Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cocktail Culture

Yesterday I joined my friend Michelle from The Red Velvet Shoe at The RISD Museum for the Cocktail Culture Exhibit.  We chose to attend yesterday not only for the exhibit, which was fabulous, but, because Professor Emerita and former Head of the Apparel Design Department at RISD Lorraine Howes provided a gallery tour at 12:15 which was, in a word, magical.

I wore my Bonnie Cashin leather jacket, certain that Ms. Howe would notice.  In fact I imagined an exchange something like this (in her elegant South African accent):

Ms. Howe: "I believe I spied a young lady wearing a vintage Bonnie Cashin, young lady would you step forward?"
Me: (Steps forward in humilty)
Ms. Howe: "What an amazing Bonnie Cashin you are wearing!  You have an incredible sense of style."
Me: (Still humble) "Why thank you Ms. Howe, that is an especially meaningful compliment coming from someone as learned as yourself."
The audience murmurs appreciatively, people point and ask to touch my jacket.  After the gallery tour, Ms. Howe asks me where I found the piece, what my take on the exhibit was and if she can friend me on Facebook.

Well, that was a nice little fantasy but it did not exactly go down that way.

Michelle and I did have a wonderful time, however, and snapped a couple of photos in the outer lobby since photos in the gallery are forbidden.  We also both purchased the accompanying text as it is chock full of photos of the items in the exhibit as well as fabulous facts and images of items that did not make the cut.  In fact, there is a wonderful Bonnie Cashin dress included in the catalog that did not make it into the exhibit.  Since she is known as the queen of casual, not cocktail, I did not expect to see her work at the exhibit.  This plate from the catalogue is in the "New Casual" section from the 1960's.

Bonnie Cashin Dress, 1967, photograph copyright Erik Gould from the exhibition catalog.
Ms. Howe's gallery tour was wonderful, as she not only knows fashion, but, is a cultural historian.  She put the trends and styles in an historical context that mirrored the text of the exhibit but added her own perspective and insight.  I loved her personal opinions of the items in the exhibit, and her declaration that the bias cut, flattering, yet wearable fashions of the 1930's are her favorites.  Her favorite dress in the exhibit matched my own favorite, which I must admit gave me a feeling of smug satisfaction, even if she did not notice my Cashin.  Here is a plate of the Elizabeth Hawes dress from the catalogue below.

Elizabeth Hawes Dress, 1937, photo copyright Erik Gould from the exhibition catalog
One of my favorite areas of the exhibition was the area influenced by travel.  It featured some wonderful dresses for women in tropical prints and 1930's cuts.  There were also a couple of amazing vintage rayon tropical print shirts for men and wonderful irreverent printed napkins and other fun items!  My second favorite dress at the exhibit was in this section and I am including the photo below.

1940's Textron Dressing Gown, photograph copyright Erik Gould from the exhibition catalog.
One quote I recall from Ms. Howe's presentation (and I'm sure Michelle's blog post over at The Red Velvet Shoe may include the same since she took notes!) was that "The 1950's began in 1947."  She was talking about the transition from the more demure, spartan and less-showy looks of war-time fashion to the more feminine, excessive and colorful looks of post war-time.  By the late 1940's, the waist came back and fuller skirts appeared and color and adornments returned to the fashions.  Not only was it OK to use previously-rationed materials, but, it was OK to feel good about things again.  Also, women's roles began to transition back from required in the workplace to required in the home. Women's fashions reflected that.  My third favorite dress in the exhibit was from this time period and I have included it below.

1950's Yvette cotton dress with crystals, photograph copyright Erik Gould from the exhibition catalog.
One thing that makes the exhibit amazing is that the dresses are all out in the open and arranged in a way that allows you to view them from the front, the sides and the back.  This is a rare opportunity and I would recommend that anyone interested in vintage couture fashion take advantage of it and get to this exhibit while it lasts.  Dresses are the focus, but the exhibit includes fabrics, accessories, amazing shoes, hats, jewelry and of course the bar-ware of each period as well!  If you cannot get to the exhibit, the catalog has an amazing collection of photos and enough text to make me plan to read it through with the expectation that I will continue to learn things I did not know before (I just bought it yesterday so cannot review the written contents just yet!)   The catalog also includes photos of objects not included in the exhibit, but, those I presume may have been considered as it was being curated.  The photography and layout are masterful, the cost reasonable ($30) and I would highly recommend it to vintage sellers and collectors. 

The center hat on the left was in the exhibit but the dress and accessories on this page were not. They are all, however, fabulously documented in the catalog.
Yet another spread features items that did not actually make the exhibit.
We really had a fantastic time and it was fun to get together with Michelle to tour the exhibit as she was just as excited and awestruck as I was!  Please check out her blog as well as I believe she plans to post about her experience this weekend and I'm sure her take will be different than my own.

I often like to tie back these posts to items on Etsy, as it is a great resource for authentic "Cocktail Culture" as well as just about anything else you can imagine!  Check out the items below and do your own search to see what you can find!

1960's Cocktail Dress from JunebugShop on Etsy
1950's Cocktail Dress from BetaBoutique on Etsy

Fun Cocktail Napkins from In2VintageCloths on Etsy

Fab 1940's Hawaiian Dress with Sarong from Salilimon on Etsy

1930's chocolate silk velvet bias cut dress from WildFellHallVintage on Etsy
Fab Cocktail set from MellowMermaid on Etsy.


  1. Great review of the exhibit....had a fab time with you! You had me cracking up at your "imaginary exchange" with Ms. Howes! I, most likely, would have been struck mute if she addressed me...what a wealth of knowledge she must possess...

  2. hey thanks so much for including my dress in this post, looks like a wonderful time had! x

  3. thank you for including my cat cocktail napkins ^..^
    love this post.


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