Terminology: What is a tea gown?

I just finished (well, soft finished – I still want to go back and do some unpicking and improving) a ca. 1900 tea gown.

I’ll be telling you all about the process of making shortly, but first I want to start where I started when I began researching tea gowns: with the question, what exactly is a tea gown?  How can you tell if a garment is a tea gown, rather than say, a wrapper or an afternoon dress?

For a general idea, let’s start with Emily Post:

Every one knows that a tea-gown is a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress. It has always a train and usually long flowing sleeves; is made of rather gorgeous materials and goes on easily, and its chief use is 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. One would wear a tea-gown in one’s own house in receiving a guest to whose house one would wear a dinner dress. – Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922.

While Emily is writing in the early 1920s, at the end of the era of tea gowns (the earliest tea gowns date to the mid 1870s, the latest to the early 1930s), many of the characteristics of tea gowns that she describes hold true for the entire history of tea gowns.

First, the tea gown as “a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress”.  A wrapper was essentially a bathrobe: a very informal garment worn over minimal undergarments (i.e. without a corset).  A ball gown was the epitome of luxury and design.  Bring them together and you get the tea gown, which an 1883 articledescribes as “an elegant form of dressing gown”.  A 1930 article heralded (precipitously, as it happened) their return to fashion and gushed:

The English teagown is a pleasing compromise between the ceremonial evening gown and a discreet negligee, possessing as it does the grace and dignity of the first and the ease and comfort of the second.

Tea Gown, Miss Bishop, late 1870s, LACMA

The lines between a wrapper and a tea gown could be quite blurry: there are patterns from the 1890s for ‘a wrapper or a tea gown’ – the distinction between the two would probably come down to the fabrics used.  Simple fabrics would indicate a wrapper, “rather gorgeous materials” a tea gown.

A sumptuous tea-gown of white lace and satin. (1899) NYPL Digital Gallery

Many tea gowns, such as the one featured in this week’s ‘Rate the Dress’, were designed to look like a robe worn over a dress, thus literally demonstrating the cross between a robe and an evening gown.

A useful house-dress and an elaborate tea-gown with an over-robe effect. (1899), NYPL Digital Gallery

Emily says that tea gowns “go on easily” and certainly most examples that I can find where the means of entry is apparent were able to be put on without a ladies maid.  And, despite the tiny waists shown in fashion illustrations, they were also usually meant to be worn without corsets.  Particularly in their early examples they were cut in princess lines, without a defined waistline, further giving them ease and ease of entry.  Later in the history of the tea gown the fastenings became more complicated, and the lines between dress styles further blurred.

The ability to wear them without corsets made them very popular with dress reformers.  An 1883 article on hygienic dress describes how tea gowns have been indispensable articles of attire “during the last five years”, and goes on to say:

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.

Not everyone was so approving.  A writer in 1879 was shocked at the popularity of tea gowns, reacting in horror to the laxity in morals that the relaxed dresses encouraged:

Ladies who a few years ago would have considered the idea appalling, calmly array themselves in the glorified dressing-robe known as the ‘tea gown’ and proceed to display themselves to the eyes of their admirers…Of course it in no-way resembles the dressing gown of utility.  It is of elaborate design and infinite cost….It is absolutely useless, and utterly ridiculous; but this is not the worst that may be said about it.  It is, to all intents and purposes, a deshabille; and so great is the force of association that the conversation is exceedingly apt, nay almost certain, to become deshabille as well….At their first beginning the tea gowns only put in an appearance when the beverage from which they take their name was dispensed in the ladies boudoir, and only a rare and favoured specimen of the opposite sex was admitted on sufferance.  But such old-fashioned prudery has long been thrown aside…the tea gown have descended to the drawing room and the hall…

Though tea gowns started out as afternoon wear, and as garments that were exclusively worn in your own home, their role gradually widened, so that by 1900 they were worn for evening wear in ones own home, and to outside events at the homes of close friends.

“A Graceful Tea Gown for Evening Wear”, Auckland Star, Volume XXXI, Issue 23, 27 January 1900, Page 7

How do you tell the difference between a tea gown for at-home afternoon wear, and one for evening wear?  The neckline, and (to some extent) the tightness of the bodice.  Turn of the century tea gowns for afternoon wear have high necks, those for evening have lower necks.  It’s possible that women with less extensive wardrobes wore gillets or a guimpes under their lower necked tea-gowns for afternoon wear to make them more versatile.  More formal tea gowns tended to be more tightly fitted, and were more likely to be worn with a corset.

So, in answer to my questions: What makes a garment a tea gown?  How do you tell if a garment is a tea gown or not?

A tea gown was an elegant but informal garment popular from the mid 1870s to the 1930s.  It is likely to have most of these elements:

  • An unbroken line over the waist, either through the princess cut, the empire line, or at least an over robe cut without a break at the waist over a waisted under-gown.

    ‘A Smart Tea Gown” with a empire line and no break at the waist, Auckland Star, 17 February 1894

  • Sleeves: long and tight, or just past the elbow with flowing lace cuffs, or long and flowing (1920s and 30s)

    Tea Gown with flowing sleeves, Jessie Franklin Turner, ca. 1929, American, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • A sense of ease and languor.  This may be achieved with an empire waistline (making a corset entirely unnecessary), or by the effect of a robe and under-gown.

    A Stylish Tea Gown, Auckland Star, 23 March 1895

  • Elements of exoticism (chinoiserie, Japonisme or Indienne influence), and/or…
  • Tea gown with front panel of Indian embroidery, ca. 1900, House of Rouff (designer), V&A

  • Elements of historicism (17th or 18th centuries, or medieval influences were particularly predominant), and/or

    Tea gown with 18th century inspired back pleats, ca. 1905, Callot Soeurs, silk damask, lace V&A

  • Strong floral and natural motifs that reference the Arts & Crafts, Aesthetic, and Art Nouveau movements.

    Tea Gown with Art-Noveau lilies, and construction elements borrowed from kimono and 18th century robe a la francaise, 1898–1901, British, silk Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Ease of entry, and the ability to put the gown on without help from a ladies maid

    ‘A Charming Tea Gown’ that wraps and fastens. Auckland Star, 9 February 1901

  • A sense of luxury in the fabrics, and (particularly from the 1890s onward) extreme femininity.

A lace and chiffon tea gown. (1902) NYPL Digital Gallery

A tea gown was essentially a very luxurious item: “Indispensable to a well-appointed wardrobe” for sure, but by no means necessary for a lady of reduced circumstances, who could still go and visit in society without one.  And all that lace and ‘gorgeous material’ did not come cheap, as a poem to  the tea gown makes clear:

MY lady has a tea-gown
That is wondrous fair to see,—
It is flounced and ruffed and plaited and puffed,
As a tea-gown ought to be;
And I thought she must be jesting
Last night at supper when
She remarked, by chance, that it came from France,
And had cost but two pounds ten.

Had she told me fifty shillings,
I might (and would n’t you?)
Have referred to that dress in a way folks express
By an eloquent dash or two;
But the guileful little creature
Knew well her tactics when
She casually said that that dream in red
Had cost but two pounds ten.

For more images of tea gowns and links to references about tea gowns, check out my tea-gown pinterest page.

17 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Stella says:

    I love tea gowns, which is odd in a way because they’re not the kind of thing I’d ever actually wear. Nevertheless, I really like them.

  2. Lenora Jane says:

    Hah, that poem is brilliant! (To wander off the “clothing” topic for a moment, I found a wonderful ode “To Hasty-Pudding” in a pamphlet I was cataloguing at work today…)

    Interesting, your point about the 20s and 30s being the end of the tea gown era…one is so used to thinking of those decades as the site of a revolution/break in fashion/etc that it’s cool to remember their ties back to earlier tradition.

  3. Lynne says:

    That was a delight! Thank you kindly.

    It made me think of the way this kind of garment morphed from the tea gown to the caftan and the hostess skirt/dress. Similarly, these were comfortable garments, with those one wore ‘out’ on more formal occasions made of richer or more elaborate material.

    The tea gown with the art-nouveau lilies shows the way that the simple long line front gave the opportunity to create artistic panels with elaborate designs. This, of course, became a characteristic of many caftans.

    I am a great fan of caftans – they are the easy, comfortable garment for a woman who mostly lives in nightgowns! But oh! I’d love to be arrayed in one of those frilly, lacy wonders, sitting in my best chair, pouring tea from the silver pot (which I actually don’t use because china pots make tea taste better!) into the fine cups, dispensing tissue-paper thin rolls of bread and butter (a lost art – hard to do with modern floppy bread), and dainty biscuits to similarly gloriously clad ladies!

    • Molly says:

      At the mention of its demise in the 1930s, my mind too leaped to the thought it was most likely replaced by the “housecoat” or “houserobe”, again a garment that could be most decadent or utilitarian dependent on fabric choice and heavily featured in imagery of glamorous women reclining about their homes. Interestingly commercial patterns for them usually featured a “day-dress” version (especially during the 30s and 40s) or a glam vs practical version (who were they kidding, they always looked splendid). The ’50s also saw patterns for voluminous nightgowns, with the alternative view made in a suitable fabric, cinched in with a belt to make a casual day dress too. Not so much blurring the lines, but offering appropriate alternatives. The housecoat appeared to remain popular until the late 1950s/early 60s when it rapidly died out and the hostess dress and “cocktail” caftan took over. In one way or another the “tea/dinner” fashion has appeared to survived about a hundred years… http://malepatternboldness.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/heyday-of-housecoat.html

      The fact that the tea-gown itself survived until the 1930s of course does not mean it was a popular garment then, it is entirely possible that the women wearing them in that decade were the older ladies who had also been wearing them at the turn of the century in their own youth and were seeing out their fashions, as they were wont to do. It probably crossed over with the housecoat worn by the younger generation.

      A really interesting article though and very helpful, so much of this knowledge has died out and definitions from the era can be so confusing, its great to get some clarity, thank you!

      • Hah! You’ve beaten me to it – I was already working on a post on the transition from tea gown to housecoat, as it is the obvious replacement.

        Based on the frequency of the advertisements for tea gowns in the 1930s, the colours and designs used in extent examples (brightly coloured, daring, and very slim cut), the way they are mentioned in fashion columns (including mentions of ‘bright young things’ in movies wearing them), and the women who are depicted wearing them in advertisements, I would still say that they were the height of glamour and fashion for the well-dressed young wife in the early 1930s – not just her mother in law. What killed the tea gown was not a gradual decline in fashion, where remnants still lingered among the older generations, but the massive social changes of the Great Depression and WWII. I daresay many a tea gown was remade into a practical afternoon dress, or scarves.

  4. Robin's Egg Bleu says:

    LOVE the 1970′s blue gown. Dying over it in fact!

  5. Elise says:

    I call dibs on the yellow!

  6. Thanks for posting this. I”ve never been clear on what a tea gown was; now I understand!

  7. Laura says:

    Tea gowns are my favorite. I suggest enthusiasts find the 1906 blue/aqua Paquin number which would earn a good 13/10 from me if it were a Rate the Dress.

    On another note, and tips on telling a tea gown from an Aesthetic gown? Is there a meaningful difference in design and construction, or only in audience?

    • metmuseum.orgmetmuseum.orgmetmuseum.org I think I know the dress you are talking about, (is it this one?), and whilst I have seen it called a tea gown on numerous sites on the internet, I don’t think it is one. It doesn’t have anything in common with any of Paquin’s tea gown designs. I’d agree with the Met and say it was an afternoon dress – albeit a gorgeous one!

      As for the tea gown vs Aesthetic gown – a lot of tea gowns (the one with lilies for example) were Aesthetic gowns. I guess the line would be the entry options (can you put it on yourself?) and whether or not it needed to be worn with a corset, as well as the overall effect of ease/vs formality, as many Aesthetic gowns still had an overall formal effect.

      • Laura says:

        That is the one. It screams tea gown to me, with the extreme embellishments and soft shape in the waist area. I have read in some articles about tea gowns that the “afternoon tea gown” was a bit less like a dressing gown, but those lines are blurry. Thanks!

  8. Dawn says:

    Got me thinking that may be I should make one one day and then invite my costuming friends to my house for tea.

  9. […] it was intended to be worn without a corset (a freedom of fashion popular in the 1920s). Read this history of the Tea Gown by the Dreamstress for more facts on how the tea dress was worn from the 1800s – […]

  10. Thank you so much for this wonderful article! As someone learning the terminology of historical costuming, this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Morning dress vs tea gown vs Aesthetic dress…it’s enough to make a newcomer’s head spin. I always enjoy the details and examples you provide – this one is a knockout!

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