Birth of the Cocktail Ensemble

By the end of World War I, the 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 (Steele, p. 253). 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'aperitif. Instead, the couturières Chanel and Vionnet created garments for the late afternoon, or "after five," including beach pajamas—silk top and palazzo pant outfits worn with a mid-calf-length wrap jacket. Louise Boulanger produced les robes du studio, chic but rather informal sheaths that suited the hostess of private or intimate 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 the 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. Created by 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" (Vogue, 1 May 1943, p. 75).

Mid-1920s skirt lengths were just below the knee for all hours and affairs. 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. Hats in the 1920s varied little from the cloche shape, but cocktail and evening models were adorned with plumes, rhinestones, and beaded embroideries that indicated a more formal aesthetic. Short gloves were worn universally for cocktail attire during this period and could be found in many colors, though white and black were the most popular.

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