The Tea Gown – Not Just for Entertaining at Home

The tea gown was born when dress reform returned to fashion considerations during the 1870s. Doctors were voicing concern over the health effects of wearing a corset and women were ready to ‘take a breather’ for at least part of the day from the tightly corseted styles of the 1860s.

Afternoon tea was already a popular daily ritual and women embraced the opportunity to wear something that was pretty, fashionable, and comfortable. So what is a tea gown? It was originally designed as a dress to be worn inside one’s home.

An article on hygienic dress in 1883 describes how indispensable the garment had become.

“As its use usually enable ladies to dispense with the corset, the hygienic value of the tea-gown is apparent. It has been stated that some ladies wear corsets underneath their tea-gowns, but they are in a small minority…the wearing of it is a fashion which, it may be hoped for the sake of those who follow it, may be more than a passing fancy.”

Early tea gowns were rather unfitted with pleating in the-the front; resembling a Regency-era gown. The back was a loosely draped train, giving it the bustled feel of the formal garments of the day. A lady could allow herself creative expression by coordinating her dress color with the décor of her parlor. Fabrics were lighter in weight and details were delicate. Tea gowns often resembled an evening gown with a ‘wrapper’ or outer robe.

Not only were they more comfortable, they were also easy for the wearer to put on without the help of a maid. This ease and comfort led to some naughty connotations for the tea gown. Tea time became known as an opportunity for a lady to entertain her lover (while her husband may be visiting his lover during the same hours).

House of Worth Tea Gown

Jean-Philippe Worth (French, 1856–1926); 1900–1901; Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. C. Oliver Iselin, 1961

By the start of the Edwardian era, the tea gown was no longer confined to a lady’s parlor. It traveled down the hall and into the dining room and beyond. Women were now wearing them for dinner and other certain events with family and close friends. Women also wore them to intimate events at family and friends’ homes, bringing the tea gown out of the home. A day tea gown often featured a high neckline while those intended for evening wear sported a more daring neckline.

As the tea gown became more accepted in society, tea time became more flexible, allowing people to visit on outside porches and in gardens. They became a staple in women’s wardrobes during the teens and early 1920s. Most summer tea gowns of this time were made of white eyelet, embroidery, or lace inset sheer gowns. Darker colors were featured during cooler months. Tea gowns remained popular throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s.

Here’s a beautiful Edwardian dress that would be perfect as a daytime tea gown!

– Donna Klein

Resources

The Dreamstress

Metropolitan Museum of Art

River Tea

Vintage Dancer