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Giddiness. Light-headedness. Euphoria.
If those aren't feelings you normally associate with museum exhibitions, "Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion, 1920-1980," a new exhibit opening Friday at the RISD Museum, may just change your mind.
Indeed, the show, which explores the role of drinks and drinking in American life from the Jazz Age through the disco era, is so enjoyably addictive that viewers probably shouldn't be allowed to operate heavy machinery for several hours after leaving the museum.
Fashion fans are particularly at risk. The reason: among the more than 200 cocktail-related objects and artifacts on display are dresses by a Who's Who of fashion, including Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin. If this isn't fashionista nirvana, it's a close facsimile.
Other items range from the playful (a cocktail shaker shaped like a penguin) to the ephemeral (a sample book filled with cocktail-themed matchbook covers) to the star-struck (a necklace worn by Audrey Hepburn in the movie "Sabrina").
Certainly, the show's timing couldn't be better. With cocktails making a comeback among hip young urbanites -- and with shows like "Mad Men" reviving interest in the three-martini lunch -- cocktails have recently regained their place atop the alcoholic pecking order.
It's ironic, then, that the idea for "Cocktail Culture" dates back to the late 1990s -- long before the swinging executives at Sterling Cooper (the fictitious New York ad agency in "Mad Men") ever downed their first highball.
That was when RISD curator Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, then working at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, became interested in a little-noticed facet of fashion history: the large number of 20th-century American fabrics decorated with cocktail-related themes and patterns. Americans, it seems, didn't just enjoy having a few drinks after work. They also wore them -- literally -- on their sleeves.
When Ingersoll took a job at RISD in 2005, she brought the idea for a fashion-meets-cocktail exhibit with her. Eventually, the show grew to include art, fashion, textiles and the decorative arts. Two other curators -- RISD fashion curator Kate Irvin and curatorial assistant Laurie Brewer -- also signed on to the project.
Still, the show's fashion-history roots aren't hard to spot. One of the first things you see as enter the exhibit is a genuine fashion icon: a sleeveless black silk dress with a cinched waste and a hem that hangs, tastefully yet seductively, just below the knee. Created by French designer Christian Dior for his 1954 fall collection, the dress neatly sums up the mix of style, sophistication and sexiness that came to define American nightlife of the 1940s, '50s and '60s.
Other examples of the so-called "little black dress" can be found nearby, including designs by Charles James (simple and refined), Norman Norell (sexy and sparkly) and Pierre Cardin (a minimalist sheath accessorized with a dramatic chrome-metal breastplate).
Perched next to the Dior dress is another eye-catching piece: an Art Deco cocktail service by the American designer Norman Bel Geddes. At once sleekly refined and smoothly functional, it's the kind of thing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might have reached for after a long night on the dance floor.
Other objects are grouped according to theme. A section called "Travel" traces the growth of the travel industry during the 1920s and '30s, as Prohibition-weary Americans sought refuge abroad. Another section, "Mixed Company," draws parallels between the popularity of mixed drinks and growing tolerance for "mixing" between different sexes and social classes.
For visitors who can't get enough "Cocktail Culture," the show also boasts a full-color catalog, as well as a lengthy list of cocktail-related events and activities. (For a full list of events, visit www.risdmuseum.org).
In the meantime, this is one museum show you'll want to savor like a well-made martini. Cheers!
"Cocktail Culture" runs through July 31 at the RISD Museum, 224 Benefit St. in Providence. Hours: Tues.-Sun. 10-5. Admission: adults $10, seniors $7, students and ages 5-18 $3. Contact (401) 454-6500 or www.risdmuseum.org.
Photos: "The V-Backed Evenings," dress by Pauline Trigere, from Harper's Bazaar, July,1955, courtesy of the artist and Staley-Wise Gallery; screenprinted cocktail napkin from a set of six, circa 1950, courtesy RISD Museum; cocktail set, circa 1925, designed by Erik Magnussen and produced by Gorham Mfg. Co., courtesy RISD Museum; Exhibit designer and RISD graduate Nader Tehrani at Tuesday's press tour, photographed by Journal photographer Sandor Bodo.