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Style Watch

High society

Toasting fashions of the cocktail hour.

By Tina Sutton
April 10, 2011

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I have vivid memories of cocktail parties in our suburban New York living room when I was growing up in the 1950s. Before being sent to bed in footed pajamas, I was mesmerized by my father’s silver martini shaker, the groupings of oddly shaped glasses, and the transformation of neighborhood moms into fashion plates. Their full-skirted dresses with fitted bodices rustled softly with every movement and nearly covered the couch when they sat down.

Happily, those extravagant, flirty silhouettes are back on today’s runways, winning over a new generation of glamour seekers. To see what inspired these beguiling frocks, be sure to visit “Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980” at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Though the show spans seven decades, examples of mid-century couture are most reminiscent of current evening-wear trends, with many vintage styles remarkably similar to recent runway favorites from Oscar de la Renta, Louis Vuitton, and Lanvin.

Launched in the late 1940s, Christian Dior’s “New Look,” with its wasp waist and ample skirt, was seen as a sign of prosperity because it required so much fabric to make. Just picture Elizabeth Taylor as the irresistible socialite in A Place in the Sun (1951). Chanel’s sleeker little black dress was equally popular, made even more elegant with elbow-length gloves and oversize hats, a la Audrey Hepburn. The RISD exhibition has many swoon-worthy examples of both silhouettes.

What decade is next on the fashion horizon? Since the AMC show Mad Men helped popularize mid-century fashions, perhaps HBO’s Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire will do the same for Jazz Age flapper dresses, also on view in the exhibition.

There’s an undeniable seductive quality to the body-skimming, sheer, beaded chemises worn to speak-easies, as the 1920s finally liberated women from corsets. To that chapter of fashion history: Cheers.

“Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980,” April 15-July 31, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 20 North Main Street, Providence, 401-454-6500, http://www.risdmuseum.org

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