Cocktail Culture, Idealized Femininity, and the Post-War Cocktail Dress


Since the 1920s, cocktails have changed the way people – especially women – use attire to delineate times of the day and to signal social status.  By 1926, French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel had introduced to the international well-dressed set her “little black dress” transforming what fashion-conscious women wore for an evening of libations, smoking, and dancing.  Throughout the twenties the popular slender, boyish silhouette for women’s dress participated in the social construction of cocktail culture as blithe and youth-oriented.  Appropriate cocktail attire – and what it meant to drink socially – went through changes over the next twenty years, achieving a height of distinctiveness and cross class accessibility from post-World War II through the mid-1960s.


For nearly two decades from the late forties to the mid-sixties, the cocktail dress signaled idealized femininity for women situated in a range of social roles: from the suburban wife-hostess entertaining in her new construction “planned community” home to the jet-setting single airline stewardess enjoying martinis during an evening out on the town.  Hollywood film costumes significantly shaped popular US tastes while reflecting shifting attitudes about conforming to a burgeoning heternormative consumer culture. 


My current project examines cocktail dresses from among the most popular Hollywood films released between 1948 and 1967, including Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961), and Valley of the Dolls (Mark Robson, 1967).  I pair my close costume analyses with an examination of women’s dress featured in popular magazines – general interest and fashion – such as Life and Vogue.  Since making one’s own clothes was common practice, I also look at home sewing commercial patterns including those officially endorsed by Hollywood film costume designers.  The different sources reflect the range of price points and possibilities for creative interpretation available to women at the time – from haute couture’s ateliers to the home sewing room – for achieving desirable looks associated with cocktail culture and the ways and spaces linked to different drinking practices. 


Taking these sources together I examine how post-War cocktail culture got reflected on women’s adorned bodies to reveal broader cultural expectations for normative appearances and behavior.  In so doing I locate an undercurrent of ambivalence towards emergent post-War women’s social roles: tensions between conforming and resisting, between being ornamental and being instrumental, between being sheltered and being suffocated.  By the late sixties counter cultural movements, the women’s liberation movement, increased recreational drug use, and an emphasis on individuality would converge to participate in diminishing the cocktail dress’ prominence without entirely eliminating its cultural presence.



Vogue, December 1955

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