Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Dressing for the Cocktail Hour

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By 1929, with the aid of liberation parties like the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, women had become more visible in the social sphere and the "modern" woman was born. This "Drinking Woman" was an ideal rooted in newfound concepts of individuality and a denial of Edwardian matronly functions.1 She emerged at private cocktail soirées and lounges, and the cocktail dress, as a short evening sheath with matching hat, shoes, and gloves, was designated to accompany her. The cocktail affair generally took place between six and eight p.m. Cocktail garb, by virtue of its flexibility and functionality, became the 1920s uniform for the progressive fashionable elite.


Christian Dior was the first to name the early evening frock a "cocktail" dress in the late 1940s, and in doing so allowed magazines, department stores, and rival Parisian and American designers to promote fashion with cocktail-specific terminology.

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The Cocktailing Classes
By the end of World War I, French couture depended rather heavily on American clientele, and to an even greater extent on American department stores that copied and promoted the French créateurs.2 As cocktailing had originated in the United States, the French paid less attention to the strict designations of line, cut, and length that American periodicals promoted for their heure de l'apéritif. While French beach pajamas gained the most widespread popularity, Louise Boulanger produced les robes du studio—chic but rather informal sheaths that suited the hostess of private cocktail gatherings.

As the popularity of travel grew, both in American resort cities like Palm Beach, "the Millionaire's Playground," and abroad with the luxury of the Riviera, these French cocktail garments gained favor in wealthy American circles. But while America's elite were promoting the exclusive designs of French couture, the majority of the United States relied on the advertisements of Vanity Fair and American Vogue, as well as their patronage of American department stores, to dress for the cocktail hour. Though cocktail attire featured the longer sleeves, modest necklines, and sparse ornamentation of daytime clothing, it became distinguished by executions in evening silk failles or satins, rather than wool crepes or gabardines. Often the only difference between a day dress and a cocktail outfit was a fabric noir and a stylish cocktail hat.

From Day to Evening
In the early 1930s, Hollywood sirens like Greta Garbo and Mae West embodied a casual, sporty American chic that paired easily with the separates ensembles favored by the French. The more privatized cocktail party of the silver screen began to gain popularity, replacing the smoking rooms of Paris and the dance clubs of New York. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, Jean Patou, and Elsa Schiaparelli, all made famous by separates designs, helped popularize the dressy cocktail suit as transitional clothing from the afternoon tea to the intimate evening fête.

In light of the economic hardships of the early 1930s, American designers like Muriel King designed "day-into-evening" clothes by championing a simple, streamlined silhouette and emphasizing the importance of accessories. Cartwheel hats and slouchy fedoras were equally acceptable for the cocktail hour. Gloves, though longer than in the 1920s, continued to be mandatory for late afternoon and evening. Costume jewelry, whether as a daytime pin or an evening parure, became the definitive cocktail accessory.

During World War II, the hemline of the cocktail dress rose from the 1930s ankle, or "cocktail-length," sheath, but the convenience and accessibility of the fashionable cocktail accessory was sustained. Parisian milliners like Simone Naudet (Claude Saint-Cyr) produced elegant chapeaus with black silk net veils for the cocktail hour. In New York, Norman Norell attached rhinestone buttons to "vodka" gray or "billiard" green day suits to designate them cocktail ensembles.3 By the mid-1940s, cocktailing was made easy by the adaptability of cocktail clothing and the availability of the indispensable cocktail accessory.

Consumer Cocktails
Christian Dior was the first to name the early evening frock a "cocktail" dress in the late 1940s, and in doing so allowed magazines, department stores, and rival Parisian and American designers to promote fashion with cocktail-specific terminology. Paris Vogue included articles entitled "Pour le coktail: l'organdi," while advertisements in Vanity Fair celebrated Bemberg's "cocktail cotton" textiles. Cocktail sets, martini-printed interiors fabrics, and cocktail advertisements all fostered the consumer-driven cocktail culture that had become part of American consciousness by 1960. Though Pauline Trigère, Norman Norell, and countless Parisian couturiers continued to produce cocktail models well into the next decade, the liberated lines of Galitzine's palazzo pant ensembles and Emilio Pucci's jumpsuits easily replaced the formal cocktail dress in privatized European and American cocktail circuits of the following decades.

Elyssa da Cruz
The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art