Wine, women’s magazines and consumer culture

Consumption figures confirm that Australia became a wine-drinking country in the 1970s. The groundwork for the shift from beer drinking to wine consumption though was laid in the 1950s. Beginning in August 1955, the Wine Overseas Marketing Board mounted a national advertising campaign in the leading women’s magazines, the Australian Women’s Weekly and Woman’s Day.  With the slogan ‘Life is more pleasant with wine’ these advertisements promoted the use of wine as an integral ingredient of a contemporary lifestyle.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 October 1955, 46.

The campaign was well-timed. All the ingredients that are generally credited for fostering wine consumption in Australia were beginning to coalesce. Community attitudes to alcohol were relaxing as evidenced by the removal of restrictions on the sale and consumption of liquor, breaking down the stigma of immorality and law breaking which had surrounded drinking in general. Post-war immigration was bringing ‘foreign’ tastes and a tradition of wine drinking to the suburbs. An increasingly affluent middle-class were casting off the self-denial and self-sacrifice of the war years and, encouraged by Melbourne’s 1956 Olympic Games and the arrival of television, both men and women were beginning to see themselves as more sophisticated, cosmopolitan, modern and forward thinking.

Moreover, the 1950s were also years during which many women grappled with defining a role for themselves beyond that of husband’s helpmeet, guardian of the hearth and educator of their children. In the face of significant social, cultural and political upheaval the ‘Australian way of life’ was being refashioned and redefined. That advertisements for wine appeared in the Weekly at all was a sure sign that change was in the air. The Wine Board advertising campaign clearly demonstrates that the Australian wine industry saw women as crucial players in the push to expand the local market for its products.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 28 September 1955, 68.

Although the Wine Board’s campaign appealed to women as the architects of a new drinking culture, credited with the power and authority to bring about serious social change, the early advertisements targeted them in their stereotypical roles of cook, house manager, wife and mother. Those which ran in the Weekly in the 1950s were focused almost exclusively on convincing women of the merits of wine consumption and were unique in their concentration on wine drinking in the home and the use of wine in cooking. The images employed emphasised casual, relaxed domestic scenes, featuring family groups, situating drinking wine at home, rather than beer swilling at the pub, as entirely consistent with the happy Australian way of life. Men were portrayed in settings which implied their changing relationship with the home and reinforced the message that wine drinking was a part of an on-going renegotiation of appropriate male and female behaviour, while hinting that for women alcohol consumption was still hedged with limitations and was more socially acceptable and respectable in mixed company.

Overall, the advertisements in the early years of the campaign emphasised the democratisation and informality of wine drinking, a theme which brand advertising would reinforce in the 1960 and 1970s. Women were encouraged take charge of what they drank and, by extension, to negotiate a shift from beer to wine consumption. They were not required to become wine connoisseurs. It was the act of wine drinking itself which defined the modern woman and bestowed cultural capital.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 December 1955, 40.

In the 1960s the campaign persisted with connecting wine to everyday dining and the use of wine in cooking but the cliched image of the housewife disappeared. The wine-drinking woman was now modern, stylish and seductive, the dominant figure at the table with no hint of children or the accoutrements of domesticity in the background. The most significant but subtle change was from a generalised slogan: ‘life is more pleasant with wine’, to ‘your life is more pleasant with wine’. This highlighted the individual and stressed the pleasure that accrued to the woman herself rather than any benefits to her family. By the end of the decade, with this greater emphasis on the autonomous woman and her personal gratification, women were finally liberated from the home and the dinner table.

These advertisements add to the picture of the 1950s as a period of change and realignment rather than stasis. Magazines like the Weekly can be interpreted as sources of guidance on how to navigate the post-war world, acting as cultural intermediaries, imparting the knowledge readers needed to gain cultural capital by providing visions of modern living which helped them develop their own modern life-style. The AWB campaign of the 1950s might be criticised for showing women essentially deriving all their pleasure in the home, but for the majority of women in the early post-war years the home was the site of their agency. For any female reader responsive to the message, drinking wine represented a way of establishing a new identity as a modern woman by distancing herself from masculine beer culture and exercising some control of how she spent her leisure time. The wine-drinking woman could modernise her family and take an active role in making her life more pleasant without sacrificing her femininity or her central role in the home. Drinking wine conferred distinction and cultural sophistication.

There is much still to learn from studying the way wine was advertised to both women and men, not least the place of women in creating a wine-drinking nation.

Alison Vincent is a cultural historian with qualifications in science (Food Technology) and history and has recently completed a PhD at Central Queensland University, entitled ‘Sydney Eats, Melbourne Dines: Shaping Australian Tastes 1970–1995’. Her research focuses on Australian food culture, including the social history of dining out in Australia, the role of print media in shaping Australian tastes and the history of writing about food in the Australian context. The results of her research have been published in a number of journals including Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and Journal of Australian Studies.

You can read the full version of this article in the 2021 issue of Lilith.

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