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Cocktail Wear

by Glynis Ward


The word cocktail is rumored to have many origins but the cocktail party had its beginnings in the 1920s, when prohibition in the United States made the sale and consumption of alcohol illegal. Men had just returned from war. Women, who had labored in factories making uniforms and weapons, were ready to enjoy social gatherings of mixed company. Since drinking alcohol was banned, social drinking had to be done under cover, either at home or in speakeasys. A cocktail party -- provided you could find the alcohol -- was easy to organize, and there were always plenty of available guests.

Cocktail parties became chic social gatherings. Naturally, the well-to-do felt the need for special garments particularly made for the event which were less formal than dinner clothing, yet more adorned than day wear. Thus, the cocktail dress for women was born! The first cocktail dresses surfaced during the mid-20s and were similar to the waistless, loose cut of the flapper dress. Indeed, most of the women who wore cocktail dresses were flappers. Originally designed for the young, the dresses barely grazed the knee. Many dresses were heavily beaded or had fringes; typical fabrics were silk and layered chiffon.

Detail of a late 1920s dress, velvet and cotton gauze

Cocktail clothing was accompanied by specialized accessories. Tiny bags, just big enough for money and powder were encrusted in sequins and rhinestones, set in a frame, most often with a small chain handle. Shoes were slipper-like, and often dyed to match dress or purse. Elbow length or shorter gloves and small hat were worn by guests, but the hostess remained more casual, without hat, purse or gloves. These accessories became traditional to cocktail dressing, and remained as part of the fashion through the mid-60s.

During the early 30s, cocktail parties became a common social event. Waisted, slim skirted dresses were created for older women. Silk remained the desired fabric, but the cut of dresses became (as with the daily fashions) more refined. Tailoring created form-fitted dresses which were often decorated with rhinestones and lace accents. The "little black dress" became an essential part of a woman's wardrobe, and the typical cocktail dress color. Men's cocktail dress consisted of attire slightly less formal than evening wear. Jackets could be a different pattern and color than trousers; a straight tie was as acceptable as a bow tie. Cocktail fashion for men was not ascribed to as a specific style until the 50s.

Late 1950s styles, Wards catalog, Fall/Winter, 1959

In the 1940s, soldiers returned from overseas. Many brought exotic clothing for their gals from faraway lands - which began a trend in ethnically influenced Asian dresses in beautiful brocade fabrics and bright floral Hawaiian rayon prints. Dresses began to bare more and more flesh, as necklines plunged daringly, hemlines (for cocktail dresses) rose again to the knee, and rarely was a sleeve in sight. Decorative elements were more lavish, and more outlandish. The more sequins and rhinestones, the better.

As the late 40s melted into the 50s, cocktail became a culture. Cocktail parties remained, but couples and small group gatherings often went out. Music, starting in the 20s with the rise of the jazz age, became an important part of the cocktail hour. Cocktail bars became commonplace. They served beverages and provided background music, frequently by a piano player or a muted band. Lounge acts became incredibly popular, and an entire genre of music was created for enjoying cocktail parties. Men became as fashionably conscious about dressing as did women. Slim trousers made of silk or rayon and extravagantly cut jackets were often custom-made. Shirts of cotton or silk were shrouded in slender ties or ascots. Partaking of cocktails at home (which was acceptable, now that there was a cocktail hour) meant smoking jackets or dressing gowns with or without an ascot, trousers or pajama bottoms and slippers. For women, peignoirs became as elegant as cocktail dresses - but with even more to them! Full length gowns made from silk or nylon frothed with lace and ruffles. Cocktails moved from being purely a public event, to a private event - a romantic event. The home bar became stylish, and specific implements for mixing the perfect cocktail became a necessity.

Home bar, Sears 1965 Summer Catalog

During the 50s, cocktail dresses for women evolved into a great many styles. Full skirts and décolleté necklines, slim skirts with jewel necklines, body-hugging and curve-enhancing was the order of the day. Dress and coat suits, and three-piece skirt suits also became popular, always combined with the tiny matching bag, dyed-to-match shoes (or matching shoes and bag) and gloves.

Where's my drink, baby? Guy in typical mid-60s cocktail attire. Sears Summer Catalog, 1965

The transition between 50s and 60s cocktail wear was subtle. Colors were muted, pastels were popular. Silver lamé became equally as popular as gold lamé. As the sixties progressed, decoration (on clothing in general) became less obtrusive. Skirts narrowed, and for the young, cocktail clothing eventually gave way to wild discotheque outfits. The older crowd dressed quite similarly for the cocktail hour as they did 10 years previous. Alcohol consumption at all hours was becoming increasingly more acceptable, time and place seemed less important and cocktail parties began to fade in popularity. More frequently, couples stayed for the cocktail hour, and by the late 60s, loungewear replaced fancy cocktail dress. Women sported one piece jumpsuits which looked similar to full length gowns. Men no longer wore ties with a drink, and low waisted pants replaced the high waisted silk trousers.

The 90s saw a revival of the cocktail tradition, in both music and style. Vintage cocktail fashions were affordable, and were basically the only way one could obtain a cocktail garment, since they had not been specifically designed for almost 20 years!

Related Links:

Cocktails on the Web
List of cocktail-related links

Happy Hour
Vintage cocktail accessories

Cocktail Time
History of the word cocktail. Check out the article on 1960s cocktail accessories

Molecular Expressions Cocktail Site
All your favorite cocktails but WAYYYY up close

Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
Everything what it is

Vik Trola's Lounge of Self Indulgence
Come on in...


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