‘Cocktail Culture’ toasts an era of elegance

RISD Museum of Art show concocts a heady mix

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 1, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — Societies, like children, are at their best when at play. The cocktail hour — which originated in the days of Prohibition, and has been enjoying something of a revival of late thanks to TV shows such as “Sex and the City’’ and “Mad Men’’ — was all about play.

Can one have too much play?

It’s impossible to say. The rules are confusing, as James Thurber famously acknowledged: “One martini is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.’’

“Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion 1920-1980,’’ an effervescent show at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, has been put together very much in the spirit of Thurber’s principle.

The show, organized by Joanne Ingersoll, Kate Irvin, and Laurie Brewer, is full of dresses. They cling to mannequins scattered loosely by the curators throughout the room, like bright young things obeying the complex laws of attraction at a cocktail party.

A black cocktail dress by Christian Dior opens the show — its satin “skimming the figure’’ like sheets of dark water — and is joined by concoctions of dazzling simplicity and elegance by Mariano Fortuny, Jean Patou, Coco Chanel, Cristóbal Balenciaga, and Elizabeth Arden. It’s a dress-lover’s dream.

And yet, inevitably, Thurberishly, I wanted more of them.

But dresses, it turns out, make up just a fraction of the items on display. As I went around the show, I counted more than 30 different categories of objects from purses to paintings, from women’s shoes to men’s shirts, from fashion photography to film posters, and from handbags to hats. (There are some truly astonishing hats: Check out the 1950 cocktail hat designed by Joseph’s of New York, and the no-less admirable 1963 design by Balenciaga.) There are also numerous examples of jewelry, furni ture, magazines, matches, and much more.

It’s a riot, an overflowing toy box — and, not incidentally, a sociologist’s wet dream.

The birth of the cocktail hour coincided with Prohibition, yes — but also with the arrival of Art Deco. Art Deco (my favorite design style, courtesy of a recent visit to Miami’s South Beach) emerged during the First World War and had multiple sources. In fashion, for instance, the need to conserve heavy fabrics for the troops played a huge part in hastening women’s acceptance of a lighter, slimmer silhouette, evident in dresses throughout this show.

The new materials, such as rayon and muslin, were too light to bear the weight of heavy jewelry, so this encouraged flamboyance in other areas — hats, for instance. It also led to the gradual introduction of lighter and stronger materials in jewelry design.

A “Fuchsia Necklace’’ in a spiral shape designed by René Lalique is made from glass flowers: It looks transparently airy. A nearby brooch by Swarovski is made from pink celluloid with tiny crystals and pasted rhinestones.

Another kind of celluloid — the sort produced by Hollywood — played a huge role in the emergence of cocktail culture. An essay by Clare Sauro in the catalog describes how hit movies like “Our Dancing Daughters’’ and “Our Modern Maidens’’ promoted casual drinking and a culture of flirtation.

“Lunch is poured,’’ announced one notorious intertitle.

An advertisement for the 1933 film “The Cocktail Hour’’ included the following instructions: “Here’s how: 1 bewitching girl — 3 lovelorn men — gaiety — romance — remorse . . . Add a dash of moonlight. Sweeten with lovers’ lies — then add a dash of bitters, and decorate with colorful gowns — that’s The Cocktail Hour.’’

These films, as Sauro points out, usually focused on a social elite, so cocktail drinking inevitably became associated with high fashion. There’s plenty of that on show here — but it’s a new kind of high fashion.

Just as, in the ’90s, many big name designers took their cue from improvised street wear, designers in the ’20s and ’30s were led for the first time by women’s newfound appetites and freedoms. As a result — it’s impossible not to notice — most of these clothes look comfortable. And that of course, to modern eyes, makes them all the more erotic: You could move in them, dance the Charleston in them, and slip them on and off with ease.

Another essay in the excellent catalog, this one by Susan Hannel, focuses on the influence of Harlem on cocktail culture in the ’20s and ’30s. It was in Harlem that the Charleston craze took off, and it was there, in the face of accusations of degeneracy from the mouths of conservative cranks, that blacks and whites mingled with increasing freedom.

There was racism latent in this burgeoning “negrophilia,’’ but it took new and surprising forms. The popularity of African-American entertainers created, for instance, a vogue for sun tanning. In 1934, a Vogue magazine editor observed that the white audience members at a Harlem club “feel the anaemia [sic] of their own race; and the white girls glance with a sort of dull resentment at the vital contortions of their tea-colored sisters.’’

Intermingling between the sexes was even more important. After centuries enforcing strict divisions, society began in the 1920s to sanction the free mixing of men and women. The cocktail hour was the circumscribed playground for this new phenomenon.

Thanks to tennis stars like Suzanne Lenglen, feminine glamour came to be associated for the first time with athleticism. In other ways, too, masculine and feminine principles began to bleed into one another. The results were often delightfully regressive: That is to say, women didn’t dress like men; they dressed like boys. Hence, the so-called “garconne’’ look, which was born when Lenglen was fitted out by the designer Jean Patou.

Alcohol, and specifically the cocktail, played a huge role in all this. Its lubricating effects are celebrated throughout the show — in advertisements, film posters, and the new note of humor that entered into design. See, for instance, the penguin-shaped cocktail shaker designed by Emile A. Schuelke.

The Second World War reinforced many of the changes in fashion and gender mobility wrought by the first. Bright colors and playful designs reemerged in cocktail culture in the 1950s and ’60s, partly as a reaction to wartime sobriety. You see it in the vivacious, ardently youthful dresses of New York’s Lilly Pulitzer, the printed fabrics of the Finnish company Marimekko, and the fabulous bright swirls of Italy’s Emilio Pucci.

By the end of the show, you find yourself wondering about the connection between cocktail culture and infantilism. So much about the cocktail hour and the fashions it spurned suggest an innocent, optimistic urge to retreat from the cares and responsibilities of adulthood into a bright realm of flirtation, experimentation, and harmless play.

Writing zestily in the catalog, Kristina Wilson discusses Russel Wright’s “Eclipse’’ glasses, which are decorated with a pattern of colored party balloons, and dares to ask: “Is childhood the place of freedom to which alcohol aspires?’’

She provides her own skeptical and very adult answer: “If it is, the impossibility of reaching it eloquently reflects the inadequacies of the martini.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

COCKTAIL CULTURE: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980

At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence. Through July 31. 401-454-6500.