My grandmother was a stern, fastidious woman. She had a live-in housekeeper, and her home was always tidy. She wore expensive jewelry and got her hair done professionally several times a week. She frequently sent back food at restaurants and would chew out waiters who brought her an imperfectly made Martini.
So it was quite surprising to one day come across a black-and-white photo of her in her 20s. A huge smile lit her face as she tilted a high heel full of sloshing Champagne to her lips.
What a time!
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It left me wondering, where did this strange practice come from? When exactly were you supposed to do such a thing? And how?! Practically speaking, using a shoe as a drinking vessel seems difficult to execute (heel or toe?).
The strange, once-popular practice is said to be of Russian origin, dating back to the late 19th century. It was at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet where fans may have drunk, not necessarily Champagne, but vodka, from their favorite ballerinas’ satin slippers.
Around the same time in Belle Époque Paris, the Folies Bergère’s cabaret dancers would serve slippers of Champagne to their admirers. High Heels Daily — yes, that’s a real website — claims the practice was used to salute the female performers, positing: “Perhaps in those male-dominated times it was seen a more appropriate way of showing respect than simply grovelling at the dancers’ feet.”
By the turn of the century, the practice had spread to America — and notably to Chicago’s Everleigh Club, a brothel run by madam sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh. Theirs was a simultaneously decadent and depraved operation. The three-story Everleigh Club occupied a double mansion with a library, art gallery, ballroom, 50 bedrooms, and a good two dozen prostitutes always on call. There was a $15,000 gold-leafed piano, $12 bottles of Champagne (pricey for the time), and rooms with mirrored ceilings and $650 spittoons. It was also home to one of the most notable and reported-on drinking-Champagne-from-a-slipper incidents.
The Everleigh Club was “the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution in the country.” So of course, when Prince Henry of Prussia came to America in 1902 on a business trip, he needed to find a way to discreetly visit. The Everleigh sisters were savvy enough to oblige, and quickly put together a banquet in his honor.
In what is quite possibly an apocryphal tale, it is said the club’s best dancer, Vidette, was atop a mahogany table dancing to “The Blue Danube” waltz when it happened.“Her feet flying higher each time, legs meeting and parting like a pair of scissors possessed,” according to Karen Abbott, author of the 2008 book, “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul.” Eventually one of Vidette’s high-heeled silver slippers dislodged from her foot, flying across the room, hitting a Champagne bottle, and spilling some into the shoe.
A rakish man named Adolph quickly restored order — and assured Vidette could continue dancing — by quaffing the Champagne straight from her slipper. (“Boot liquor. The darling mustn’t get her feet wet,” Adolph supposedly stated.) What followed, Abbott explains, was “Prince Henry’s entire entourage arose, yanked a slipper from the nearest girl, and held it aloft. Waiters scurried about, hurriedly filling each shoe with Champagne.”
Irving Wallace envisioned a slightly less raucous version of this incident in “The Golden Room,” his 1990 novel about the Everleigh Club. “With Minna’s shoe in hand, the prince came to his feet and poured champagne into the slipper. ‘A toast!’ announced Prince Henry,” Wallace wrote.
However the logistics, wherever it originated, and by whom, most believe that Prince Henry’s Everleigh Club incident kickstarted a nationwide sensation. Drinking Champagne out of women’s shoes was going viral in the age before Twitter and Instagram — soon everyone was participating. And why not? It was a great party trick, it was a lavish way to get loaded, and it was one helluva flirtation tactic.
“In New York millionaires were soon doing it publicly,” wrote Charles Washburn in his 1934 book, “Come Into My Parlor.” “At home parties husbands were doing it, in back rooms, grocery clerks were doing it — in fact, everybody was doing it…it made a more lasting impression on a girl than carrying [a] picture in a watch.”
The practice soon spread to the world of celebrities, both on and off stage and screen. In a London showing of Andre Charlot’s Revue of 1924, playwright Noel Coward depicted an 1890 Parisian cabaret with a stuffy English gentleman “drinking champagne from the slipper of La Flamme, a ravishing and freely proportioned charmer who sustains her ardour for the polka and English whiskerdom with much knowing application to the absinthe glass,” according to theater critic Ivor Brown. He called the whole scene “nonsense de luxe.”
By 1927, the practice had become an even more indelible part of pop culture, mentioned in the song “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” in Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway musical “Show Boat.” Dancing girls on the titular ship lament their lives, singing, “We drink water from a dipper/You drink Champagne from a slipper.”
Groucho Marx joked about the practice in the 1939 film “At the Circus,” reminiscing, “I know you have forgotten those June nights on the Riviera, where we sat ’neath the shimmering skies, moonlight bathing in the Mediterranean! We were young, gay, reckless! The night I drank Champagne from your slipper — two quarts. It would have held more, but you were wearing inner soles!”
Soon, all the hippest celebrities were partaking in the practice. “Back in Lillian Russell’s day, no actress possessed the real spirit of the theatre if she didn’t periodically dance on a supper table and drink Champagne out of a slipper,” wrote society writer Beaucaire in a 1941 edition of Argus. And movie star Tallulah Bankhead famously sipped Champagne from a chocolate suede slipper during a 1951 press conference at London’s Ritz Hotel.
A year prior, at the wrap party for “There’s a Girl in My Heart,” horror movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr. ripped a high heel off of a fellow reveler, filled it with Champagne, and chugged it. “After he finished with my shoe, he flung it up on the catwalk and a prop man had to go up and get it for me,” Bonnie Schoonover recalled. “We had a lot of fun at that party. Everyone was drunk and especially Lon Chaney!”
Drinking from a shoe eventually spread to other countries, footwear, and beverages. Ukrainians would steal a bride’s shoe to slug vodka. German soldiers were said to drink beer from each other’s boots to bring luck before battle — or perhaps celebrate victory after it. Aussies have long employed a practice called the “shoey,” which consists of slugging cans of beer from their buddies’ sneakers. This is similar to the rugby tradition of “shooting the boot,” a hazing ritual in which a young player has to drink from his dirty cleat at the post-game celebration. The sports world particularly enjoys the practice, with everyone from auto racers to basketball fans to even joggers using their appropriate footwear and beverage choices for the attempt.
Unfortunately, Champagne-filled high heels mostly petered out of American nightlife by the end of the 1950s. Today when people at bars drink out of a shoe it’s mainly planned and mostly sanitary. Many American-style German beer halls now offer Bierstiefels, the so-called “das boot,” a heavy, glass-shaped boot able to hold several liters of beer. You typically have to lay down a credit card for the privilege as insurance should you accidentally break it. Not exactly as free-wheeling and fancy-free as in Tallulah Bankhead’s day.
Yet the concept never truly leaves us. Every few years, someone somewhere attempts to revive it. In 1999, in one of the stranger alcohol collaborations of all time, Christian Louboutin and Champagne Piper-Heidsieck created a package containing a bottle of the latter’s bubbly and the former’s crystal-heeled shoe. Sold exclusively in select Neiman Marcus stores, it was dubbed Le Rituel. A few years later, British designer Rupert Sanderson teamed with Perrier-Jouet to launch The Rupert Sanderson Champagne Slipper, a silver-plated crystal Champagne glass shaped like a (very) high heel.
In 2014 London’s Ritz unveiled The Tallulah, a Champagne cocktail named after Bankhead. Made with jasmine pearl tea, geranium essence, Cinzano Bianco, shochu, and bubbles, The Tallulah was served in that Louboutin heel-shaped glassware. It sold for 34 pounds. On the other end of the spectrum, in our modern era, “Champagne slipper” is an Urban Dictionary-caliber term for a certain sexual act. (I won’t necessarily encourage you to look it up.)
The practice will almost certainly never fully go away. It’s just too fun. This summer, Sir Patrick Stewart did a shoey after July’s Canadian Grand Prix Formula One World Championship race. Though not a woman’s high heel, he utilized race car driver Daniel Ricciardo’s boot after he had finished third. Stewart spilled the so-called “boot bubbly” all over his shirt as he swigged. This was much to Mashable’s consternation, which headlined its hit piece, “Patrick Stewart drinks Champagne from a shoe because this is a thing.”
Yes it’s “a thing.” It’s always been a thing.
And, hopefully, in a minor way, it always will be.