With the arrival and great success of the “Mad Men” series on AMC—about to begin its fifth season this Sunday—cocktail culture and martini-filled lunches are back en vogue. And along with the revival of the Manhattan and Sloe Gin Fizz came the growing popularity of the 1960s cocktail dress and the once out-of-date bar accessories, like the cocktail shaker and the perfect martini glass. (To read about a group of editors who tried working while drinking “Mad Men” style, click here).
On a recent trip to Florida, I was fortunate to catch the “Cocktail Culture” exhibit at the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach. Mounted by a team from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and subtitled “Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980,” it is one of the first multi-disciplinary exhibitions to explore the social rituals of the cocktail hour through fashion and design. With more than 150 objects on display, the show covers the world of cocktails—in clubs, at home, in films, and on ships.
As I walked through the show, I was shocked by how much cocktail drinking inspired changes in dress and design throughout the 21st century. From Prohibition in the 1920s, when drinking took place in secret clubs and private homes, to the shimmery Disco days of the ‘80s, the cocktail was continuously associated with glamour, clever conversation and the potential for excess.
The racy tendency of cocktail drinking may have been initiated during Prohibition, but it carried on with gusto through the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and World War II, suburban culture and counterculture crusades.
“The cocktail hour, that suspended time between work and supper, encourage ‘mixing’ of men and women, aided by mixed drinks,” reads the catalog essay by Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, curator of costume and textiles at The Museum of Art at RISD. “In a time when hemlines and roles were prescribed, the cocktail hour created an opportunity for flirtation and social climbing, and with that a desire for lighthearted yet chic fashion distinct from formal evening attire and functional day wear. “
The Cocktail Culture exhibit definitely inspired me to run and buy some vintage highballs, but I restrained myself as our cupboards are already maxed out thanks to my already existing barware fetish (you can read more about that here).
Instead, I loaded up on some fascinating cocktail trivia, some of which I’d like to share.
•During WWII, shortages of materials led to restrictions but also innovations in fashion. Fabric rationing led to a simpler silhouette that called for striking accents, such as hats and shoes made of new materials including straw and cork.
•In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, a youthful counterculture emerged, resulting in designers giving up the romantic shapes and moving toward street styles and beatnik looks. The little black dress, personified in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” became the quintessential must-have for women in all social arenas.
•With the new freedom and nightlife experimentation of the late 1960s’ and 70s’ social upheaval came the jet set, a trendsetting group of artists, actors, musicians, writers, society types and some politicians.
•When the European discothèque crossed the ocean to the U.S. in the 1960s, it became the place where people from all backgrounds—whose dress ranged from pop psychedelic prints to ethnic hippie chic—met to drink and dance all night long.
•The pouf skirt by Christian Lacroix and the padded shoulder power suit came forth in the ’80s, along with the glamorous presentation of mixologists in the movie “Cocktail,” starring Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown.
As I walked toward the exit I stopped to read the following:
“But of course the real masterpieces of American design are the cocktail dresses, the cocktail being the symbol par excellence of the American way of life.” –Christian Dior
And then, I went home to my husband and friends and put out the necessary ingredients for cocktail hour.