I recently hopped a bus up to Providence to check out an exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. "Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980" opened in mid-April and runs through the end of this month and is well worth a visit, especially if you're interested in fashion. But even if you're not -- no one who knows me or even sees me on the street would peg me as a snappy dresser -- there's enough here to warrant a trip. (I mentioned the exhibition in this space back in April, but wasn't able to get up to Rhode Island till now, and am glad I made the not-arduous-at-all trek)
The first thing you see on arriving at the exhibition's entrance is a well-edited montage of clips involving drinking in various movies. Lots of them were familiar to me, including scenes from "Auntie Mame" (passing along the old "bruise the gin" canard), "Casablanca", "The Thin Man", "Notorious", and others. But I discovered a lot more that I hadn't previously encountered, including this marvelous scene involving a jilted husband and his reactions, from Charlie Chaplin's "The Idle Class":
The clips set the scene nicely before one passes into the exhibition proper, which is arranged into nine themed sections and spans more than 220 objects drawn from the museum's own holdings and items borrowed from other museums and private collections. Cocktail attire, barware, glassware, furniture, and photographs all figure prominently, making for a nicely-balanced selection of artifacts that gives you a good sense of the culture surrounding the cocktail and how it changed over time. The museum refers to it as "the first multi-disciplinary exhibition to explore the social ritual of the cocktail hour through the lens of fashion and design", and delivers on this aim. (The exhibition's catalogue is worth picking up as well, with five meaty, detailed essays on how various factors -- from Hollywood to hats, Harlem, and postwar barware -- shaped cocktail culture and its visual expression.)
The first thing you see is the "Icons" section, which is meant to give the viewer some grounding in the basic look of the cocktail hour: glassware and shakers are presented, as is the truly iconic little black cocktail dress. (As I'd noted, I'm no fashion guy, but the 1954 Dior dress shown here is amazing in its alluring elegance; it highlights the shape of its wearer to arresting advantage, as it carves out three-dimensional space around the figure. All while remaining relatively demure!)
The elegance continues with Norman Bel Geddes' stunning Manhattan cocktail service, all sleek verticals and boxy forms: the bibulous equivalent of the RCA Building (completed a year or two before this was designed) in chrome-plated brass. This was what I coveted more than anything else in the exhibit, with its cool, unfussy Art Deco sophistication and clean lines.
Other sections covered Prohibition's pervasive influence: how it forced men and women together, did away with drinking as an all-male pastime, and mixed company as well as spirits. Prohibition also gave birth to the speakeasy, of course, which was different from pre-Prohibition saloons. The time was known as the Jazz Age, and the exhibition features several flapper dresses with their beaded fringes. (And it's neat to see actual flapper dresses and cloche hats from the Twenties, rather than inferior costume knockoffs.) Harlem's influence on cocktail culture is covered, as is the anti-Prohibition movement as shown by scarves and even needlepoint samplers -- apparently prominent members of the W.O.N.P.R. would make these to show their support for the law's repeal.
Prohibition also forced drinkers and bartenders to travel: steamship lines would advertise drinks such as the "Three Miler" or the "Twelve Mile Limit" (referencing how far offshore boozing would become legal), and bartenders such as the great Harry Craddock fled the dry shores of the United States for wetter foreign climes, resulting in the sublime (and beautiful) Savoy Cocktail Book. This section of the exhibition features lots of more casual, flowing cocktail attire, some gorgeous molded-glass Tiki stemware designed by "Trader Vic" Bergeron himself, a custom-made Japanese bar, sophisticated posters for French ocean liners, and more.
Other sections address wartime austerity, with its rationing of materials, and postwar prosperity, which set the style for how we experience the culture of drinking. As the exhibition materials point out, "cocktail culture as we have come to understand or visually interpret it today originated during this postwar period; the cocktail dress, combining the elegance of evening wear with the informality of the day dress, is the iconic look of this period and continues to define style to the present day." The exhibition continues tracing the history of cocktail fashion from the Fifties to the late Seventies, looking at crazy accessories, casual backyard get-togethers with their Modernist tone, and even clubwear.
I especially enjoyed the Eclipse glassware shown above, designed by industrial designer Russel Wright in 1957. They're fun, yet classy, and emblematic of the "New Casual" approach to the cocktail hour that emerged in the Fifties. By 1951, 70 percent of alcohol bought was consumed at home, according to a contemporary account by Walter Browden in Crockery and Glass Journal. The suburban cocktail party, scene of most drinking, emphasized the pursuit of leisure and fun (as seen in these 1950s exhibits at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans, and see also the profusion of cocktail shakers bearing drink recipes, which emphasized to the suburban crowd how easy it could be to make a quality drink.) Russel Wright, together with his wife Mary, even wrote a book about casual living and home entertaining during the increasingly mechanized times. 1950's Guide to Easier Living (here's a nice article about it in the Times from last year), in the words of "Cocktail Culture" catalogue contributor Kristina Wilson, was "modeled on the decorating and etiquette manuals that had proliferated in the interwar years, [and] argued for a new approach to home life. . .an emphatic modernist respect for systems and efficiencies dominated the Guide to Easier Living. . .Not only was the atmosphere of the Wrights' efficient household more casual than previous generations might have aspired to, but it emphasized to the hostess and host the possibility of well-deserved relaxation." The exhibition even includes Hawaiian and other casual sport shirts -- one emblazoned with grills and other barbecue implements -- to underline this theme.
In short, this exhibition is well worth checking out, especially if you're interested in the clothing and fashion angle of the story of cocktails. (I understand that this was a fashion-focused event, and the non-clothing artifacts were very well-chosen indeed. However, I'd have liked to have seen even more items showing changing product design and marketing over the years. Perhaps bottle designs, advertising graphic design and other commercial art, and more glassware and barware would have fit in well.) The catalogue will serve as a useful reference and is a worthy addition to my cocktail library. And I even picked up some cocktail-themed encaustic pieces by Dorothy Imagire at the museum gift shop. (I also fell in love with this painting by Gregory Poulin, but couldn't quite afford it.) They'll go nicely over my home bar.
(Photos, except for the first one showing the exhibition's name, are all courtesy of the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. Thanks to the RISD Museum's Lani Stack for her assistance.)