Across the country, on January 16, 1920, citizens drank up at liquor "wakes" before the 18th Amendment, ratified a year before, went into effect at midnight, banning the manufacture, sale, and transportation of "intoxicating liquors."
Chain with fish pendants by Fratti for Cadette, 1969
In Chicago, trucks motored across the city to fill the last legal booze orders. In Boston, Police Superintendent Crowley put a double force of officers on duty to enforce his order that drinking must be stopped and liquor seized at 12:01 am. As Daniel Okrent reports in his 2010 book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, liquor was being secreted away in the woods of Maine, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, was tossing back champagne with fellow members of the Harvard class of 1904 at a Washington club.
The next morning America went dry. Or was supposed to. Instead, illegal distribution and speakeasies sprang up to slake American's thirst. The exhibit "Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980" at the RISD Museum (20 North Main Street, Providence, through July 31), takes this underground drinking culture as the starting point to examine 20th-century America, from sequined flapper dresses and streamlined cocktail shakers to Hawaiian shirts and disco gowns. RISD Museum curators Joanne Dolan Ingersoll and Kate Irvin and curatorial assistant Laurie Brewer have assembled some 220 ravishing objects (nearly all the outfits from RISD's collection) for one of the best shows of the year. What makes it so sharp is the show's attempt to reframe our view of that era through mixing — drinks, company, races.
Prohibition was supposed to be one of the crowning achievements of progressive reform, ranging from the abolition of slavery to trust-busting and the regulation of food. The ban on alcohol was seen as a way to cut down on men beating their wives and keep drunks from impoverishing their families by squandering their pay (though it was also driven by bigots aiming to keep European immigrants in check). The 18th Amendment was quickly followed by women winning the vote via the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
But Americans did not comply. Instead, drinking just went underground. Mixed drinks became popular to mask the taste of bathtub gin and other foul illegal booze. Drinking at home or in speakeasies prompted new male and female mixing, which hadn't happened when men did most of their drinking in saloons and private clubs and respectable ladies pretended not to drink at all.
SLINKY ELEGANCE A cocktail dress by Jacques Griffe.
The star of the Roaring '20s was the flapper with her short bobbed hair, cloche hat, dancing to jazz, smoking, voting, driving fast, drinking heavily, and sex. "I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini," went one saucy quote. Part of the feminist revolution the Suffragettes sparked was a new emphasis on birth control, a term coined in 1914. For kicks, the curators note, white '20s hipsters went "slumming" in Harlem, where among African-Americans they found the latest dances and hottest jazz. One of the disappointments of the exhibit is that black culture is brought up to show how it influenced white culture before World War II — such as inspiring suntanning — and then African-Americans disappear. The curators mostly gesture at the era's social history rather than dig in.