A summertime tea is a vintage themed event that you can enjoy recreating for all decades. The vintage tea gown’s heyday was centered in the Edwardian era (1900-1920), when white lace dresses posed beautifully against a luscious green garden. The enormous flower-covered picture hats were also perfectly suited for an outdoor tea.
Today, we will look at a bit of the history of the old-fashioned tea dress and then offer some helpful tips on dressing for your own Victorian – Edwardian tea party this summer. Read on.
History of the Victorian & Edwardian Tea Dress or Tea Gown
Starting in 1870, women adopted a newer, lighter, free fitting form of house dress worn at the time of afternoon tea — roughly 3 to 6pm. It was a formal house dress gown suitable for entertaining guests in one’s home. It need not be as formal as a dinner gown, but was formal enough to be seen among one’s peers. It was often an expression of a woman’s artistic abilities where the dress coordinated with her parlor room decor.
“The tea gown, on the other hand, drapes the figure loosely so as to fall in graceful folds, and may be regarded as a distinct economy, as it so often takes the place of a more expensive dress.” – The Evolution of Fashion, Florence Mary Gardiner, 1897
The 1870s Victorian tea gown looked unfitted with large draping train at the back and pleats along the front (somewhat like Regency gowns). They resembled fancy bedroom robes. With the rise of the bustle era, the tea gown followed the bustle shape, too. Lighter fabrics and delicate details and sometimes a lack of corset (gasp!) continued to make the gown look relaxed, even though most women still needed to wear full foundations.
In the late Victorian era, tea time and the tea dress took on a rather naughty connotation. Taking afternoon tea at home with a husband away taking tea elsewhere, women (and men) could entertain their romantic lovers. The looseness of the gown with a strikingly similar look to boudoir robes made them quite inviting to their lovers.
By the Edwardian era, tea gowns were a regular part of a woman’s wardrobe outside of her home, too. Tea time became more flexible as well, as the location changed to outside porches and gardens. The sexual overtones vanished as these dresses became part of everyday summer fashions of the teens and early ’20s. Nearly all Edwardian tea gowns were white eyelet, embroidery, or lace inset sheer gowns. During fall and winter, darker color gowns were worn.
More Edwardian Tea Dresses
Your Edwardian Tea Dress Costume
Creating your own Edwardian to 1920s tea dress costume shouldn’t be too difficult. While you certainly don’t need to choose a white dress, most women will want one. You can buy vintage dresses or new vintage inspired dresses for the occasion.
Dress – For vintage, you might be able to find an original Edwardian lawn dress in good condition at an antique clothing shop. Otherwise, I find many wonderful 1980s does Victorian/Edwardian style dresses a little easier (and cheaper, too). The white dresses were often wedding dresses with lace or mesh inserts, plenty of ruffles, and trim. Name brands include Jessica McClintock and Gunny Sax.
For a vintage inspired tea dress, my favorite brand is Nataya. They are lacy and romantic and perfect for a tea party. Not just white dresses, either, they have shades of green, rose, brown, and black (yes, it’s ok to wear black to a tea). Other dress brands can be found throughout early summer. The current Boho trend is making ’70s-does-Edwardian style maxi dresses popular this year, too. Many summer dresses are sleeveless, however, which is a no-no for the Edwardian era. You can always remedy this by wearing a light shawl or Kimono jacket over your arms. Check out the Edwardian style tea dress shop page for many dresses for sale online.
Once you have a basic white dress (or long skirt and blouse if you prefer), now you can add some touches of color. The late teens to twenties featured large sashes and bows of a contrasting color. Blue and pink and even black were common choices. Otherwise, small satin ribbon was woven in the inset lace or tied in a bow at the neckline. A little splash of color on a white dress can make you appear a little less bridal.
Shoes – A pair of white stockings and white shoes should be added as well. If you can’t find white shoes, then black or brown will be fine, too. Edwardian era shoes include lace up or button up boots, low heel Oxfords, low and mid heel pumps, and single or multi strap Mary Jane shoes.
Hat – The hat is the next essential costume piece you need. Edwardian tea hats started off as huge picture hats topped with flowers, big bows, and feathers. “Bird’s nest” or “Garden Hats” were their nick names. Later Edwardian years had smaller hats with just a few flowers or a single big bow. These small hats fit in cars and reflected the post war economy.
You can buy a number of summer hats in a range of fun colors. While not strictly Edwardian, they give the essence of the era. You can add your own decorations to turn any simple hat into a show stopper. Add fake flowers and soak them in black tea overnight for an aged effect. Do the same for lace and ribbons if you wish. For good feathers, head to your local fly fishing store and shop all kinds of bird feathers at a fraction of the craft store prices. You can even add an entire bird (fake, please) or fruits to the hat. Your creativity is your only limit. Have fun with your hat decorations.
A parasol would be another fun addition to your hat or in lieu of one. A white lace parasol is ideal. It provides shape while not looking too heavy. I have a tutorial on making a small carriage parasol as well as a shop page for lace parasols.
Hair styling of the Edwardian era (video tutorial) is an art form. Lots of volume with teasing, fake hair pillows, and hair extensions. I have naturally long, thick, wavy hair so I can pull off the hairstyle easily, but I know most people can’t. Don’t worry too much about it. Your hat will cover most of the hair anyways.
You can gather long hair back into a low loose bun or roll the sides to the bun for a bit more volume. I also like to gather the top half of my hair back and then push it forward and pin in place for some volume at the front. A “bump it” hair tool is also very handy for creating volume on top. If you have short hair, just curl the front pieces off your face and pin up the loose bits off your neck.
You can include hair accessories like a tortoiseshell or gem covered hair comb, tiara for evenings, or tall feather headband. Shop here.
Makeup at the time was minimal. A pale powder face with blushed cheeks and a red lipstick is all you need. Shop Edwardian makeup and beauty products.
Accessories – Complete your look with some accessories. Gloves are required. Lace or mesh gloves are the most breathable for a hot summer event. Otherwise, leather or cloth mid-arm length gloves will do. They are very easy to find in vintage or thrift stores. Learn more about the history of gloves.
Jewelry is optional. The Edwardians loved to show off their wealth with a pretty floral or filigree style necklace, earrings, bracelet, and a brooch pin. The history of Edwardian jewelry is an upcoming topic here on the blog. In the meantime, look at these Edwardian style jewelry options for ideas.
While Edwardian women rarely needed to carry a purse, I am sure you need something to hide your car keys and cell phone in. A small clutch bag on a chain is easy to find as well as small rectangular shape leather purse with a short strap. The key to this era is that they close with a clasp (no modern flap purses). Learn more about handbags here and shop purses here.
That should do it. Now go out and enjoy your summertime tea!