Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cocktail Couture

The striking cover of my current favorite and highly recommended book, 
published by the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I used to visit all those very gay places, those come-what-may places, where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life, to get the feel of life, from jazz and cocktails…”
--Billy Strayhorn, “Lush Life,” 1933-38

Cocktails are riding the hot tamale train in San Francisco. Any bar worth its shaker is serving handcrafted vintage cocktails with rediscovered antique spirits. Five years ago, I got blank stares if I ordered a Sazerac anywhere outside of New Orleans. Now it’s the specialty cocktail at many bars in SF. And that’s a good thing.

But there’s a whole other aspect to cocktails that needs more exploring. And that’s cocktail couture. What does one wear when holding a martini that’s so silvery, shivery cold and clear that one wants to dive into it?

This fabulous book, Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980, gives many ideas and much inspiration. It’s the catalog from the Cocktail Culture show that was recently at the Musuem of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.

Cool and elegant from Cocktail Culture,
Karen Radkai, photographer, American, 1919-2003, illustration,
Vogue, November 1, 1960. 

It’s ironic that Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920, was the inspiration for the cocktail party. It must've been the naughty feeling of doing something illegal that heightened the excitement of men and women drinking together. At the same time, Hollywood showed everyone that imbibing with style and panache was the chic thing to do.

From Cocktail Culture, film still from The Thin Man, 1934

The book features six essays exploring various aspects of the cultural phenomenon of cocktails and in "Blithe Spirits: Cocktails and Hats", milliner Gretchen Fenston writes about the importance of the cocktail hat. She says, "... one simply had to have a cocktail-appropriate hat, one with elements that imparted fun over function." We can always use more of that!

From Cocktail Culture, Edward Steichen, photographic illustration,
Vogue, November 15, 1935

This book has me drinking, I mean thinking. I have a few of my mother's cocktail dresses from the fifties and I think it's time to give them a try and create a little cocktail party action around here myself. 


  1. I'm chillin' my cocktail glass right now for a Sazerac tonight - sans cocktail dress! Love the blog!

  2. I saw that show at RISD last month and it was wonderful! Many BV posts to catch up on now.

  3. Tipsy! That's so cool you saw the show. Do tell...what was your favorite part? Anything you wished you could've put on right there and worn out of the show? What made the biggest impression?

  4. In one of the Thin Man films, can't remember which, Mr. North detects (pun intended) the sound of the silver cocktail shaker from outside the apartment as Mrs. North prepares their nightly martinis. Dressed of course, in an elegant gown.

  5. BV -- I can't remember a specific garment or pair of shoes, but pretty much everything in the exhibit made me oddly wistful. I have pictures of my mother, and grandmother dressed beautifully for cocktail parties in the 1950s and 60s -- but none of me in the '90s and '00s! It seems like normal life used to be more glamorous.

  6. As you know, I love everything about cocktail couture -- remember my starry starry night dress??

  7. Of course I remember your starry starry night dress: midnight blue silk with a dusting of small rhinestones on the bodice. It's how I always picture you.

  8. this is a lovely article. as I gear up for my speakeasy themed holiday party next month. I was wondering if I could share this with my readers (with proper credit) before my event. On


    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed my cocktail story. Yes! Please share with your readers. I would be honored.