costume ball of the Great Depression.


in Archive

The populists are up in arms today about Wall Street moguls awarding
themselves huge bonuses, but a little international economic collapse
has never really stopped America’s super-rich from living it up. Take
the Great Depression. Things were getting pretty rough for the masses:
New York’s Central Park had become a shantytown known as “forgotten
man’s gulch” — a haunted place to be, especially in the depths of
winter. But the city’s super-rich, their wealth largely insulated from
the crisis, valiantly rose above the tide of misery to celebrate
ever-more incandescent and insensitive parties.

The keynote Manhattan event was the so-called “Fête Moderne,” a fancy dress ball hosted by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects on January 26, 1931. As America’s unemployed froze on late-night food lines, over a thousand guests converged on the ballroom of the swank Astor Hotel on West 44th Street and slurped champagne in a mock-up of a small American town re-imagined in Cubist style. Many of the outfits were wildly ambitious: The cream of the architectural world, New York’s first “starchitects,” came dressed as their own favorite skyscrapers, complete with strap-on helmet spires, in order to create “a tableau vivant of the Manhattan skyline.” The hit of the evening was William Van Alen, architect of the new Chrysler Building, whose space-age costume included the same inlaid paneling as the famous Chrysler elevators, gleaming eagle shoulder pads, and a sleek (if lethal-looking) 4-foot silver head-spike.

Like loopy P.G. Wodehouse characters at the Drone Club, the attendees spent an edifying night dancing to a “futuristic” orchestra, which included pneumatic riveting machines, steam pipes, horns, whistles, and sledgehammers. The entertainment climaxed with robot-puppet shows and ballerinas perform gymnastic to the blues. Then prizes for costumes were given out: a certain Miss Elizabeth Siter nabbed a return trip to Paris for her flaming orange and silver dress, which looked a bit like she was burning at the stake.

Despite the insane expense, reports of the fiesta provoked less outrage amongst the American public than a sort of perverse fascination: Many took the event in the same spirit as Hollywood musicals — as a moment of escapist fantasy. The architecture theme was even touted as a good morale-boosting exercise in the dark days of the Depression:  Skyscrapers were, after all, the muscular symbols of corporate confidence and objects of collective pride. Sadly, the real-world effect of the all-night booze-up seems to have been negligible. When the Empire State Building was finished soon afterward, it had so few tenants that it would soon be nicknamed “the Empty State Building.” • 4 May 2009

SOURCE/FURTHER READING:  “Leaders in Social Life and the Professions Throng the Astor for Annual Event,” The New York Times, January 27, 1931.


Tony Perrottet's book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.