Champagne and the Performance of Femininity in Victorian Britain

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Graham Harding, whose recent book, Champagne in Britian 1800–1914: How the British Transformed a French Luxury, was just published by Bloomsbury Academic.

In nineteenth century Britain, champagne was gendered feminine. Poems were written to “My Lady Champagne” that described it as “wayward, soft, luscious and tender” [1]. Women went to fancy dress balls dressed as champagne bottles (the nearest male equivalent was to go as a bottle of Bass beer). The words used to describe champagne— “pretty,” “elegant,” “sparkling”—reflected a stereotypical Victorian view of femininity.

“Sparkling” is a key word here. It encapsulated what the Victorian novelist Amelia Barr called “the social friskiness—the afternoon wit—the great fun” that Society (my capital “S”) demanded of women, particularly young women [2].

Harding Title Card
Left: Woman wearing a champagne bottle dress in 1902; and a photo of a vintage champagne bottle dress. Images courtesy of the Fashion Museum of Bath.

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Points Bookshelf: “A Thirst for Empire” by Erika Rappaport

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her review is part of the Points Bookshelf project, in which we review books about alcohol and drug history. 

Screenshot 2019-05-21 at 8.55.11 AMThe history of tea has been told many times by scholars and by connoisseurs. Firmly situated within the academic historiography but as beautifully illustrated as a work of art is Erika Rappaport’s A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2017). Through the vehicle of transnational commodity history, Rappaport draws together micro-dramas such as Indian soldiers drinking tea with English nurses in a British mosque in World War II (an incident depicted on the cover and the inspiration for the introductory anecdote), within the macro context of empire-building, nation formation and global capitalist development from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries.

The book consists of three sections. Part I, “Anxious Relations,” examines the incorporation of tea into the early modern British economy and culture. Part II, “Imperial Tastes,” looks at producers and consumers in the tea market in Great Britain and its empire from the late Victorian era through World War II. Finally, “Imperial Aftertastes” explores the impacts of decolonization and the end of the geopolitical hegemony of Great Britain on the global tea industry. Given the relative dearth of scholarship on tea in contemporary times (especially compared with the exhaustive historiography on the early modern and imperial periods), it is regrettable that Part III is the shortest in the book.  

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