A Spirited Celebration Of America's 'Cocktail Culture'

  • Walking through Cocktail Culture at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art feels like attending a six-decade-long cocktail party. Above, a cocktail dress, ca. 1949, designed by Norman Norell and Anthony Traina.
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    Walking through Cocktail Culture at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art feels like attending a six-decade-long cocktail party. Above, a cocktail dress, ca. 1949, designed by Norman Norell and Anthony Traina.
    All images courtesy of Erik Gould/Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design
  • Shoes, 1960s, Saks Fifth AvenueSilk, rhinestone, satin weave, cut warp pile, embellished
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    Shoes, 1960s, Saks Fifth AvenueSilk, rhinestone, satin weave, cut warp pile, embellished
  • Nudawn cocktail cups, 1930sCatalin Corporation plastic, chrome
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    Nudawn cocktail cups, 1930sCatalin Corporation plastic, chrome
  • Dress, ca. 1970, by Adolfo SardinaSilk, crepe yarn, satin weave, machine embroidered, knotted fringe
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    Dress, ca. 1970, by Adolfo SardinaSilk, crepe yarn, satin weave, machine embroidered, knotted fringe
  • Necklace and bracelet set, 1940, by Miriam Haskell and Frank HessGold plated metal, pate-de-verre/amazonite and Indian sapphire
    Hide caption
    Necklace and bracelet set, 1940, by Miriam Haskell and Frank HessGold plated metal, pate-de-verre/amazonite and Indian sapphire
  • Evening dress, ca. 1950, by Philip HulitarNylon, acetate, cotton, gauze weave, Alencon-type machine lace, hand appliqued
    Hide caption
    Evening dress, ca. 1950, by Philip HulitarNylon, acetate, cotton, gauze weave, Alencon-type machine lace, hand appliqued
  • Evening dress, ca. 1950, by Philip HulitarNylon, acetate, cotton, gauze weave, Alencon-type machine lace, hand appliqued
    Hide caption
    Evening dress, ca. 1950, by Philip HulitarNylon, acetate, cotton, gauze weave, Alencon-type machine lace, hand appliqued
  • Necklace with three circular pendants, 1970, by Coppola e Toppo for ValentinoGold-plated metal, metal beads, Swarovski crystals, rhinestones
    Hide caption
    Necklace with three circular pendants, 1970, by Coppola e Toppo for ValentinoGold-plated metal, metal beads, Swarovski crystals, rhinestones
  • Hat, ca. 1940, by G. Howard HodgeSilk, rubber, cotton, cut warp pile, quilting
    Hide caption
    Hat, ca. 1940, by G. Howard HodgeSilk, rubber, cotton, cut warp pile, quilting
  • Evening dress, 1950s, Mignon/Paris New YorkAcetate, silk, satin weave
    Hide caption
    Evening dress, 1950s, Mignon/Paris New YorkAcetate, silk, satin weave
  • Ensemble, 1950s, designer unknown, possibly of Mexican originCotton, sequins, plain weave, printed, hand painted, embroidered
    Hide caption
    Ensemble, 1950s, designer unknown, possibly of Mexican originCotton, sequins, plain weave, printed, hand painted, embroidered
  • Cocktail hat, 1950, Joseph's New YorkWool, silk, egret feather, felt, cording, cut warp pile
    Hide caption
    Cocktail hat, 1950, Joseph's New YorkWool, silk, egret feather, felt, cording, cut warp pile

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As you enter Cocktail Culture, an intoxicating exhibit of apparel, accoutrement and ephemera at the Rhode Island School of Design's Museum of Art, it's hard not to think of Billy Strayhorn's lyrics in his jazz standard "Lush Life":

I used to visit all those very gay places
those come-what-may places
where one relaxes on the axis of wheel of life
to get the feel of life
from jazz and cocktails

The show features more than 200 objects, including nearly 60 dresses owned by the museum. There are stunning dresses by French designers Givenchy, Trigere and Dior, Americans Norman Norell and Elizabeth Hawes, and a collection of whimsical '20s flapper dresses in glass bugle beads. Some of them are local creations, made by Providence-based designers (and sisters) Anna and Laura Tirocchi. There are 12 drop-dead Swarovski crystal necklaces and brooches which look like Greta Garbo just took them off. (Swarovski sponsored this exhibit.)

Lillian Bassman's photograph The V‐Back Evenings shows model and actress Suzy Parker having a drink (and some fun) in 1955. i i

Lillian Bassman's photograph The V‐Back Evenings shows model and actress Suzy Parker having a drink (and some fun) in 1955. Lillian Bassman/Harper's Bazaar hide caption

itoggle caption Lillian Bassman/Harper's Bazaar
Lillian Bassman's photograph The V‐Back Evenings shows model and actress Suzy Parker having a drink (and some fun) in 1955.

Lillian Bassman's photograph The V‐Back Evenings shows model and actress Suzy Parker having a drink (and some fun) in 1955.

Lillian Bassman/Harper's Bazaar

The exhibit feels like an elegant and witty party that can be followed over six decades, from 1920 to 1980. You can almost hear the chatter. Think of it this way, say Kate Irvin and Laurie Brewer, both curators with the museum's Costumes and Textile Department. Cocktails — the word might be from the docked tail of a certain kind of show horse — are about mixing. Which, during Prohibition, was necessary to cover up the awful taste of bathtub gin.

"There's the mixing of genders, the mixing of time periods," says Irvin. "In the 19th century, men drank alone in saloons or stashed a bottle of spirits at home. That changed with Prohibition in 1919, when men and women went indoors to drink together in elegant apartments or clandestine speakeasies. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, women had the vote, and the modern woman emerged — cocktail in hand."

That means the masculine and the feminine have to be balanced in an exhibit about cocktail culture. The curators do this with film clips, posters and of course — barware. Matthew Bird, an industrial design teacher at RISD, discussed this in a talk for the museum in April.

Norman Bel Geddes' 1934 "Manhattan Cocktail Service" evokes a tall, city skyscraper. i i

Norman Bel Geddes' 1934 "Manhattan Cocktail Service" evokes a tall, city skyscraper. Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design hide caption

itoggle caption Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design
Norman Bel Geddes' 1934 "Manhattan Cocktail Service" evokes a tall, city skyscraper.

Norman Bel Geddes' 1934 "Manhattan Cocktail Service" evokes a tall, city skyscraper.

Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design

Bird pointed to an iconic set of shaker and glasses called the "Manhattan Cocktail Service," designed in 1934 by Norman Bel Geddes — it's at the entrance of the exhibit. "Geddes," Bird explained, "knew how to attach the ways things looked to what they did." (In 1945, Bel Geddes would go on to design a flying car that actually worked.) "Here he is at the beginning of his career ... [designing] a tall cylindrical shaker and eight cups that, when placed on the accompanying tray from Revere, looks like a tall building." The silhouette of the shaker and cups suggests a cityscape like Rockefeller Center. It's a handsome set of chrome-plated brass, with one flaw, Bird says. "Everyone wanted the shaker and tray, but no one wanted the chrome cups."

But they did want the style. Actor William Powell was a man who knew how to mix a cocktail in style, both on screen and off. In the 1934 film The Thin Man, Powell hoists a chrome shaker as three waiters in white jackets and bow ties look on.

A cocktail hat circa 1963 by Cristobal Balenciaga. Silk, tulle, feathers, plastic, satin weave. i i

A cocktail hat circa 1963 by Cristobal Balenciaga. Silk, tulle, feathers, plastic, satin weave. Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design hide caption

itoggle caption Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design
A cocktail hat circa 1963 by Cristobal Balenciaga. Silk, tulle, feathers, plastic, satin weave.

A cocktail hat circa 1963 by Cristobal Balenciaga. Silk, tulle, feathers, plastic, satin weave.

Museum Of Art/Rhode Island School of Design

"The important thing is the rhythm," he drawls, in his urbane, slightly sauced way. His tuxedo is impeccable. "Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx, to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time." Powell then samples his signature drink, the dry martini. It's pure elan, pure chemistry.

Elan and chemistry fizz together in the exhibit. From the amazing cocktail bags women placed on the bar to "mark" their territory to eye-catching hats to hand-painted Mexican resort wear (designed for an era of ease in say, 1950s Acapulco), Cocktail Culture reminds us of how much Americans enjoy ritual — particularly ritual that allows us to mix fantasy and pleasure. (It's worth noting in this time of anxiety.)

A brief mention here for Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, a curator who was an originator of the show and a guiding force for the exhibit. Ingersoll is no longer with the museum, but she wrote several of the essays in the Cocktail Culture catalog. "The cocktail is not just a drink," she writes, "not just spirits combined with a mixer, but a spectacle, a symbol of American joie de vivre, prosperity, youth and unity."

The martini glass and the little black dress may anchor this exhibit, but it needs just one thing more. You. The stage is set, the lights low, the drinks poured. Shaken or stirred?

Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920–1980 will be on display at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I., until July 31.

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