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. 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.

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. 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. 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.

Take look at the evolution of cocktail dresses in this timeline.

Evening ensemble

Design House: House of Patou (French, founded 1919)

Designer: Jean Patou (French, 1880–1936)

Date: ca. 1931

Culture: French

Medium: silk

Credit Line: Gift of Madame Lilliana Teruzzi, 1972In the mid-1920s, Jean Patou was in constant demand by Parisian couture clients and the American leisure class that had infiltrated Parisian consumer culture after World War I. He was credited with pioneering the shortened skirt for both daytime and early evening, and was consistently celebrated alongside Chanel for innovations in sportswear fabrics and separates styling. By the latter part of the decade, Patou was pushed to adapt to a new silhouette; the risqué skirts championed by the New York flapper fell out of fashion with international café society, who preferred the more romantic, whimsical full-length sheaths that dominated the early 1930s.
This ensemble is emblematic of the simple, refined Parisian cocktail silhouette of the 1930s. The delicate drape of the dress, executed in a lavish hand-painted silk satin, was intended for evening wear, but the small, removable cape allowed for wear between six and eight. This ensemble also demonstrates the difference between the Parisian and American aesthetics of the period: while Paris valued simplicity and modest elegance, American clients were instructed to take one silhouette and dress it for the various day and evening hours with an abundance of different accessory items.
Patou retained his popularity during the Depression by catering to the Paris and New York elite, and as cocktail gatherings became more exclusive, so too did Patou’s creations. The designer became so enamored of private cocktail affairs that he created custom-made “Cocktail” perfumes that were sold in a “Bar” scent box to his couture clientele.

 

“Pisanelle”

Design House: House of Dior (French, founded 1947)

Designer: Christian Dior (French, Granville 1905–1957 Montecatini)

Date: fall/winter 1949–50

Culture: French

Medium: (a–c) silk
(d) silk, metal, plastic

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Byron C. Foy, 1953

With his “New Look” collection of 1947, Christian Dior brought romanticism back to the catwalk. His cinched waists and full, mid-calf-length frocks enforced a demure feminine aesthetic. The cocktail hour began to represent universal social identities for women: the matron, the wife, and the hostess. Cocktail parties rose to the height of sociability, and cocktail clothing was defined by strict rules of etiquette. While invitees were required to wear gloves, the hostess was forbidden the accessory. Guests were obligated to travel to an engagement in a cocktail hat (which had retained the veil made popular in the 1940s), but they were never to wear their hats indoors.
“Pisanelle,” dating just a few seasons after Dior’s famed “New Look” and his iconic hourglass “Bar” suit, represents the drama imbued in his controversial silhouette. Dior aptly admired Italian Renaissance artist Antonio Pisanello (ca. 1395–ca. 1455) for his refined attention to detail and his fascination with clothing materials; the painter often represented complicated fabrics and clothing treatments in his frescoes and in obsessive details in his drawings. In this ensemble, the skirt plays on mat and shiny surfaces to create a sense of the waist-sash as trompe-l’oeil bow and the gores of the skirt as streamers.
The silk velvets and satins in this piece, though not atypical for cocktail attire, were often reserved for an evening wear cut before the 1950s; due to the prominence of the cocktail hour in material culture reference, the term “cocktail dress” was applied on the basis of its accessory items and was no longer dependent on the garment’s construction.

 

Evening dress

Former Attribution: Formerly attributed to House of Balenciaga (French, founded 1937)

Designer: Richard Tam (American, 1941–1990)

Date: 1968

Culture: American

Medium: silk, linen, feathers

Credit Line: Gift of Louise Rorimer Dushkin, 1980

Taking its cue from the dancing dress, this dress was an obvious choice for cocktails, with its lighthearted feather skirt and simple, pared-down construction. By the late 1950s, the etiquette barring bare arms before eight o’clock in the evening was no longer adhered to, allowing a variety of sleeveless and even slightly décolleté pieces to infiltrate the cocktail venue. Undoubtedly worn with a pair of elbow-length gloves and a cocktail hat, this dress falls to the appropriate just-below-the-knee length in front, but has a more formal train. Silk gazar, a mat high-twist textile, was a wonderful execution for the cocktail hour. Gazar’s texture and drape were lavish, but certainly did not exhibit the ostentation of evening wear.

 

Evening ensemble

Design House: House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)

Designer: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, Saumur 1883–1971 Paris)

Date: 1936

Culture: French

Medium: silk

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Stephen M. Kellen, 1978

In tune with the fashions of the 1930s, Chanel went through what has been called her “romantic” period, typified by lace and tulle gowns with skirt ruffles or flounces. Although the clothes are seemingly antimodern in their aesthetic, Chanel asserted their modernity by revealing and emphasizing the techniques of their construction, such as vertical overstitching to hold the soft lace tiers in fixed flounces. By using the virtuoso hand-sewn details of the couture as both structural and decorative devices, Chanel was responding to the clarion call of modernism that required design to speak of utility and truth to materials.

 

“La Cigale”

Design House: House of Dior (French, founded 1947)

Designer: Christian Dior (French, Granville 1905–1957 Montecatini)

Date: fall/winter 1952–53

Culture: French

Medium: silk

Credit Line: Gift of Irene Stone, in memory of her daughter, Mrs. Ethel S. Greene, 1959Harper’s Bazaar (September 1952) described “La Cigale” as built in “gray moiré, so heavy it looks like a pliant metal,” while Vogue(September 1, 1952) called it “a masterpiece of construction and execution.” In 1952, what has been called the Dior slouch was placed inside a severe International Style edifice. The devices customarily used to soften surface and silhouette in Dior are eschewed, and the dress becomes the housing of the fashionable posture now required by its apparent weight: the skirt is cantilevered at the hipbone—hip forward, stomach in, shoulders down, and the back long and rounded. Dior employed shaped pattern pieces to mold the bodice to the body and likewise to allow for the dilation at the hips.
American periodicals continued to promote Parisian couture lines after World War II, but they also included American design images and the ready-to-wear lines of Paris in order to make their publications relevant to a wide economic range of American women. “La Cigale” has the underpinnings of couture, but with its standard moiré, long, fitted sleeve, and smooth bodice and skirt cut, a facade of this cocktail piece could easily be adapted for the department store. American designers like Anne Fogarty and Ceil Chapman emulated the “New Look” line for cocktail wear, but used less luxurious fabrics and trims. Dior, along with French contemporary Jacques Fath and milliners Lilly Daché and John Fredericks, quickly saw the advantages of promoting cocktail clothing in the American ready-to-wear market, designing specifically for their more inexpensive lines: Dior New York, Jacques Fath for Joseph Halpert, Dachettes, and John Fredericks Charmers.

 

Evening jacket

Design House: House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1928)

Designer: Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973)

Date: fall 1938

Culture: French

Medium: synthetic

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. J.R. Keagy, 1974

While Mademoiselle Cheruit had her “smokings,” a fitted jacket ensemble for early evening affairs, Schiaparelli was the most famous purveyor of the cocktail-appropriate dinner suit. Her suit consisted of a bolero or flared jacket that could be removed for the evening, and a sleeveless sheath dress. Unlike the previous decade, the 1930s dictated different skirt lengths for different hours: the silk, rayon, or wool crepe sheath of the dinner suit was steadfastly ankle or “cocktail” length.

Schiaparelli’s dinner jackets changed the outline of women’s fashion from soft to hard, from feminine to masculine during the mid- to late 1930s. The basic silhouette, which comprised wide shoulders and a narrow waist, first appeared in her autumn/winter 1931–32 collection entitled “Wooden Soldiers,” which was inspired by the Indo-Chinese costumes featured in the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris. The extended shoulders, achieved through padding, became hugely influential in Hollywood, helped along by international café society darlings like Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), Mrs. Reginald (Daisy) Fellowes, and the Duchess of Windsor.

During a trip to America, Schiaparelli commented, “In Hollywood, one special item of popularity had preceded me—that of the padded shoulders. I had started them to give women a slimmer waist. They proved the Mecca of the manufacturers. Joan Crawford had adopted them and molded her silhouette on them for years to come. They became emphasized and monstrous. Adrian took them up with overwhelming enthusiasm.”

 

Cocktail ensemble

Design House: Yves Saint Laurent, Paris (French, founded 1961)

Designer: Yves Saint Laurent (French (born Algeria) Oran 1936–2008 Paris)

Date: fall/winter 1965–66

Culture: French

Medium: silk, wool

Credit Line: Gift of Jane Holzer, 1977By the late 1960s, modular shapes had been integrated into every arena of design, from furniture to appliances to clothing. The rather ambiguous romanticism of the previous decade was gone; in place of the decorative hourglass shape emerged a slimmer, more columnar silhouette that took precedence with designers like Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Balmain, and especially Yves Saint Laurent. The cocktail and evening garments of the 1960s seemed to echo those of the 1920s, whether as a reaction to the heavy decorations of the 1950s, or as nostalgia for the sheaths dictated by wartime regulation.
Executed in an understated wool bouclé, as was the fashion for couture of the five o’clock hour, this ensemble evokes a sociable tone with an evening silk grosgrain trim and peek-a-boo midriff cutouts at right and left sides. With a high boat neckline, the two-piece dress could be worn with a cropped jacket for an afternoon tea, or with long white or black gloves to attend a cocktail affair in the early evening.
Black was always appropriate for the cocktail hour. Since the 1920s, black wool crepes, jerseys, and silk failles were employed in simply cut patterns for daytime, and then dressed up over the decades with cloche, cartwheel, or crown hats, or Swiss-dot net snoods. By the time this dress was created, cocktail accessory manufacturers were already looking to revive some of the styles from the flapper era; a ’60s-modern pillbox hat could be dressed for cocktails with the revival of the pheasant plumes or rhinestone pin of the 1920s dance hall.

 

Dress

Design House: House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)

Designer: Karl Lagerfeld (French, born Hamburg, 1938)

Secondary Line: Chanel Boutique (French)

Date: fall/winter 1987–88

Culture: French

Medium: synthetic

Credit Line: Gift of Thomas Shoemaker, in memory of Michael L. Cipriano, 1994

Created by Coco Chanel in 1926, the little black dress was translated to ready-to-wear as a staple of late afternoon and cocktail hours; American women at every level of consumption knew the importance of a practical, “well-mannered black.” Black had been used for formal and semi-formal occasions in preceding decades. But when Chanel administered her sporty menswear-inspired silhouette, her little dress was immediately dubbed the “Ford of Fashion” by American Vogue for its transformative qualities. The little black dress became a minimalist canvas for day, cocktail, and evening accessories, including hats, gloves, pocketbooks, and above all else, costume jewelry. As the silhouette of the little black dress evolved to accommodate the fashionable shape of each consecutive decade, it became more of a social institution than a design.
Though the original was constructed in a reserved black crepe de chine, Karl Lagerfeld, who became head designer for the House of Chanel in 1983, executed this little black dress from autumn/winter 1987–88 in a fetishistic black vinyl and black polyester jersey combination. Lagerfeld infuses a controversial, modern persona into the 1920s silhouette (with dropped waistline, flounced knee-length skirt, and modest cocktail neckline) that first brought Coco fame. The design embodies the irony of the late twentieth-century “cocktail” outfit. In the postmodern aesthetic, the cocktail outfit seems to dress only the runway, professing nostalgia for submissive femininity or parading a tongue-in-cheek social commentary.

 

Cocktail ensemble

Design House: House of Chanel (French, founded 1913)

Designer: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (French, Saumur 1883–1971 Paris)

Date: ca. 1964

Culture: French

Medium: silk/synthetic, synthetic

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Murray Graham, 1973Chanel promoted jersey fabrics in 1916, as the first of many innovations for outdoor recreation and chic sportability. Her most famous introduction, which characteristically borrowed several of its constructive components from menswear tailoring traditions, was the famed “Chanel Suit.” Early forms of this ensemble were promoted in her 1920s collections, with the suit jacket as a wool jersey cardigan, paired with a silk or sheer cotton blouse and a kick-pleated jersey skirt. The blouse almost always matched the jacket lining, as demonstrated in the 1960s design here. More formal incarnations of the Chanel Suit were produced in silk or linen for the cocktail hour.
Though Chanel clothing was absent from couture during World War II, the fashion house reemerged in the 1950s with its famous namesake at the helm. Postwar Chanel clothing crushed skeptics and critics with a reinterpretation of the suit, constructed from heavy wool bouclés, doublecloths, and tweeds. These textiles, manufactured by textile designers like Malhia, Burg-Linton, and Bucol, gave the suit the boxy shape and luxurious appeal that became synonymous with 1960s Chanel collections.
This suit employs a black silk and synthetic clipped pile for the jacket and skirt, with an understated ivory damask for the blouse. The black bow became a signature detail for Chanel couture before mid-century, but only with its insertion into cocktail-formal versions of the postwar Chanel Suit was the necktie truly celebrated. The luxurious textiles of the suit, paired with the designer’s signature gold weight chain, made the ensemble an obvious choice for the cocktail hour. With evening-appropriate materials, the suit played on notions of day-into-evening dress that were present in the cocktail garb of 1930s café society.

 

Evening dress

Designer: Norman Norell (American, Noblesville, Indiana 1900–1972 New York)

Date: 1961

Culture: American

Medium: wool

Credit Line: Gift of Betty Furness, 1986

Though the cocktail party of the 1950s graced middle- and upper-class residences, creating a more prominent market for women’s cocktail clothing and accessories in New York department stores, the “Junior” or “Miss” collections of these retail giants developed and promoted lines of cocktail clothing as well. Sororities and college clubs began celebrating the cocktail hour by the latter half of the decade and, modeling their aesthetic after the twenty-something actresses in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), female collegians identified their own garments for cocktailing, the most popular of these the “little black dress.”

Norman Norell, who, by the early 1960s, had become one of the most globally respected New York fashion designers by perfecting a classic silhouette complete with couture-quality finishing details and exquisite paillette and bugle-bead embroidery techniques, created simply tailored evening sheaths and impeccably cut day suits that reflected both a refined mature sensibility and a youthful spirit. This Norell “little black dress” is the quintessential cocktail sheath of the early 1960s, championing a playful leisurely aesthetic while still propagating a certain formality inherent in cocktail dressing. Designers like Ceil Chapman and Nettie Rosenstein were creating beautiful late day and evening dresses for the American market, but Norman Norell had his eye on the international scene; he combined the American invention of “day-to-evening” dressing with the subtlety and simplicity of French early evening garb. Priced comparably to the French couture, the visionary Norell dress became both the immortal symbol of mid-century bourgeois sociability and the champion of youthful flirtation.

 

“Eventail”

Design House: House of Dior (French, founded 1947)

Designer: Christian Dior (French, Granville 1905–1957 Montecatini)

Date: fall/winter 1956–57

Culture: French

Medium: silk

Credit Line: Gift of Muriel Rand, 1963This piece is unarguably the 1950s moderne of the cocktail hour. With a strapless neckline, a rather ostentatious constructive line, and a colorful surface print, the dress would have been rejected for the early evening prior to the 1950s, as its various components belonged (respectively) to late evening or daytime dressing. By mid-century, Parisian couturiers were going to great lengths to enforce an exaggerated formality in order to differentiate themselves from American designers.
In his romantic “Aimant” collection, Dior offered the emphatic reiteration of his commitment to the eighteenth century made modern. Here referring to the ubiquitous fans women used to “communicate” at court, Dior raised the waist but delighted in the fullness of the skirt and pronounced form of the bust. The fan’s role is one to which Dior would have been very sensitive. The aegis and instrument of powerful and coquettish women, it both conceals and discloses. It was, of course, the rigidity of inner structure emanating from the corset that permitted Dior the license of the strapless gown, just as the décolletage of the eighteenth century was made possible by the shaping of the waist below and the platform of bust support.
Dior’s comparison of the cocktail-clad hostess and the eighteenth-century woman denotes the relevance of clothing and decoration to the social function of women during these eras. While clearly ornamented differently, these personalities depended on a superficial facade through which to communicate their respective social roles.

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

October 2004

Original post can be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.