Cocktail Culture at RISD: Couture, Design & Iconic Film Influences

The Chace Center at the RISD Museum

(contributed image)

Cocktail Culture, Ritual and Invention in American Fashion 1920-1980,  explored  at the RISD Museum in Providence (and originally inspired by Prohibition itself,)  is the very first to explore the rich and varied ways individuals have historically presented themselves within the "theater" of the cocktail. From Prohibition to the disco era, the cocktail hour has ritualized the passage of time between work and leisure (called by the French the "cinq-a-sept" ) chronicling the sweeping social changes that defined 20th-century American life. The new social phenomenon sparked vibrant new forms of expression in fashion and design - from the iconic cocktail dress and barware to lively printed fabrics and furniture.  


Newport Seen arrived at The Chace Center to glamorous films projected on the wall outside the exhibition hall.  There were Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and other actors in costumes and settings emblematic of their respective cocktail eras. Entertainment certainly glorified and spread the cocktail concept.

The 1950's look, led by Norman Norell, Christian Dior, and others

Organized by the Department of Costume and Textiles, the arresting exhibit features more than 220 works, including clothing, jewelry, textiles, and decorative and fine art drawn from the Museum's vast holdings, as well as loaned item from other museums and private collections. The array of apparel,  stunning in breadth and quality, represents the century's major designers:  Elizabeth Arden, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain, Pierre Cardin, Chanel, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Hubert de Givenchy, Halston, Elizabeth Hawes, Charles James, Mr. John, Beth Levine, Mainbocher, Norman Norell, Jean Patou, Mollie Parnis, Emilio Pucci, Lilly Pulitzer, Scaasi, Elsa Schiaparelli, Carolyn Schnurer, Pauline Trigère, Vera, and Madeleine Vionnet. Over ten special pieces loaned from the Swarovski jewelry archives in Austria lend Hollywood glitz and  glamour to the exhibition.


Vintage posters of "The Cocktail Hour"

The vignettes are arranged in context with photographs, illustrations, decorative arts, and novelty items (such as a 1940s tiki bar from Japan). Organized thematically, the exhibition illustrates the ways in which the cocktail hour transformed 20th-century fashion and design, from the Roaring Twenties to the wartime and postwar periods to the social upheaval and loosening of societal rules of the 1960s and '70s. We visitors saw how different popular venues for cocktails, such as urban nightclubs, backyard barbeques, and luxury ocean liners, changed the ways we dressed for one another. A section about icons introduces the classic elements of cocktail culture (glamorous shakers, cocktail tables, and, of course, the ubiquitous little black dress.)


Tres chic fashions for cocktails


Cocktail Culture is arranged by the decades, each vignette reflecting the gestalt of its particular era:  Austerity in the l940's, barbeque attire in the l960's, and unstructured fabrics  and pajamas in the l970's.  Curators Laurie Brewer and  Kate Irvin told us that we had Calvin Klein and Donna Karan to thank for that innovation, which persists in fashion to this day.


Martinis, anyone?

                                                                       -   L.P.

Cocktail Culture is sponsored by Swarovski, with additional support from The Coby Foundation and the Museum Associates.  The exhibit will run until July 31.



Media preview with vintage movies

Textile Departmentt curators Laurie Brewer & Kate Irvin

Anne Wolf, Interim Director, speaking to the press

Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, Curator

 Fascinated listeners!

The architect of the exhibit Nader Therani describes the objects.

He is a 1986 RISD graduate

Entering the gallery, a description

1930'a chic, with the emergence of the cocktail table

Travel garb, with a period Tiki bar, from the 1920's to

the 1940's


New materials and limited yardage defined the austere 1940's attire


A visual paean to the cocktail -- all of them!


Vintage Swarovski ornaments


Vivid textile design by Vera


Laurie Brewer gives an excited description


Cocktails outdoors, the New Casual for the 1960's and 1970's


International set defines Cold War era style


Designer Norman Bel Geddes' cocktail shaker and glasses


Descriptors of each era in the Exhibition Hall


International Set:  Club Culture, new freedom, from

the late 1960's through the 1970's


 A dazzling cocktail table design from the 1930's



The RISD Museum Store offers replicas of The Cocktail

Era barware


Hollywood's old films projected on the walls at RISD

 Images by Newport Seen and courtesy of RISD. All images copyrighted












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