Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cocktail Culture

Being great afficionadas of cocktails, when we heard that the Rhode Island School of Design had an entire exhibition devoted to that very thing (well, primarily to its appropriate attire), how could we not go? So off we went last Saturday to check out "Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980". Lillian Bassman's July 1955 photograph of Suzy Parker, "The V-Back Evenings" for Harper's Bazaar, which was used to advertise the show, really captured its essence. It's wild, whimsical, fashionable and electrically charged, perfect for the task. Who wouldn't want to be part of cocktail culture if its devotes all looked like this?

The true test of the success of the venture was our mutual agreement that getting up at 5am for the 3 1/2-hour trip (one way!) was worth it. Of course, we dressed for the occasion and from the minute we hit town, we were an instant hit. (Literally, says Valerie. Jean had not taken two steps off the bus when someone complimented her on her hat.) When we needed directions in town, the grey-haired Fed Ex driver said: "Love the hats, ladies. Bill Cunningham should photograph you." Seriously, not only did he know who Bill Cunningham was but he'd also seen the recent documentary. What are the chances of that? (Are you listening, Bill? STEP AWAY from Fifth Avenue!)

The Cocktail Culture show was located in an adjacent building across a glassed-in bridge. We took full advantage of the reflective glass to capture the moment.

Chalk it up to sleep deprivation, but we were having a blast. On our way to the show, we stopped in another exhibit and since we were both in black and white, took advantage of our graphic surroundings. No one else had dressed for the occasion, so we caused little flurries of gawking and picture taking and q&a among our fellow visitors. All in a day's work for the Idiosyncratic Fashionistas!

When the lady at the admission counter told us where the ladies' rooms were located, she highly recommended one location over the others. Once we got there, we figured out why: the Fornasetti wallpaper and black tiles were divine!

The show, designed by Boston architect and RISD graduate Nader Tehrani, seeks to show the world of cocktails through 20th century fashion and design. The exhibit includes more than 220 objects, including dresses by Dior, Oscar De La Renta, Chanel and Balmain; hats from Charles James, Balenciaga and Halston; decorative arts, barware and glassware, film and photographs. A well curated show with a GREAT atmosphere! (Mea culpa: In our initial posting on 6/19, we neglected to credit Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, show curator and catalogue author, who hatched the original idea for the show! See Comments section below for details.)

Projected onto the wall in the large entrance area were film clips from movies in which cocktails themselves or cocktail culture loomed large. This still was from the marvelous closing moments of the wonderful comedy "Dinner at Eight" featuring Jean Harlowe (in a bias cut long white satin evening gown and fox wrap) and Marie Dressler.

This clip featured the dapper Charlie Chaplin gyrating the heck out of his cocktail shaker. We also saw clips from Auntie Mame, Casablanca, Notorious, Bringing Up Baby, All About Eve, The Thin Man, The Women, The Seven Year Itch, and countless others. A great intro to get visitors in the mood.

Of course, fans of Ian Fleming's Agent 007 all know that James Bond (for whom several clips were included) preferred his martinis "shaken, not stirred".

The exhibit focused not just on the cocktails themselves but also on the social interactions at cocktail parties. One clip we saw included the wild party scene in Holly Golightly's apartment. Here's a shot of George Peppard getting beaten to the punch in lighting Audrey Hepburn's cigarette from "Breakfast at Tiffany's". And of course they included the iconic scene of stunningly chic Hepburn alighting from her taxi in front of Tiffany's early in the morning, pastry in hand, evoking the movie's name.

When William Powell and Myrna Loy got together on screen, alcohol and gunplay weren't far behind. In this still from "The Thin Man Returns", William Powell has traded up from his martini glass to the jug. In the scene we saw, Loy demands that a waiter line up six cocktails in front of her so she can catch up with Powell, who has started without her.

Valerie says: This iconic Fortuny Delphos gown is the piece I would have taken away if I could have any one thing from the exhibition. (This photo is not of the gown in the exhibition, but it is a near perfect facsimile.) Several hats ran a close second, needless to say.

This black beaded French flapper dress was dated 1925.

This green gown is also from the '20s.

Understandably, we weren't allowed to take pictures of the show, so the photo above and several of the next few are borrowed from Newport Seen.

These less glamorous looks above are from the war period, when luxury materials were not available.

Dresses from the '50s and '60s.

Distinctive hand painted and spangled outfits were often bought by vacationers in Mexico.

Dresses from the jet set period.

Cocktail culture also extended to furnishings. Note the drink holders (and the ashtrays) built into the table legs.

Architectural and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes not only designed exhibits for the World's Fair and pioneered chic metal furniture but also designed one of the iconic American deco cocktail sets, "The Manhattan", in 1936, for Revere Copper and Brass Company. When Valerie and I played our usual "If you could have just one thing, what would it be?" game, I picked this gorgeous chrome-plated cocktail shaker, tray and cups. While researching this, I discovered two interesting facts about the designer himself: Norman's original last name was Geddes (and in 1916, when he married Helen Belle Schneider, they condensed their names into Bel Geddes) and his daughter was actress Barbara Bel Geddes.

A penguin cocktail shaker by Emil Schuelke, dated 1935.

Gorham cocktail service in silver and bakelite.

Canape Dish by Lurelle Guild, in chrome and copper, dated 1933.

Cocktails wouldn't have been the only occasion for which this fabulous hat was suitable, but they might have been the most frequent excuse to wear it. The length of the feathers would have made it difficult to wear in close quarters, but it's a wonderful object. The label says Joseph's New York.

A Schiaparelli hat in velvet and nylon.

A Balenciaga hat from the '60s. Milliners couldn't compete with the Big Hair looks of the' 60s, so they made hats that mimicked cascading hair.

Since this was a day trip, as soon as we'd seen our fill, we had to make our way back to the bus station. Several hours later, it seemed only appropriate to reward ourselves with cocktails on the roof of the Peninsula Hotel. But that's a story for another time - hopefully next week.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We weren't able to take pictures, as we mentioned, but we did dig up this very tasty video review of the exhibition from the Boston Globe, which includes a number of great photos. Enjoy!

If you aren't able to get to the show, which closes July 31, you might want to check out the accompanying catalogue.

You can also hear Daniel Okrent, former New York Times editor, talk with Terry Gross about Prohibition, and how it led to a veritable cultural revolution in the United States. Okrent, who also worked with Ken Burns on his upcoming documentary series on Prohibition, was a guest speaker for Cocktail Culture. Among some of the fascinating historical details he reveals in the interview:

Prohibition would not have been possible without the introduction of income tax, as prior to that a large portion of the government's income came from taxes on liquor.

Prohibition would not have been possible without women's suffrage. Women voted against alcohol because men drank away their wages and abused their dependents. Women initially petitioned for the right to vote because as non-voters they were denied the right to speak at public meetings debating the consumption of alcohol.

One of the reasons Prohibition passed was that many breweries were linked to Germany, and anti-German sentiment ran high as a result of World War I.

Prohibition gave rise to speakeasies, and speakeasies promoted the social mingling of the sexes.

Prohibition encouraged traveling, because people who wished to drink could do so legally if they travelled outside the United States.

Jean is wearing: a 1980's woven flying saucer hat; Romeo & Juliet Couture shibori shawl top; linen harem pants made in India; Michael Stars t-shirt; Pataugus shoes; black and white striped earrings from Red; Lux De Ville purse; charm necklace.

Valerie is wearing: vintage 50s hat from Lord & Taylor, Jean's mom's earrings, Elvis Presley/Andy Warhol print 'gloves' (no fingers) cut from knee socks, Issey Miyake shirt, Joan Vass dress, Arche shoes.


  1. Valerie, I love your socks-turned-armwarmers! I am coveting the floor-length green 1920's dress, or the hat with the cascade of feathers, but as that's not possible, I will have a cocktail instead :)

  2. I'm so glad you both dressed for the occassion! At the Iris Apfel show in Salem, MA, lots of women were dressed to the nines--I'm surprised! Will put the show on my list--I'm in Boston, so it wont be as far.
    Thanks so much for this post! You both look fab~Paula

  3. thank you for enjoying the show fashionistas! I am so pleased you made the effort to get to Providence.
    Although no longer working at RISD, I am the curator of the show, author of the catalog, and originator of the whole concept- I sincerely wish I could have met you both. ! I am a transplant from NYC - and Providence, or I should say Rhode Island certainly needs more of you around.
    Thank you again

  4. Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, we should have credited you, and apologize for not doing so. Thanks for stepping into the breach. We read that this show was ten years in the making, and that you came up with it before Madmen and before your move to RISD from FIT. Congratulations on a great job! We look forward to more wonderful shows from you, wherever and whenever you have them. We would have loved to meet you too!
    Not Anonymous - We're the fumblefingered IFs

  5. rl]
    Great post I must say.. Simple but yet entertaining and engaging.. Keep up the good work!

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