The current show at Planting Fields in Oyster Bay explores fashion though the cocktail era, starting with 1920s and ending in the late 1950s,including fabulous clothes by some of the greatest designers of their time such as Mariano Fortuny, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Salvatore Ferragamo. The cocktail is the consummate American medium, embodying a unique mixture of innovation, modernity and glamour. As shown in the exhibition, its history in fashion, bar accessories, and popular imagery, captures the spirit of an American phenomenon.
The exhibit begins at the time that Coe Hall was being built, in 1920, the same year in which the Prohibition Amendment became law until it was repealed in 1933. For their new house at Planting Fields, Mr. and Mrs. William Robertson Coe had a very large secret storage space built in the basement for bottles of liquor. To this day there still is a massive safe door hidden behind a nondescript board and batten door that might be found in any service area. It is clear that the Coes did not want Prohibition enforcement agents to know that they had seven hundred square feet of cellar with shelves for bottle storage. The general ledgers originally maintained by Mr. Coe’s New York City office, and now in the Foundation’s archives, reveal that in 1918 and 1919, the two years leading up to Prohibition, Mr. Coe, whose favorite drink was the Manhattan – made from whisky, was stockpiling liquor.
While Prohibition made it illegal to make or transport liquor, Long Island became one of the most notorious routes along which liquor was trucked from the island’s many shore towns, where it had arrived by boat, mostly from Canada and the Caribbean, and then by road to New York City. Prohibition agents patrolled the highways ready to confiscate illegal liquor. During the same period of time, speakeasies in the village of Oyster Bay were notorious, several of them conveniently located near the waterfront. A letter to the Times in 1924 took the police to task for permitting such “goings on” to continue. The subject of cocktails is often a feature of novels of the period including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 The Great Gatsby, where at a party on the North Shore it is observed that, “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside…”
In the exhibition, dresses from the 1920s reflect women’s new freedoms, including the vote (1920); the flappers’ independence found expression in their new style un-corseted, skin-revealing sheath dress. The shorter skirts drew attention to the legs and the surfaces of dresses, which often had reflective beads, sequins and fringe, further emphasizing the flappers contagious energy. Hollywood embraced cocktail culture and the prototypical flapper. Films such as “Three Broadway Girls” (1932) with its sassy gold diggers dressed by Chanel, showed its stars in speakeasy bars at the height of Prohibition. Drink titles were inspired by popular fast moving dances, including the Charleston Cocktail and the Foxtrot Cocktail. Shoes in the 1920s reached an exceptional level of craftsmanship, innovation and ornate Art Deco designs, several types of which are included in the exhibition.
The repeal in 1933 of the 18th Amendment that had banned alcoholic drinks, reinvigorated cocktail culture. Innovative cocktail recipes, new forms of cocktail accessories, and supper and nightclubs proliferated. The term “cocktail dress” entered the fashion lexicon around 1935. With the ubiquitous little black dress a woman would wear costume jewelry and could top off her ensemble with a whimsical hat or fascinator. The typical 1930s silhouette was elongated and figure hugging, in contrast to the earlier sheath. Like the dresses, cocktail shakers took on the attenuated lines of the skyscraper aesthetic which was uniquely American. Speakeasies became legal restaurants, such as The Stork Club and the 21 Club, which still exists today and where Natalie Coe, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Coe, was photographed at the bar in the early 1930s.
During World War II, government restrictions on wool, silk, leather, and nylon, as well as on metal buttons, pleating and full skirts had a sobering effect on fashions.
The era’s military-inspired silhouette for women had padded shoulders, slim hips, and a knee-length skirt better suited to practical wartime work. Paris was no longer the epicenter of new fashion; therefore, American designers became more inventive with designs for accessories, making fanciful shoes, hats, and gloves which was an easy and economical way to embellish an outfit. At the same time new materials, including plastics and synthetic fabrics, were used in innovative ways. With the advent of food rationing, the cocktail party became a convenient way to entertain without the pressure of providing a lavish spread of food.
After the war there was a return to the traditional and overtly feminine fashion silhouette. In 1947 Paris resumed its role as the center of couture with Christian Dior’s revolutionary New Look silhouette, featuring a wasp waist, padded hips, rounded shoulders, and lavish full skirt; this was a huge change from the sobriety of the war years. In regard to cocktails, gender-specific drinks became the rage; for women, brightly colored drinks – the Pink Lady and the Brandy Flip. For men cocktails were more restrained – the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, or Martini.
At Planting Fields the cocktail era came to an end in 1955 with the death of Mr. Coe. His second wife, Caroline, died in 1960. And so the exhibition ends with the traditional ladylike cocktail ensembles with the requisite hat and gloves of the late 1950s, and with a glimpse of the quintessential cocktail dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Cocktail culture, which began so many years ago, is now indelibly pressed into the fabric of American culture, if not world-wide. While styles may change the cocktail and its rituals are undoubtedly here to stay.
Through Sept. 30th from 11:30am to 3:30pm daily, $3.50; members, free. Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park, 1395 Planting Fields Road. (516) 922-9200