By Jane Pettigrew
“Never has more attention been paid to the build of the alluring costumes known as ‘tea-gowns,’” wrote Mrs. Johnstone, fashion columnist, in the December 1888 edition of The Woman’s World (edited by Oscar Wilde and published in London). Six months later, she again told readers, “Dressmakers are directing more attention to tea-gowns than almost any other style of dress, the demands are so great.” It seems that every fashionable lady in London and Paris desired, indeed required, a selection of the very latest in “tea wear” for chic but comfortable afternoons at home.
Developed in the late 1870s as a reaction to the unhealthy practice of “tight-lacing,” tea gowns were designed to release women from the unnatural—and dangerous—impositions of vanity and idealized expectations of the female form. Although favored by many who wished to achieve the perfect 18-inch waist (some even claimed to be able to easily clasp their own hands around a waist of only 13 or 14 inches), corsets did the body no good whatsoever. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, famous for his revolutionary views on health, declared, “The baneful effects of corset-wearing are now so well understood hat few women will venture to deny that the practice is harmful….” The soft flowing folds of the tea gown allowed women to dispense with their corsets for a short time each afternoon, yet still appear feminine, elegant, and stylish.
And so imagine the sighs of relief in bedrooms and boudoirs across the land as ladies cast off their dreaded whale bones and slipped into luxuriously loose, frivolously feminine frocks that hid the body’s true measurements and allowed a normal pattern of breathing and the comfortable nibbling of sandwiches and cakes. In 1890, The Woman’s World acknowledged that a tea gown was indeed intended for somewhat indulgent relaxation and included an illustration of a dress made in “. . . Roman satin—a material which stands much knocking about, and will not crease, even if the garment is used, as tea gowns are apt to be, to lounge in and repose on sofas.” Originally intended as loose, comfortable robes de chambre (dressing gowns), the dresses gradually became more elaborate and indulgent—fashioned from velvet, cashmere, chiffon, crêpe de chine, ninon, lace, and silk generously decorated with frills and flounces, lace trimmings, crystal beads, pearls, and satin ribbons.
Influencing the unstructured, free-flowing lines of the tea gown were two themes: the Artistic Dress Movement, which favored the natural, romantic lines of the pre-Raphaelite movement, and Asian design. In The Cult of Chiffon, a 1902 publication on fashion etiquette, Mrs. Eric Pritchard explained, “The tea-gown was originally supposed to hail from Japan—that glorious land of beauty and colour and the present-day fashions distinctly show much reverence for Japanese art, both as regards form and colour.”
The great attraction for many women, according to The Woman’s World’s Mrs. Johnstone, was that “the loose, unconventional robe is not influenced by the last decree of fashion and the wearer’s personality seems to have scope for freer expression in this picturesque garment.” Mrs. Pritchard expressed much the same idea: “Fashion you can cast to the wind if you please, and impart meaning and intention in every fold, in every line of this garment of mystery, which can be a complete reflection of the personality of the wearer.”
It was for at-home wear that these gorgeous frocks of the 1880s and ’90s were intended—not for visits to the tearooms of the new department stores in town or to a nearby country tea parlor. Mrs. Pritchard advised that it was “in our own drawing rooms, when the tea urn sings at five o’clock” that ladies should “don these garments of poetical beauty.” When visiting friends at their grand mansion in the country, ladies would have included several carefully folded tea gowns (often affectionately nicknamed “teagies”) in the luggage. The Woman’s World suggested in February 1889: “After a long walk in the lanes, or even after a long drive, it is delightful to cast off heavy woolen dresses, with thick boots, and don the easy, soft, flowing tea-gowns, which are at the same time becoming.”
It was also acceptable to wear a tea gown for dinner or evening wear, as Princess magazine explained in November 1890: “The tea gown is a garment that has undergone many changes; it was at first a wrap intended for the use of those ladies who take their tea in luxurious private, but speedily advanced from semi-seclusion, and was admitted at the quiet dinner or as an evening gown.” Indeed, by 1904, some etiquette writers were advising readers that tea gowns should be worn only for dinner and that a “bridge frock” was the proper thing for afternoon tea.
When the Argentine tango reached London in 1912, it inspired shorter slashed or wrap-around skirts that allowed risqué glimpses of ladies’ ankles. And as the 1920s took society into the racier days of jazz and the Charleston, tea gowns gave way to “boudoir gowns” or “rest gowns,” elegant fringed tunics, “tea jackets” with tasseled sleeves, “boudoir wraps” with silk fringes, and “matinee jackets” in lace and crêpe de chine.
In the United States, similar change had also taken place, and in her 1922 publication Etiquette, Emily Post wrote that the chief use of a tea gown was now “not for wear at the tea-table so much as for dinner alone with one’s family. It can, however, very properly be put on for tea, and if one is dining at home, kept on for dinner. Otherwise a lady is apt to take tea in whatever dress she had on for luncheon, and dress after tea for dinner. One does not go out to dine in a tea-gown except in the house of a member of one’s family or a most intimate friend.”
As fashions and the female silhouette changed through the late 1920s, the tea gown gradually merged with “afternoon” and “cocktail” frocks, which were advertised as “just right for dancing, supper and tea dates.” And by the 1930s, it had all but disappeared, although fashion magazines still encouraged elegance and femininity at teatime and included frocks by such famous designers as Worth and Lelong that had romantically enticing descriptions: “Let’s away to another part of the world, where the sun shines on mimosa and almond blossoms. In the lounge of a well-known hotel looking out on the blue Mediterranean a group of charmingly dressed girls are waiting for tea.”
Jane Pettigrew is an international tea expert, who has written 14 books on the subject, including the new edition of A Social History of Tea, coauthored with Bruce Richardson and published by Benjamin Press. A former tearoom owner, she is a much-sought-after consultant to tea businesses and hotels, a conference speaker, and a tea educator. Although her travels take her around the globe, she resides in London.