Published: May 10, 2011
Ahh, the cocktail †and the cocktail party. They may not be American inventions, but Americans have nurtured them to high levels of perfection and ritual. The word “cocktail” can be traced back to the early Nineteenth Century, but it was a century later that it came to be understood as a mixture of distilled spirits and other ingredients.
From the quirky days of Prohibition (1919‱933) to the lively disco era, the cocktail culture came to symbolize leisure time after work, ushering Americans through times of sweeping social and political changes, economic depressions and wars. In a sense, cocktails fueled social entertaining for much of the last century.
Like so many of his countrymen, President Franklin Roosevelt found relaxation in the daily ritual of the cocktail hour in his second-floor study at the White House. As Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, “The cocktail hour&⁛became] an institution in Roosevelt’s official family, a time for reviewing events in an informal atmosphere, a time for swapping the day’s best laughs. The president always mixed the drinks himself, experimenting with strange concoctions of gin and rum, vermouth and fruit juice.”
Closely linked to the cocktail tradition have been historic Twentieth Century movements in fashion, from the risqué flappers of the Roaring Twenties to highly feminine dresses following World War II to glittering pantsuits of the disco era. These fashion changes have been accompanied by innovative designs for such barware as shakers, glasses and trays.
The manner in which the social phenomenon of the cocktail has influenced US fashion and design is explored in a fascinating exhibition, “Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920‱980,” on view at the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) through July 31.
Organized by RISD curator Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, with costume and textile department head Kate Irvin and curatorial assistant Laurie Brewer, the show comprises more than 220 objects. They include clothing, jewelry, textiles, barware and decorative and fine art drawn from RISD’s extensive holdings and loans from other museums and private collections. They offer, observes RISD interim director Ann Woolsey, “perspective on the current resurgence of interest in all things cocktail.”
The stunning array of apparel displayed reflects the talents of a “who’s who” of Twentieth Century designers, while glamour and glitz are added by pieces loaned by the Swarovski jewelry archives in Austria.
The exhibition is organized thematically, starting with “Icons,” which introduces such classic elements of cocktail culture as cocktail glasses, martini shakers †and The Little Black Dress. The latter, introduced by Coco Chanel in 1926, is described by curator Ingersoll as “a simple black, slash-necked, short silk dress with only diagonal pin tucks as decoration& The fashion ideal, it transformed the wearer into an alluring model of glamour.”
Fashion and barware suggest that the cocktail, beyond being a heady drink, constitutes “a spectacle, a symbol of American joie de vivre, prosperity, youth and unity,” in Ingersoll’s words. The cocktail party, offering a liberating environment for elegance, wit, relaxation and flirtation, encouraged designers to create sophisticated martini glasses and cocktail dresses.
Christian Dior, credited as the first designer to use the term “cocktail dress,” offered a creation that was balanced, attractive from all angles (since the wearer spent little time sitting down), sheathed the figure in heavy black satin with a V-neck to frame a necklace and a sash to accentuate the waist and release a full skirt. The 1954 Dior exhibited became the epitome of cocktail femininity.
The perfect accompaniment, the “Manhattan Cocktail Service” designed by Norman Bel Geddes in the 1930s, featured a shiny, streamlined shaker and slender-stemmed cocktail glasses. Embodying tasteful elegance and sleek modernity, the service is the kind of barware manufacturers began to market to mainstream consumers following repeal of Prohibition in 1933.
The modern drinker came of age, the exhibition documents, when imbibing spirits took place in private homes and became a pastime shared by women. Dresses in the “Mixed Company” (1920s‱930s) section reflect a relaxed but luxurious style that made the cocktail hour come alive, while upscale beverage accessories †sleek metal barware †suggested the Modernist spirit of the time. Striking in appearance and costly in its day, a sterling silver and enamel cocktail shaker that invokes Art Deco aesthetics in a skyscraperlike form was manufactured by Charter Company in 1928.
By 1920, with men and women flouting social conventions and the law by drinking mixed spirits together, the cocktail party was launched. It was a new social situation in which each participant dressed for the opposite sex.
The 1920s and 1930s were also a time when men and women frequented speakeasies, cabarets and cafes in pursuit of cocktails, dancing and pleasure. Occupying center stage of “Urban Nightlife” was the young, adventurous woman who rejected the traditional female role of wife and mother in favor of smoking, drinking and wearing garb that marked her as a flapper. Her short, straight sheath, costume jewelry and cloche hat captured the nation’s fancy, as did the T-strap shoes, bangles and jeweled handbags of the times.
As fashion historian Clare Sauro documents in her catalog essay, during this period Hollywood movies influenced the “public image of alcohol& Cocktails and cocktail culture&⁷ere promoted indirectly on screen by characters who often cited alcohol as a calming balm.” (This attitude was summed up by the oft-quoted movie line, “I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”) The cocktail, Sauro adds, “was irrevocably linked to high fashion&†[among] the social elite” in films of this era.
The section on “Travel” (1920‱940s) documents ways in which the wealthy sought new experiences and circumvented alcohol restrictions by sailing on luxury ocean liners. In so doing, they were exposed to new drinks and new fashion influences from exotic and tropical locales.
By the 1930s, travel clothes for men and women featured lighter materials, animated patterns, vivid colors and comfortable fits. After World War II, menswear reflected casual styles servicemen had encountered in the South Pacific, and new drinks like mai tais became popular. Likewise, barware was made of such unusual materials as straw, bamboo and cork.
World War II shortages necessitated “New Materials, A New Purpose” (1940s into the early 1950s), documented in displays of belts, hats, shoes and jewelry in which experimentation and innovation were the orders of the day. Fabric rationing meant pared-down dress silhouettes complemented by expressive hats and shoes made of such new materials as cork and straw, and handbags that rested comfortably atop bars. The women’s suit, appropriate for those working outside the home, adapted well to cocktail settings with changes of accessories. With veterans reentering the workforce, an “expense-account society” took root, launching the three-martini businessmen’s lunch.
In the 1950s, postwar prosperity elevated the status of the cocktail dress, which combined the informality of day dress with the elegance of evening wear, and set the tone for the bustling cocktail culture as it is known today. Rather than the prewar practice of imbibing mixed drinks in bars and restaurants, most cocktail consumption took place at home, especially in newly developed suburbs.
Dressing for cocktails, as delineated in the “Rules” section, adhered to set standards of appropriate dress, jewelry, hats and gloves †with leeway for personal creativity to suit the occasion. Whether designed in Paris or the United States, the cocktail dress was widely popular. Celebrating the end of wartime austerity, these dresses emphasized romantic, feminine hourglass silhouettes, full skirts of luxurious, expensive fabric, layers of petticoats and a lengthened hemline. Sloping shoulders, cinched waists, padded hips and a long, rounded back added to its appropriateness for cocktail party viewing from multiple angles. As the exhibition organizers put it, “The cocktail dress had come into its own.”
Cocktail dresses designed by Norman Norell and Simonetta, a whimsical, feather-trimmed cartwheel hat by Joseph’s New York, a necklace with crystals and pearls, a black and white checkerboard scarf and white silk with gold leather platform shoes by Mackay Starr are highlights of this section.
The section titled “Day for Night” takes viewers through the turbulent late 1950s to early 1960s when various countercultural movements challenged the complacency and conventions of suburban society. A new breed of couture designers emerged who rejected the 1950s hourglass silhouette and promoted street styles attuned to mod and beatnik looks. Around 1965, Molly Parnis weighed in with a long-sleeved yellow nylon dress festooned with rhinestones that is described as having “hippie-chic Indian references.”
At the same time, the anxieties of the Cold War stimulated thought about the excessive use of alcohol and its place in civilized society. Movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, La Dolce Vita and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? spotlighted tensions behind the confident façade of America’s “cocktail set.”
Nevertheless, the cocktail party endured; indeed, during this time, the little black dress became must-have apparel for women at all levels of society. Examples by Cristobal Balenciaga, Norell and Charles James are displayed.
Silhouettes became simpler, albeit enhanced by “accessories that lightened the look, at times sending it over the top,” in the words of exhibition curators. A glowing gold and red turban by Mr John, a festoon necklace designed for Emilio Pucci, glittering rhinestone silk shoes retailed by Saks Fifth Avenue and Paco Rabanne’s chromium purse make the point.
“The New Casual” of the 1960s and 1970s reflected the general loosening of society’s rules for cocktail parties, which moved from suburban living rooms to porches, patios and pools. The cookout and croquet games soon followed. The popularity of outdoor entertaining inspired designers of clothing, furniture and barware.
The new informality is exemplified by a Carolyn Schnurer sundress, boldly patterned frocks by Vera Maxwell, Lilly Pulitzer and Adele Simpson, Russel Wright’s floating balloon glassware and Scandinavian-designed textiles and ice buckets.
Finally, the exhibition explores the influence of the “International Set,” trendsetting celebrities, society types and creative figures who jet-setted around the world in the 1970s frequenting discotheques and other stylish watering holes. These so-called “beautiful people” reveled in their freedom and opportunities for experimentation in nightlife and beyond.
They popularized styles from pop psychedelic prints to ethnic hippie chic †and even more so slinky silk jersey and polyester outfits, embellished with sequins and baubles, and new silhouettes with plunging necklines. The more practical embraced pantsuits, such as Parnis’s glamorous, gold-sequined version.
Among the standouts from this period: Pucci’s multicolored, idiosyncratically patterned dress; halter dresses by Halston and Pauline Trigere; and colorful dresses by Oscar de la Renta and Hubert de Givenchy. Norell, still with it, designed a cream silk dress with gold buttons and rhinestones.
Current revivals of happy hours and formulation of boutique cocktails, among other things, suggest the survival of the cocktail culture. For many, the popularity of celebrity bartenders making epicurean cocktails with liquors from specialty distilleries and locally harvested herbs has redefined today’s cocktail adventure.
The Cocktail Culture book contains thought-provoking essays and it is published by RISD. It sells for $30, softcover.
The Rhode Island School of Design Museum is at 20 North Main Street. For information, www.risdmuseum.org or 401-454-6000.
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