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Myth Busts: The Enduring Legacy of Breast-Shaped Glassware


No, that glass probably wasn't modeled on Marie Antoinette's assets.
But that doesn't mean the story doesn't matter.

It can be a challenge for a person to go through life without seeing Kate Moss's breasts. Over the course of her twenty-five year career, the supermodel has bared her chest countless times: on the runway, in W Magazine, in Vogue Paris, in Playboy, in Vanity Fair, on vacation in Thailand, on vacation in Jamaica, on vacation in St. Tropez—not to mention the endless pixels devoted to her décolletage on countless unofficial fan sites with names like Kate Moss's Tits and Naked Kate. But for those for whom a high-fashion photos and paparazzi snaps don't suffice, for those who literally want to get their mouths on Moss's assets, the London-based Restaurant 34 recently issued a champagne coupe modeled on the left one.

This collaboration installs Moss as the latest in a long line of women whose breasts have, according to legend, inspired the shape of a drinking vessel. Hers may be the boobs du jour, but it's Marie Antoinette, teen queen of France from 1774 and 1792, who is the possessor of the pert, perfect breasts most often cited as those from which the wide-mouthed, shallow-bowled champagne coupe takes its inspiration.

It's a good story. When cocktail banter runs its course and you're searching the room for something to comment on, it's useful to be able to look down at the glass in your hand and say, "Did you know that the champagne coupe is modeled after Marie Antoinette's breast?" But, alas, it's probably not true.

"In the case of Marie Antoinette, ninety percent of what you hear about her is hyperbole or is invented," Marilyn Yalom explained to me. Yalom is a senior scholar at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and the author of A History of the Breast, in which she elucidates both the power and prejudice women throughout time have experienced as a result of their chests. "It's not out of the question that someone at some point may have made a mold of some famous woman's breasts and then used it for a glass," she went on, "but I don't think there's anything to indicate that Marie Antoinette herself would have lent her breast for a vessel."

Still, if you're going to tell the story about anyone, Marie Antoinette is a pretty good choice. The Austrian-born aristocrat married Louis XVI as a teenager in 1770 (when the future king was merely a dauphin) and became queen of France just four years later, all the while scandalizing her French subjects with her lavish excesses and pampered femininity.

If you're going to tell the story about anyone, Marie Antoinette is a pretty good choice

With no formal political role or legislative power in the French government, the young queen took on extracurricular activities to fill her time, some of which indeed involved breasts, perhaps influenced by her avid reading of the works of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, among other things, wrote about the benefits of breastfeeding children in his 1762 education treatise Émile. At her summer palace of Rambouillet, Marie Antoinette played out a milkmaid fantasy at her mock dairy farm, and the story goes that her husband the king commissioned artist Jean-Jacques Lagreneé of Sévres, a legendary French porcelain producer, to create a ceramic bol sein (literally, a "breast bowl") for the dairy, in the shape of a single, perfect breast. But no evidence exists to support the notion that the queen's interests led her to offer her own anatomy as the model for a glass.

Nor is there any proof to back up any of the many variations on the Marie Antoinette tale. The champagne coupe was not modeled after the breasts of Helen of Troy; nor those of Joséphine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon; nor those of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II; nor Madame de Pompadour, chief mistress of Louis XV; nor Madame du Barry, another of Louis XV's mistresses. It is true that Claudia Schiffer loaned a stylized outline of her left breast to a Karl Lagerfeld-designed ceramic coupe for Dom Perignon in 2008 (which, in its design, harkens back to Marie Antoinette's own bol sein), and that our hero Kate Moss did the same for a crystal coupe, but those supermodels were inspired by mythology, tittles of historical apocrypha.

The women the champagne coupe origin stories are ascribed to are themselves tied together with certain common threads. They all were lovers of powerful men, and primarily defined by those associations. Portraits show their breasts as uniformly small, round, and lily-white; their intricate corsetry and aristocratic toilette likely kept their décolletage supple and firm, looking ornamental and smelling sweet. As with most rumors, the speculation about these women's roles as drinking-vessel models (which was rampant—an English-language account of Madame du Barry's journals published in her lifetime mentions that the rumor "profoundly scandalized the palace's residents and regular visitors") wasn't merely innocuous chatter from spiteful ladies-in-waiting and scornful subjects. Rather, it was—and still is—a way to assert that these women of stature never become anything more than their bodies. Whether in a dishy rumor or a revered myth, the story of the breast-based coupe still serves as a way to keep women under glass.

On the rare occasions that a bottle is popped when I'm around—I don't generally run with a champagne-swilling crowd—I certainly don't drink from a coupe. The round, shallow glass fell out of favor in the 1920s, as discerning drinkers became more finicky about preserving the effervescence of of sparkling wine: a flute's tall, narrow trumpet preserves carbonation better than a stemmed bowl. (In fact, discerning champagne drinkers are lately abandoning the flute entirely; instead, they prefer the way a tuliped white wine glass enhances the liquid's carbonation and aroma.) Peter Liem, publisher of ChampagneGuide.net and a former wine retailer, explained to me, "Today nobody drinks champagne out of coupes. Those glasses have gone to the cocktail world." It's true: coupes are far more likely to be found in the dark, trendy sorts of cocktail bars where a man might fancy himself both charming and cheeky for bringing up Marie Antoinette's cups.

Whatever pockets of fluid and fatty tissue comprise the female body are liminal and liquid, and they are for others' consumption

Modern idioms aren't doing us any favors in eliminating specious cocktail anecdotes from this earth, either: We measure our breasts in cups. We pour ourselves into dresses. Men drink us in, tall glasses that we are. We spill our secrets and intoxicate with our wit. This parlance is often obtuse, but what it conveys is clear as crystal: whatever pockets of fluid and fatty tissue comprise the female body are liminal and liquid, and they are for others' consumption. Especially our jugs.

The link between breast and drink is a direct one. It predates Marie Antoinette's arrival at Versailles, far foreruns prints of Grace Kelly's L'Instant Taittinger poster and the dubious air of sophistication it lends to freshman dorm rooms, and certainly goes farther back than the Arizona Iced Tea "I Love Big Cans" signs papering delis and corner stores nationwide. Together, and for thousands of years, human ritual, language, and biology have worked to position women not as people, but as vessels to sustain—and invigorate—male lives.

Breast milk, the substance that still prompts spirited discussions among everyone from medievalists (who debate its once-presumed mythical powers) to mommy bloggers (who debate everything), is almost certainly the primary reason breasts and drinking are so yoked in our minds. "In some ways, I think it's pretty obvious," said Yalom about the connection. "The breast itself, if you look at it as a form like a container, contains a fluid that was essential for the nourishment of babies." It's not a leap for the organ to become a living metaphor: "The breasts become separated from the body, and worshipped in and of themselves," Yalom explained, "in the same way the male penis becomes separated from the male body at the time of the ancient Greeks."

Breast milk in legend made men literally drunk with power. In Egyptian mythology, baby-kings nurse on the mother-goddess Isis's immortality-conferring teats and transform into omnipotent pharaohs. In Greek lore, Hercules, understanding he could live forever by drinking the breast milk of a goddess, suckles from Hera (without asking) and lifts his head from her bosom as a true god. (Angered, Hera tears her breast away from his thirsty mouth, leading to a splattering of droplets which become the stars in our Milky Way.) In the founding story of Rome, the city is established by Romulus and Remus, a pair of febrile, water-logged twins who manage to survive thanks to a maternal she-wolf and her milk-filled teat.

In the Middle Ages, breast milk continued to be representative of the ways in which a woman's breasts could confer power. There are plenty of stories of a woman's breast making human weakness disappear: one volume from the mid-fifteenth century, Tristan de Nanteuil, tells a tale of a mother struggling to breastfeed her baby boy until she prays to God and the Virgin Mary. Her prayers are answered and her cups ran over so much, the milk almost fills a boat. Writes Yalom in A History of the Breast, "Narratives like this one, fabricated from a weave of realistic and miraculous threads, offered models of devoted mothers who had themselves internalized the lessons of the Virgin Mary. Milk was seen as both a material and spiritual form of nourishment."

Mary's milk was considered comparable to the blood of her son Jesus in its holiness, facilitating miracles as it did in Tristan de Nanteuil: Emperor Charlemagne purportedly wore an amulet containing three drops of the Virgin's breast milk whenever he rode into battle; twelfth-century abbot Saint Bernard of Clairveaux was reportedly cured of illness when a drop of Mary's milk fell onto his lips (it's referred to, confusingly, as "the lactation of St. Bernard"); churches all over Europe claim to have vials of her milk among the other sacred objects in their reliquaries; and in Bethlehem, women praying for fertility still pay pilgrimage to the Milk Grotto, a chapel where Mary purportedly spilled a droplet while breastfeeding Jesus, which upon hitting the floor immediately turned the space pure white.

Taking breasts from vessels for milk to bearers of alcohol is not a small leap, but its trajectory is logical. The connection between the breast and spirits was evident in classical Greek antiquity. For one, there's the mastos, an ancient Greek wine vessel shaped conically like a woman's breast, nipple and all, which popped up as early as the fifth century BCE. With its double handles and black-figure drawings depicting myths, it was usually incorporated into rites involving deities whose roles had to do with fertility or breastfeeding, including the worship of the thirsty god-bro Hercules himself.

Vessel worship wasn't always tied to fertility; sometimes it came from a place of straight-up lust

But vessel worship wasn't always tied to fertility; sometimes it came from a place of straight-up lust. Helen of Troy has an outsized role in the history of libations: Homer credits her as the first person to suggest serving wine before a meal, and she soothed an entire troop of Trojan War-addled veterans with a signature opium cocktail in the fourth book of the Odyssey. But the woman didn't just pass out goblets; she was purportedly also the model for one. According to Pliny the Elder's Natural History, written in the first century CE, Helen lent the dimensions of her breast to a goblet on display for pilgrims at the Temple of Athena at Lindus on Rhodes.

Those legends celebrate breasts for their ability to turn boys into men and men into gods, but the actual breasts as interpreted by sculpture and renderings of myth do not appear to have done much breast-feeding at all. "The correlation between cups and breasts is also about the size and shape of a perfect 'drinking vessel' or cup," said Adrienne Mayor, a historian of ancient science at Stanford and the author of the scholarly article "Libation Titillation: Wine Goblets and Women's Breasts," when I asked her about the connection. "Keep in mind that the ancient Greeks admired petite, perfect breasts as the ideal, as opposed to the large, pendulous breasts associated with breast-feeding infants." In fact, Mayor explained, large breasts only really show up when they belong to women in Greek comedy who are supposed to be identified as unattractive or old, with similarly negative connotations when large breasts show up in vase paintings.

In the Western canon, it seems, women's breasts are well represented when they're employed as vessels for making men physically stronger. But if they're not, then they'd better be creamy white, round, and perky—not so different from the standards we hold so-called "perfect" breasts up to today, as reiterated on TV, in movies, and on magazine covers, inherent racial and class biases and all.

"That's a pretty sexy story, that the breast of the most coveted woman is the inspiration for a glass," said Belinda Chang about the Helen of Troy story. Chang is a James Beard Award-winning sommelier and the former champagne educator for Moët Hennessy USA, so if anyone knows how to bust a champagne myth, it's her. "Obviously, the non-sexy story is that they invented champagne in England, and therefore they're also the ones that invented that glass shape for serving it."

Ah, the non-sexy story. The real one. It turns out that the origin story of the particular flat, round shape of a champagne coupe lacks a certain je ne sais quois—the tale, in the end, isn't even French. It does have its charms, though: there's a rivalry that spanned the English Channel, an ahead-of-its-time concern for non-renewable resources, and a very real possibility of lead poisoning.

France and England discovered sparkling wine nearly simultaneously in the early seventeenth century; the fermentation-induced carbonation was a result of a series of particularly cold winters. For the French, whose Champagne region had produced still wine for centuries, having bubbles in the wine was an undesirable side effect. Even Dom Pérignon himself, the blind Benedictine monk frequently—if inaccurately—credited as the inventor of champagne (the tale was developed by Madison Avenue ad men in the 1950s, according to Chang), devoted considerable energy to rid the liquid of carbonation.

"The French thought it was very déclassé to drink sparkling champagne because it was an accident," said Chang. The English, on the other hand, loved it, bringing the effervescent liquid to prominence through intention and recipe. By the mid-1600s the English had settled on a reliable-enough recipe for replicating the accidental fermented sparkle in early British carbonated wine—early records point to adding sugar and molasses to a base wine of grapes and sending the mixture through two rounds of alcoholic fermentation—and shortly thereafter the French realized what a drink the Brits had on their hands. According to Liem, the champagne expert, wine connoisseurs in France had considered the sparkling spirit primarily a drink for prostitutes until the upper classes cottoned on to how appreciated the drink was across the English Channel. (The cause was helped by Louis XIV—king of France from 1643 until 1715, noted hoarder of luxury goods, and the man who would be Marie Antoinette's grandfather-in-law—who stamped his seal of approval on the beverage by drinking bottles upon bottles of champagne all day and all night.)

Considering that a preoccupation with women's bodies has always been a constant, it's entirely possible the original fortifiers of coupes had them on the mind

Still, the most important element in the advancement of sparkling wine's status wasn't the drink's recipe, but the glass itself. As a result of a 1621 decree from King James I that banned inefficient wood-burning ovens, British citizens were forced to use hotter-burning fuels like coal, which ushered in an era of sturdier glass. Higher oven temperatures allowed for the creation of bottles with the structural integrity to withstand the pressure of effervescent liquids without exploding—until this time, a dangerous and common occurrence when storing fermentation-carbonated alcohol in a vessel made of weaker glass. By 1670, George Ravenscroft, a British glass importer, was commercially fortifying wine glasses with lead oxide, creating sparklier, heavier, more affordable glass cups, and by the end of the seventeenth century, the aristocracy and merchant class were drinking almost exclusively from lead crystal vessels.

As for the coupe itself, which rose to prominence as sparkling wine did, it was the modified offshoot of a glassware look that worked for the cider and ale goblets that pleased aristocrats aesthetically. The commercial advancement of lead-fortified glass gave cups a brilliant luster, but also a substantial heft. As a result of the fortified glass's heaviness, glassblowers shortened stems and widened bowls on conventional goblets. The bowl of the coupe—designed specifically for drinking sparkling wine—was a smaller than that of its cider and ale counterparts because the liquid itself was more expensive and had a higher percentage of alcohol, and as such was consumed in smaller servings. Breasts don't explicitly come into play, but considering that a preoccupation with women's bodies has always been a constant, it is nevertheless entirely possible the original fortifiers of coupes had them on the mind.

Champagne is no longer even obliquely considered a drink just for prostitutes, but despite the Sun King's favor, its stigma remains feminine even today. "Sometimes men would come in and be apologetic for buying champagne," recalls Liem. "They would mumble something like 'This is for my wife,' and then want me to show them some big red wine." When I asked Liem why he thought the myths surrounding the origins of the coupe's shape persisted, he posited a simple theory: "I think it probably relates back to male-dominated societies, objectification of women, and the relationship to sensual pleasure: I like drinking champagne, I like women, and I like putting those two things together." Mayor describes this phenomenon in "Libation Titillation" as a "synecdochical fetish," an instance where the woman is the wine, where "woman-as-breast becomes the intoxicant that fills the breast-shaped goblet."

Champagne is a celebratory drink, the sort of frothy, bottle-spraying beverage associated with the unruly females who, though they may possess the manners associated with a privileged upbringing, might be known to pop out a breast for entertainment from time to time. Today, a wild-child socialite like Kate Moss; two hundred years ago, someone like Marie Antoinette. The adventurous natures of the women whose names others lend to the champagne coupe myth speaks to how boob-coupe culture past has spawned low-culture novelty items present. Long after the coupe moved on, and the champagne flute bowed its head in deference to the tuliped wine glass, we're still hearing its high-pitched swan song.

Mass culture still reiterates that boobs are vessels. Widely available are breast-inspired drinking accessories, including the beer can nipple, the Boob Tube beer bong, and the Boobzie coozie, along with dozens of other novelty items (not to mention the existence of beer-slinging breastaurants like the mammary-themed chain Twin Peaks). The intent of the WineRack, a brassiere outfitted with a polyurethane bladder capable of holding a bottle's worth of wine, is described on its purveyor's website, thebeerbelly.com, as lending its wearer "a rack that will turn heads."

For reporting purposes, I did try to acquire a WineRack; alas, it was backordered for months. In lieu of DIYing the damn thing by filling two plastic bags with champagne, poking each with a straw-sized hole, and stuffing them into a too-tight sports bra to demonstrate champagne coupe mythology's suffocating grip on twenty-first century womanhood, I went down a different path of gonzo journalism—I found a willing mold-maker and glassblower, and had a wine glass cast from my own left breast.

By no fault of anyone involved—certainly not the deft hands of the expert mold maker, or the glassblower's meticulous technique—the glass did not come out looking anything like Marie Antoinette's breast, or my own breast, or even a coupe. The crystalline, ridged, lopsided impression of my breast sitting atop an elegant stem more resembled an ancient, melting glacier than it did the result of a vanity project to immortalize my youthful assets, an outcome which was, in the end, fine by me. It wasn't supposed to be a glass, it was supposed to be a way to prove a point. If I couldn't entirely quash the mythology, I could make it personal, uglier, harder to believe. (Plus, my possession of this glass now makes cocktail banter a hell of a lot easier for me: Did you know that at least one champagne coupe has been modeled after my own left breast?)

These myths, easily debunkable as they are, persist in kicking around for a reason: they're good stories. Nobody really believes Rome was founded by a set of abandoned, wolf-reared twins, but it speaks to something ancient Romans probably wanted to believe about their scrappiness or their sense of filiality. Nobody really thinks a vial of holy breast milk made Charlemagne into an unstoppable soldier, but maybe it gave him a little boost of confidence on the battlefield. (There are no atheists in foxholes, especially not in holy wars.) Maybe there are some people who actually think that Marie Antoinette patiently stood with her left breast in a vat of slowly hardening Plaster of Paris, but having done the messy, vulnerable task myself, I'm fairly sure no one of her refinement would have even considered it.

Still, it's easy in our culture to keep imagining women as containers, as objects, their bodies as fountains from which men can draw strength, power, and physical fulfillment. But how can women soothe their sorrows in a drink and some good company when they hold the responsibility of being the vessel for the elixir itself? Maybe we do as Marie Antoinette and her heiress-apparent Kate Moss did, two mischievous women who cleverly manipulated their sex-object statuses by being aware of their observed, desired bodies, and profiting from them. If you want to own a bit of Kate Moss, Restaurant 34 is happy to sell it to you; a set of two of her coupes (both of the left breast, in a satin-lined gift box) will run you £340. The woman herself, however, is not for sale.


Claire Carusillo is Eater's social media editor
Editor: Helen Rosner
Illustrator: Dion Lee

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