The most popular party to attend or host in the summer months was an outdoor tea or garden party. Often these events included some lawn games like croquet, bocce or badminton. The attire was more formal than your day or streetwear, yet not quite as formal as going sleeveless in a beaded gown. The afternoon party dress was elegant, light, and often white in color. Indoor house parties welcomed most colors appropriate to the season but the summer months, if you were of means, meant wearing white. These naturally make them good choices for wedding guests and mother of the bride or groom dresses, too.
Skip the history and shop 20s tea dresses here.
White 1920s Tea Dresses
White is very easy to get dirty, especially outside when playing lawn games. Clothing required frequent laundering to keep its pure white color. This was often the task of a house servant in wealthier households. Middle classes might have a white lawn dress if they felt up to the challenge of keeping it clean, otherwise dusty rose, blue, yellow, green, or lilac were better color choices. Fabrics were very light and sheer such as cotton voile, silk, organdy, or linen with open weave lace or eyelets allowing even more cool air to flow in. Winter fabrics were crepe, light wool, taffeta, or heavy cotton.
Worn with a white dress would be light sheer stockings in nude, white, or a similar pastel shade to the dress. Shoes would be white pumps, Mary Janes, or T-straps in a moderately high heel. Playing a sport while at the party might encourage a lady to wear Mary Jane heels in white canvas. Add a pair of white cotton gloves and a white straw hat trimmed with white lace and you have a complete but expensive garden party dress. Now you can see why an all-white outfit was only worn by the upper classes who could afford all the matching accessories!
1920s Afternoon Dresses
For the middle classes, choosing a colored afternoon dress that she could wear with black leather pumps, darker stockings, and any colored hat was a much more affordable option. Every middle-class woman had a semi-formal afternoon dress in her closet. Often, this was also her formal evening dress, so it had to be special. The shape of the dress was not much different than day dresses, but the materials and especially trimming were fancier.
Elaborate embroidery was the most common fancy decoration. It was placed in large patterns around the hem of skirt, necklines, sleeves and belts. The embroidery thread color contrasted with the dress color or were metallic silver and gold. Hand-painted designs created a similar effect as embroidery. Edges were trimmed in delicate lace, velvet ribbon, ruffles, small pleats, or silk braid.
One major change from the day dress to the afternoon party dress was the lack of collars. Some more casual versions still had oversized round or lapel collars, but most did away with any collar at all. Afternoon dresses looked more elegant with a round boat neck or high V-neck. A square neck was less common, but when trimmed well was a very becoming shape. Each plain neckline opened up visibility to the face and neck. This was a chance to show off a tasteful new necklace, earrings, and if you dared… makeup. Otherwise, an exposed neck and face was the perfect place to perch your afternoon hat.
By the mid 1920s, afternoon dresses were losing the dainty lace and organdy trim in favor of prints and shiny satin or taffeta fabrics. The 1926 dresses above reflect the new shorter skirts and dropped waists, but also the trend of mixing prints and solids. The” fancy” was created by bolder colors and statelier accents such as the big bow on the center-left dress.
Another trend was to add bold accessories instead of the dress being the primary part of the look. Parasols, umbrellas, furs, long shawls, and larger purses became the focal point of many looks. The dress became the background, and the accessories the fashion spotlight.
Into 1928 and 1929, the fancy decoration was all but gone. Elegance was in the lines of the dress — which was much more tailored now. Prints were less favored over solid colors again, and in general, the hues were a shade darker than before. Dusty rose became red, pale blue became cobalt blue, sage green was now hunter green.
There was a change also as formal afternoon parties were becoming much more casual. Instead of elaborate tea parties with sporting games, folks now enjoyed picnics and finger food luncheons followed by a game of cards. Casual afternoons meant more casual clothing, and a greater divide between afternoon and evening looks. The semi-formal dress was disappearing out of wardrobes everywhere.
Shop 1920s Tea Dresses and Garden Party Dresses
For your own 1920s white tea dress or afternoon party outfit follow these tips:
- Sewing a dress with a pattern and using this guide to colors and fabrics will be your most authentic look.
- Avoid beading, sequins, fringe, feathers, sleeveless or above the knee length “flapper” dresses and headbands.
- Dresses should fit a little loose, not tight.
- Wear stockings to either match your dress, in a dark nude with a nude back seam, or in white or black.
- Add a cloche hat or sun hat, handbag, wrist-length gloves, beaded necklaces, and maybe a shawl or light jacket.
- Shopping locally? Read this guide on choosing a 1920s style dress from the new/modern dresses in style now.
Here are some good choices for 1920s style dresses that are ideal for a daytime garden party, tea, wedding (white dresses), or another semi-formal occasion.