Undine Spragg’s Life in Objects

This article is part of T’s Book Club, a series of essays and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Claire Messud, about “The Custom of the Country,” to be held on Jan. 28.

The Custom of the Country” (1913), by Edith Wharton, is about many things: the terrifying ambition of its protagonist, Undine Spragg; marriage; divorce; New York and Paris society — but also the arrival of new American money into those fashionable circles, the ranks of which have always been carefully guarded. Undine, who is originally from the fictional Midwestern town of Apex City, and who marries into the old-world Marvell family, is the perfect embodiment of such aspirational consumerism. And Wharton, who was born into a prominent New York family and was the beneficiary of not one but three legacy inheritances over the course of her life, was in a unique position to observe this monied world and conjure a version of it on the page. (The exact amount Wharton received was and still is a point of contention, on account of antiquated wills that put her trusts in the hands of her brothers, but still, the sum was substantial. A legacy left by her father of $20,000 in the early 1880s amounts to half a million dollars today; $120,000 from a cousin would now be $3.4 million, and a $90,000 gift from her mother is equivalent to an additional $2.7 million upon whose interest and annuities she could draw.) In her novel, Wharton describes in meticulous detail myriad gowns and pieces of jewelry, various properties, priceless artworks and much more. Below: an incomplete account of the material trappings of Undine’s costly lifestyle, in which several experts estimate, to the best of their abilities, how much various items may have cost. Though there are a number of clues in “The Custom of the Country” as to the precise years in which the novel takes place, we settled on 1908 as our point of comparison, which was the year Edith Wharton began writing the novel in earnest.

At the novel’s opening, Undine is all dressed up with nowhere to go, but she soon devises a plan: “Father,” she instructs, “you’ve got to take a box for me at the opera next Friday.” Determined to catch the attention of the right people, she is undaunted when her father, Abner Spragg, informs her that a parterre box for a Friday night at the Met costs $125 (today, a parterre box at New York’s Metropolitan Opera costs up to $3,390; the cost in Undine’s time would be equivalent to $3,589.28 today) — though the greater expense would have come from her need for a new (custom) outfit.

Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, notes that in the Gilded Age, it was less common for an unmarried young woman such as Undine to dress extravagantly in Paris, where many waited until after marriage to wear haute couture, than in New York. There, causing a certain kind of stir was a way of attracting suitors. Says Steele: “At the opera, you were being watched by everybody, and what people would see on someone like Undine would be a low-cut evening dress with big pearls glistening, her hair all piled up and looking gorgeous, and maybe a plump forearm flicking a fan, which would glimmer from all the mother-of-pearl and gilding on it.”

Because the opera was an evening event, women would forego hats, and the length of skirts (long) meant that stockings (made of silk) and shoes (likely narrow, pointed and with just a small heel) were unlikely to be seen. Dresses were the main event, and emphasized the neck and the curves of the female torso. It is doubtful that Undine would have carried a purse, as cosmetics were still the preserve of actresses and courtesans, so an ornate fan — perhaps one designed by the House of Duvelleroy and made from hand-painted lace or adorned with the feathers of an ostrich — or a tastefully bejeweled opera glass, such as the one Undine spies in the hands of an elegant lady in black that night, were the best accessories for, as Wharton puts it, “graceful wrist movements and supercilious turns of the head.” Steele is cautious about speculating upon the cost of Undine’s full ensemble, but noted that the dressmaker’s bill might have been near the bottom of Abner’s hefty expenses. A Duvelleroy fan cost 100 francs (roughly $400 today) in 1908, and a full sable coat cost as much as $1,000 ($28,000 today) in 1905.

Undine soon finds success in her engagement to Ralph Marvell (a development thanks in no small part to her appearance that night at the opera) and, for reasons we’ll omit to avoid spoiling the plot, is keen to avoid a months-long engagement. This leaves her little time to put together her bridal trousseau before embarking on her summer honeymoon in Europe, a trip she has long anticipated. Once the couple arrive, Ralph is content with languid afternoons in Tuscany, while Undine is bored by the lack of social opportunities. The pair quickly decamp to Switzerland to take in the Alpine air (in new sporting attire, of course), and Undine is happily back in the mix. They spend the last leg of the trip in Paris, where Undine fills her trunks with the latest fashions, reassuring Ralph that despite their impecuniousness, “the advantage of going to the French dress-makers is that they’ll wait twice as long for their money as the people at home.”

It was customary for fashionable New York women to travel to Paris each year to purchase a full wardrobe of clothes; it was also considered proper to leave those clothes packed away in trunks for a full year upon returning, as a decent lady should maintain a respectable distance from current fashions. By the first decade of the twentieth century, this practice was falling away. Nonetheless, a woman of Undine’s station would have been expected to change several times a day, according to the time of year and the place in which she found herself. Dr. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, a Los Angeles–based fashion historian, notes that wealthy women of the era had extensive wardrobes, and that a single ensemble might be composed of modular elements that could be swapped in or out, depending on the occasion. “In this period, dresses generally came in two pieces, with a separate bodice and skirt,” she says. “You could also buy une robe à transformation, a gown that came with two different bodices, and combine the same skirt with a low-cut sleeveless bodice for evenings, and a sleeved bodice with a high neck for the daytime.”

In Paris, the best couturiers included Jacques Doucet, a designer and art collector who transformed his family’s lingerie and linens business into a leading women’s clothier, and Maison Laferrière, whose gowns were worn by European royalty, including Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The most coveted pieces came from the House of Worth, founded by Charles Frederick Worth in 1858 and run, in 1908, by his sons, Gaston-Lucien and Jean-Philippe. Worth had dressed many of the leading performers of the day, among them the Australian soprano Nellie Melba and the French actor Sarah Bernhardt. By the time of the First World War, which would sweep away much of the mannered world depicted in “Custom of the Country,” the House of Worth still enjoyed a lofty reputation, but its designs were considered elegant and stately, rather than at the forefront of fashion. Facing grave financial difficulties, Jean Philippe wrote to the financier J. P. Morgan in 1917, offering him a lace dress (previously intended for the collection of the Louvre, in Paris) along with three silver fox furs, all at the prewar price of $37,500 (around $750,000 today) instead of its actual value of $52,000 (just over $1 million).

Society portraiture provided the wealthy an opportunity to support the arts; more importantly, it allowed them to hang ostentatious depictions of themselves on the walls of their own homes. In “The Custom of the Country,” Wharton skewers this tradition through the character of Claud Walsingham Popple, a snarky society painter eager to swim in the same waters as those he is paid so handsomely to portray.

It’s clear that Popple is little more than a brush for hire, and we can only imagine what his paintings actually looked like. The same cannot be said of John Singer Sargent, an acquaintance of Wharton’s who painted several portraits of influential figures of the Gilded Age and came to be regarded as one of America’s preeminent artists of the era. Raised in Europe by American parents, Sargent studied at Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts and honed his craft in the atelier of renowned teacher Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran. Biographer Jean Strouse — who is currently at work on a book examining twelve portraits the artist painted of one family — notes that from early on in his career, Sargent was drawn to such striking subjects as Madame Pierre Gautreau (Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau), whom he immortalized in 1883-84 with “Portrait of Madame X.” “He loved visual drama, and he would respond to and seek out people who embodied this in his art,” says Strouse.

Sargent was, on occasion, a victim of his own success: at one point he raised his prices in an effort to deter a growing list of would-be clients, yet this only heightened demand. Strouse also points out that Sargent was at times maligned for painting society figures at all: “One of the raps against him was that he painted by commission and therefore had to please his subjects. But he sometimes didn’t — he was painting what he saw.” This was certainly true of his extraordinary 1888 portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a prominent Bostonian art collector and a close friend of the American novelist Henry James. Against a backdrop of a rich Venetian brocade, Gardner stands with clasped hands that mirror the golden nimbus around her head, her bold gaze, pale skin and plain black dress with plunging neckline all echoing the provocation of “Portrait of Madame X.

But many, including Mrs. Gardner’s husband, and several in her circle, seemed to hate it, as noted in the catalogue accompanying the 2015 exhibit dedicated to the artist at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Although the painting achieved Mrs. Gardner’s aim of being talked about, when it appeared in the artist’s first one-man show at the St Botolph Club, Boston, a string of uncomplimentary remarks caused her much grief and she refused to lend it again. Sargent was paid $3,000 for it in 1888 ($86,000 today), and it now hangs in the Gothic Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Undine’s portrait, by contrast, avoids scandal and meets with the approval of her friends: one even comments to his wife that she “must be done exactly like that for the new music-room.”

Undine is horrified when she learns that the Driscolls, another wealthy New York family, have become embroiled in a financial scandal and may have to cancel their annual costume ball, a highlight of the New York season. She is, of course, less concerned for the wellbeing of the Driscolls and more for her own, as she has already picked out her costume, which is modeled after that of the Empress Josephine as painted by Prud’hon in 1805. In the painting, a crimson cloak is draped over the alabaster-skinned Josephine, who wears a long, diaphanous gown embroidered in gold, and a diadem atop her head. This may be a wink to the reader from Wharton, as both Undine and Josephine were women who arrived in the thick of things from far-flung provinces, chose their lovers with calculated ambition and were profligate spenders. Neither was a stranger to marital discord, either.

When the event finally takes place, Undine’s natural beauty and insistence that only the best couture will suffice result in another resounding success: “The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as thrilling as a page from one of the ‘society novels’ with which she had cheated the monotony of Apex days.” But as Undine’s husband is already unable to support her growing needs, she turns to one of her many admirers, Peter Van Degen, who cuts her a small check, to help her pay for the costume. Despite her dress’s apparent simplicity, it still would have come at great cost, according to fashion historian and author Caroline Rennolds Milbank. “The quality of costumes would have been as high as the couture of the time,” she says. At the beginning of the 20th century, dresses from the very best houses would have cost between $100 ($2,871 today) and $500 ($14,357), with most in the $175 ($3,589) to $300 ($8,614) range.

The hushed scandal surrounding the Driscolls echoes what some consider to be the fallout from James Hazen Hyde’s costume ball of 1905: a power struggle for control of the Equitable Life Assurance Society. Hyde was a twenty-three-year-old Harvard graduate when, in 1899, he inherited a majority interest in the company, with assets valued at $400 million ($12.4 billion today). Handsome and profligate, Hyde threw a ball at Sherry’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in 1905 for some 600 guests that included a one-act play especially commissioned for the French actress Réjane, a comedic star of her day. Rumors swirled that Hyde had used $200,000 of company money to pay for the revelries, and while that particular charge was never proven, it paved the way for other Gilded Age figures such as Gage Tarbell and James Alexander to wrest the company away from him. The New York state legislature got involved, and Hyde eventually decamped to France.

Costume balls were popular throughout the Gilded Age in New York, and the invitees and their outfits were covered widely in the press. “The most vivid correlation is the red carpet for the Met Gala,” adds Milbank, “especially in the last ten years, as people have started dressing for the theme, rather than in standard evening wear.” One of the most famous costume balls took place on March 26, 1883, to inaugurate the new home of suffragette Alva Belmont (then still known as Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt), on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street. The following day, a New York Times article described in elaborate detail the decorations for the ball, which included an enchanted forest of palms, vines and bougainvillea. The costumes were equally extravagant. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt (wife of Cornelius Vanderbilt II) dressed as “Electric Light” in a gown made by the House of Worth that included golden satin, glass pearls, and a battery-operated torch, and Miss Kate Fearing Strong, known about town as “Puss” (as was Wharton, who then bestowed the childhood nickname on Undine), wore a headdress featuring a taxidermy cat, with seven real cat tails sewn onto her skirt. Gentlemen tended to favor costumes with powdered wigs that were meant to recall European royalty from bygone eras and popular literary heroes like the Count of Monte Cristo.

Where one summered was just as important as whom one called upon or where one got one’s dresses. In Hermione Lee’s 2007 biography of Wharton, the British scholar notes that for those with the right pedigree, “if you did not go to Newport [Rhode Island] or Bar Harbor [Maine] for the summer or Florida in the winter, you went abroad: to Europe.” There remained a number of other acceptable, if slightly less glamorous, destinations. Saratoga, in upstate New York, was sought out for horse racing and polo, while the Adirondacks were home to the Great Camps. The Berkshires, where Wharton designed and built her grand country estate, The Mount, with Ogden Codman between 1901 and 1902, was popular with prominent families from both New York and Boston.

Although Undine’s marriage to Ralph Marvell provides her with entrée into New York society, the Marvell family’s relatively meager financial situation means that a summer in Newport is out of reach, as is an annual tour of Europe. When Van Degen, who understands that in their milieu, Paris exists as a place where women buy clothes to wear in Newport, implies that he will see Undine there that summer, she does her best to hide her dampened aspirations: “Paris? Newport? They’re not on my map! When Ralph can get away we shall go to the Adirondacks for the boy. I hope I shan’t need Paris clothes there!”

Though Wharton may have been considerably wealthier than Undine, it’s helpful to understand the writer’s own situation. For the first few years of Wharton’s marriage to Edward Robbins Wharton (known as Teddy), she had no permanent residence in New York, and either rented on Madison Avenue or stayed on 25th Street with her mother, Lucretia Jones, when she was in town. Between 1885 and 1893, the couple made a home at Pencraig Cottage, in Newport, before purchasing a nearby property named Land’s End for the sum of $80,000 ($2.29 million today). In her 1934 autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” Wharton describes the now nine-bedroom mansion’s exterior as “incurably ugly,” and her attempts to conceal it with high hedges and trelliswork niches. The house has undergone significant modifications since Wharton’s time there, but still retains original features including moldings and a room designed for the arrangement of flowers cut from the garden. Land’s End, which Wharton remembered fondly “with its windows framing the endlessly changing moods of the misty Atlantic, and the night-long sound of the surges against the cliffs,” was last sold in April 2020 for $8.6 million.

Once Undine realizes that her marriage to Ralph Marvell won’t propel her into the company she desires (the Marvells are a little too fusty and Undine is more enamored with a flashier crowd), she sets her sights on Van Degen, whose family is just as respected and whose wealth is very much intact. The two of them cavort about Paris and the provinces before Undine returns to “Dakota,” a place in Wharton’s rendering that has recently achieved statehood and provides a legal avenue to divorce. Peter — all too aware that such an act is a bridge too far from respectability, but also that as a man, he will be better protected from scandal — distances himself from Undine, but not before gifting her a string of exquisite pearls.

“The Belle Époque was a time of excess,” says Raissa Bretaña, a fashion historian and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, “and extravagant adornment in the form of jewelry would be an obvious way to affirm one’s social standing.” A long string of pearls was a visual manifestation of wealth, as it was often a painstaking process for a jeweler to assemble a collection of matching specimens to be used in a necklace. “At the time ‘The Custom of the Country’ is set, around the turn of the century,” Bretaña adds, “the pearls used in jewelry were typically all natural. They had to be found in the wild, so they were exceptionally rare and valuable.” While pearls have never lost their association with elegance, by 1893 Japanese entrepreneurs such as Kokichi Mikimoto and Kakichi Mitsukuri had already developed methods to create cultured pearls, which would eventually dominate the market and drastically reduce the value of natural pearls.

What pearls meant in the twilight of the Gilded Age in New York, in both monetary and social terms, is made plain by the now-famous anecdote of how the jeweler Pierre Cartier came to own the townhouse at the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 52nd Street — and that remains, today, his namesake brand’s New York flagship store. In 1917, he made a deal with the railroad investor and philanthropist Morton F. Plant to exchange a double-string necklace of natural South Sea pearls, with an agreed-upon value at the time of $1 million, along with $100 cash, for Plant’s home, which stood opposite the Vanderbilt mansions and had been considered one of the last bulwarks against the advance of trade up Fifth Avenue. The deal was seen as a success for both parties: Cartier established a foothold in an area of the city newly desirable for commercial purposes, and Plant was able to present his much younger wife, Mae, with the coveted pearls, and then decamp farther uptown to a palatial mansion on Fifth and East 86th, where the rest of his kind had long since resided.

Unfortunately, Commodore Plant, as the enthusiastic yachtsman was known, did not live to enjoy his second marriage or new home for long — he died in November 1918. Mae would go on to remarry twice more before passing away at the age of 75 at Clarendon Court, her Newport estate. The two strands of pearls, which were auctioned after her death in 1956 by Parke-Bernet, fetched a price of just $151,000.

In the second half of the novel, a tragic occurrence clears the way for Undine to marry Raymond de Chelles, a handsome nobleman from one of France’s oldest families, allowing Undine to become an aristocrat, if only by title: the Marquise de Chelles.

But Undine soon finds life unstimulating at the de Chelles’s ancestral estate, Saint-Désert — a place she’s previously described to Peter Van Degen as “a real castle, with towers, and water all around it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up.” The customs and traditions she must observe there seem especially arcane to her, and she longs for the fashionable salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, or at the very least the company of other Americans at the “Nouveau Luxe,” Wharton’s thinly veiled portrayal of the Ritz. Raymond takes his responsibilities as head of house seriously, although the forces of modernity that will bring both the Belle Époque and the Gilded Age to a close mean his family’s fortune is quickly dwindling.

Undine toys with selling some of the Boucher tapestries (which she finds “smell so of rain”) that were bestowed upon the family by King Louis XV in order to raise funds for more shopping and a spring season in Paris. She invites an antiquarian to evaluate them, and when an offer of some two million francs (approximately $9.8 million today) is suggested to Raymond, he rejects it with disgust. Undine seems incapable of understanding that they are more than mere decoration, that they embody his family’s intimate and ancestral bond to the kings of France.

François Boucher (1703-1770) was perhaps the most influential figure in decorative arts during the Rococo period in France. He applied his innovative approach to painting pastoral scenes to set designs for opera and theater, and by 1765 his reputation was such that he was appointed first painter to King Louis XV and director of the Royal Academy in Paris. From 1755, Boucher oversaw the Royal Tapestry Manufactory at Gobelins, where idealized scenes of shepherdesses and gentle folk reposing in nature were woven into ornate panels used to decorate the walls of banquet halls in aristocratic estates across Europe. Boucher’s standing suffered a steep decline after his own lifetime, however, as a taste for Neoclassicism supplanted that for Rococo and the French Revolution of 1789 eliminated much of the traditional clientele for tapestry.

William Russell Jr., a specialist in European sculpture and decorative art at Christie’s New York, notes that while contemporary tastes have changed many times over, a Boucher tapestry with royal provenance could still fetch a price today of anywhere between $200,000 to $500,000, depending on its size and condition. “There is a famous series of tapestries — after Boucher — that were bought for the Huntington [Library] in California, and at the time, they were more expensive than the building of the massive house. So that is a good example of how prized they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” he wrote in an email. It’s easy to see, then, how “the fabulous blues and pinks of the great Boucher series,” as Wharton describes them, represent something beyond money for the fading world of European aristocracy, while for Undine’s fourth (and first) husband, the self-made railroad king Elmer Moffatt, tapestries and court jewelry mean little more than the price he pays for them.