19th Century, 20th Century, Textiles & Costume

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.