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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