By 1939, French designers like Chanel were returning to hourglass dresses with full skirts. Ingersoll writes that Christian Dior's first collection in 1947 "was a revival of the corseted woman . . . The new silhouette required understructures that hadn't been seen since the Edwardian period. Padded hips, softened shoulders, wasp waist, hips forward, and a long rounded back created a new posture as well." The curators don't connect the dots here: the flapper freedom signified by the loose sheath dresses was gone.
But, hey, the dresses remained fabulous, like Jacques Griffe's 1951 slinky, elegant black dress made from bands of overlapping silk that open into a trumpet hem at the bottom. Dior's 1954 black silk cocktail dress, with its V-neck, wide sash around the waist, and short, full skirt, was an epitome of the sleek "little black dress."
These fashions epitomized post-war "cool," a term coined by African-American jazz musicians that entered the mainstream as a description of stylish, seductive, unflappable, modern aplomb. It is the cool of John F. Kennedy, who joined the Senate in 1953, and Playboy and James Bond ("shaken, not stirred"), both of whom also arrived that year but go oddly unmentioned here. Also strangely absent is Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s '60s Rat Pack, which one could argue was the coda for the first burst of cocktail culture.
Evening shoes from Saks Fifth Avenue, c. 1925
The RISD exhibit continues to offer striking fashions up through the '80s — party dresses, bright orange harem pants, rainbow-striped Sesame Street tops, and a simple late '60s black wool beatnik-hippie hybrid dress by Norman Norell punctuated by a large rhinestone Maltese cross — but they arrive from a different era and a different mindset. By the 1960s and '70s, rock and roll had supplanted jazz, and marijuana and LSD supplanted cocktails as the era's signature intoxicants. The Vietnam War and civil rights movements for African-Americans, women, and gays prompted new styles. Dresses once again became unstructured, flowing, and sheath-like. Echoing their flapper forerunners, the physical liberation of the new clothes signified a new social liberation. Give me your corseted masses yearning to breathe free.
When luxury met relaxation: Co-curator Kate Irvin follows the threads of fashion through the years
Fashions that "aesthetically lift the spirit just as the alcohol" does is a primary theme of "Cocktail Culture," according to Kate Irvin, head of the RISD Museum's costume and textiles department and one of the co-curators of the exhibit. She offered comments about the show and some of her favorite pieces.
"The theme of the show as it developed over the past two years is thinking about the cocktail hour being this time of release for the participants, of course, but it's also this set of parameters that really allows release for designers. It's a place for designers to think about luxury, but combined with practicality and to think about fun and quirkiness and release, but also sophistication."
Dress by Adolfo Sardina, c. 1970
"In the 1920s, the cut of the dress becomes very simple. So it actually becomes kind of a canvas for decoration. It's such a wonderful surface for this intricate beading that you see and then that beading becomes a great way to express yourself while dancing. The way it shakes, and the light goes off the sequins and beads. Then in the tail end of the '20s and the '30s, you start to see the change in the construction in terms of the use of the bias cut. The hemline lengthens and the dress sort of clings to the body."