A Spirited Celebration Of America's 'Cocktail Culture'

Jun 11, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:45 am

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.)

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.

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.

"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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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.


LYDEN: Imagine, with (unintelligible) American summer and you're invited to the perfect cocktail party. Chrome-plated cocktail shakers abound.


LYDEN: There are hats and bags and little black dresses that look like they belong on the cover of Vogue or Harper's. In fact, many were on the cover of Vogue or Harper's. We're in Providence at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD, and its Cocktail Culture exhibit. It is intoxicating.


LYDEN: There, we met curators Laurie Brewer and Kate Irvin. Cocktails, Laurie Brewer told us, really got going when Prohibition started in 1919. Flavored mixtures obscured the taste of bathtub gin. But it wasn't just mixer and spirits being blended behind closed doors. It was the sexes.

LAURIE BREWER: No longer are women in another room having a cup of tea while the gentlemen are enjoying something stronger. And it's the fashion actually support what's happening especially during this rule-breaking period.

LYDEN: Mores changed. Women got to vote. In time, a whole culture revolved around the cocktail hour. Men, who had in the 19th century only drunk in gentlemen's clubs or saloons, now had a new role to play. Of course, in the history of the universe, no one mixes a drink better than the actor William Powell, otherwise known as Nick Charles in the slightly pixelated high society screen classic "The Thin Man."


WILLIAM POWELL: (as Nick Charles) Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, in a Manhattan, you shake to a fox trot. A Bronx, to a two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time.

LYDEN: And thanks to the Cocktail Culture exhibit, Laurie Brewer pointed a large, beautiful, chrome-plated shaker surface.

BREWER: It's the barware where we see the masculinity. And so with something as substantial as this cocktail shaker, this monumental silver piece, when filled, you can only imagine a gentleman would be strong enough to pick it up and shake this piece. And so we see the gentleman's role in the cocktail hour coming into play with these pieces.


MYRNA LOY: (as Nora Charles) Now, how many drinks have mixed?

POWELL: (as Nick Charles) This will make six martinis.

LOY: (as Nora Charles) All right. Would you bring me five more martinis? Leo, line them right up here.

LEO WHITE: (as Leo) Yes, ma'am.

LYDEN: Matthew Bird, a designer and critic, teaches industrial design at RISD.

When you look at this, you're thinking about the material; when I look at it, I think that looks like Rockefeller Center to me.

MATTHEW BIRD: Which it's supposed to. This set has eight cups and the cocktail shaker and it's on a tray, a rectangular tray. So, everything about the cups and the cocktail shaker is cylindrical and tall and looks like a building. And then the tray is a platform with these horizontal bands. But the tray was already in manufacture by the Revere Company that made this. And in this case, I think it is Rockefeller Plaza, as a result of that funny collage effort.

LYDEN: I try to imagine my husband at home in a tuxedo and jacket pouring me something from this service. We'll have to work on that - he does at least own a tuxedo. In the meantime, Laurie Brewer shows me how the clothes had to work with the elegance of the shaker service. A mannequin wore one of my favorite gowns by an American designer called Elizabeth Hawes.

BREWER: We called her the olive in the martini.


LYDEN: So, this is a dress, the olive in the martini - I like that name. And it's just breathtaking - green and olive silk dress with red accents. But you just used the word the reveal, and it's like that - this red splash that emerges, peekaboo.

And suddenly I realize, duh, that the red in the olive dress is a pimiento. Then dresses got shorter. Curator Kate Irvin points out there's another benefit to those Roaring '20s hemlines.


KATE IRVIN: We're seeing those legs being kicked up dancing to the Charleston. And so then imagine these embellished dresses with the swinging fringe moving and capturing the dim light within the club.


LYDEN: They played and they traveled, and one of the things you could do during prohibition when you traveled was drink. Again, critic Matthew Bird.

BIRD: Luxury liners, which were new, could get out into international water pretty quickly from New York City and the drinking could begin all the way to Europe.

LYDEN: As prohibition ended in 1933, the Depression deepened. Movies were the great escape, and they featured the cocktail. According to the Cocktail Culture exhibition catalog, 10 million people went to the movies on a daily basis in the early 1930s.

Noel Coward wrote: For gin and cruel and sober truth supplies the fuel for flaming youth. In 1939, 140 feature films were made and 137 of them mentioned alcohol - even this one - Clare Boothe Luce's "The Women."


MARY BOLAND: (as Countess De Lave) What you need is a wee drinky of this good corn liquor.

Unidentified Woman (Actress): (as character) No thanks. Is that invitation general, Countess?

BOLAND: (as Countess De Lave) Yes, indeedy, as we say on the range. Here's to freedom. Day after tomorrow, I should be free; free as a bird.

LYDEN: And increasingly, women ventured into that glittering sphere alone - well, not totally alone. They took their hats and cocktail bags with them. And to look at the ones here, the glamorous cocktail bag was more like a miniature theater marquis.

BREWER: These bags are designed to sit proudly on top of the bar. You're not hiding these on the hook underneath the bar. You're putting them right up front and center. And, of course, women are traveling together, so in many ways you are dressing for one another because most of the men are gone away at war.

LYDEN: After World War II, Americans began cultivating the art of the resort getaway for the middle class - and cocktails went along. Mai tais and tiki bars, for example, and Hawaii; margaritas and mariachi and Acapulco; and the resort wear went with it, hand-painted and themed.

I must say I'm really admiring this brown and black cotton and sequined dress, because, guess what, I found exactly this same skirt in a vintage shop 10 years ago. The same material is in my skirt that's in this top. That's so much fun.

BREWER: It was probably purchased in Mexico, it was made in Mexico, hand- painted with these wonderful bands of mariachi players and the musical instruments and florals. And then, of course, it's got the added touch of the sequins, of the shining sequins. And this probably was a piece that really was purchased and then worn in Mexico. Might not necessarily had been worn when back at home.

LYDEN: The dress I admired was a gift to the museum by the estate of the late Peggy Cone. There are several significant pieces in the show which were hers. Cone, a stylist for Atlantic Records, was later a popular New York performer. She wore vintage beautifully as he led her own swing band called Peggy Cone and the Central Park Stompers.


PEGGY CONE AND THE CENTRAL PARK STOMPERS: (Singing) My guy treats me so darn good, he gives me everything a sweet lover should. But when he's gone and I'm a feeling blue, here's my solution, this is what I do. I go shopping...

LYDEN: The Cocktail Culture exhibit is as much about attitude as anything else. Are we so very different today?

Even as economic times go harder, we long for style. Designer Matthew Bird...

BIRD: The harder the times the more you sort of need an outlet of some kind, and alcohol can be one. And it could be a valid one. It doesn't have to be a life of debauchery; it could just be a way to relax after a hard day that wasn't getting you anywhere. And I see we're certainly not in the Great Depression now but we're on tough times. So, I can't help but think that the whole focus on the 1950s, especially right now, is harking back to a time when these systems worked better and also a time when we imagined that we knew how to relax a little bit better than we do now.

LYDEN: Which may help to explain the popularity of the Cocktail Culture show. An advertisement for a film from 1933 called "The Cocktail Hour" sums it up: take one bewitching girl, three lovelorn men, a quarter gaiety, a half romance, one-quarter remorse. Add a dash of moonlight and music, sweetened with lover's lie, then add a dash of bitters and decorate with colorful gowns in season - that's the cocktail hour. All the party's missing is you.


LYDEN: And to see a slideshow of the Cocktail Culture exhibit, go to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.