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A Spirited Celebration Of America’s ‘Cocktail Culture’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 12, 2011

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 placesthose come-what-may placeswhere one relaxes on the axis of wheel of lifeto get the feel of lifefrom 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 showhorse — 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.

And 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. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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