Tea Gowns: At-Home Style in Victorian England

Months of lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus has kept much of the world inside, limiting our social and professional interactions to computer screens and causing even the most sartorially-conscious to shed our typical trappings. Jeans, we bemoan, are far too stiff for Zooming from our living rooms, even though they once seemed fine for eight-hour office days bookended by crowded commutes. Fabulous faux-furs that once eased our winter blues? Useless now–it’s not like we’re headed anywhere that requires a coat! Many have struggled to strike a balance between the clothing that keeps us snug in our homes and wardrobes that offers us power and a sense of self in the crowded public world, a dilemma encapsulated quite neatly and comically in the pajama-trousered, dressy-bloused ensemble that became an unofficial uniform for so many working from home this year.

This predicament, however, is not wholly new. Over a century and a half ago, upper-middle class Victorian women struggled with the same set of concerns, seeking out a style of dress that struck a balance between the comfort desired for time spent mostly indoors and the formality necessary for a life that required constant socialising. Thus the tea gown was born, a garment specifically designed to bridge the gap between private and public dressing. The tea gown was worn, as the name suggests, for evening tea. It had to be comfortable enough to allow for relaxation but dressy enough that its wearer would not risk embarrassment should a caller drop by. Tea gowns were relatively simple in shape and loose at the waist, allowing them to be worn without a corset–a small act of rebellion in Victorian society. Tea gowns were, however, decorated heavily to maintain decorum and indicate status. Freed from some of the physical and societal constraints of the time period, tea gowns became a canvas upon which progressive members of the upper class could engage in stylistic experimentation.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. ‘A Useful House-Dress ; An Elaborate Tea-Gown’. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 26, 2020. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ebab-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

The parlour where tea was served acted as a liminal space between interior and exterior, contained within the private home but open for entertaining guests, not dissimilar to our own homes now put on view for our colleagues’ computer screens. Fashionable tea gown wearers sought to coordinate their gowns with the decor of their parlours. (Though, as Freyja Hartzell notes in ‘The Velvet Touch’, it was common practice for many Victorian women to match their ensembles to their interiors). For followers of the Aesthetic and subsequent Art Nouveau movements, this meant that tea gowns could be printed with abstract swirling motifs and rendered in rich colour palettes. Charles Frederick Worth’s tea gowns are particularly beautiful examples of this effect with their thickly piled blue velvet and shocking purples and greens that would have looked right at home against a similarly sumptuous wallpaper. Liberty, the nineteenth century mecca for all things Aesthetic, produced a wide variety of tea gowns. Oscar Wilde dubbed the store to be ‘the chosen resort of the artistic shopper’, a nod to the fact that both the homewares and the fashions for sale at Liberty would have set the store’s shoppers apart from their strict Victorian counterparts.

 

The tea gown also served as a means of escapism, transporting its wearers on flights of fancy far from their parlours. When Japan opened its ports to Western trade in the mid-nineteenth century, British and French designers were quick to take inspiration from the nation’s vast array of beautiful garments and textiles. Tea gowns could be inlaid with swaths of Japanese textiles or, in some cases, produced in Japan for Western customers. A tea gown from the Kyoto Costume Institute illustrates this cross-cultural exchange in its spectacular sleeves alone, a mix of heavily-puffed Victorian shoulders and Kimono-style wide cuffs. Tea gowns offered the potential not only for international travel from the comfort of the settee, they provided the possibility of time travel as well. Designs for tea gowns often borrowed from eighteenth century French designs, featuring Watteau backs that swept away from the body (providing a dash of both historicism and comfort) and mimicking the silhouette of the robe à la française.

 

An 1879 critic wrote sharply of the tea gown in the Evening Post: ‘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’. Does this not, however, make the tea gown the perfect item to lift the spirits of a woman typically tightly corseted and kept indoors? It is an act of self-indulgence, but it is also a small rebellion against the dreary constraints of the every day. (The Metropolitan Museum notes that one of the tea gowns in its collection was worn by prominent member of American high society Amelia Beard Hollenback just after she gave birth to her daughter, an indication that there may be a very practical purpose to the tea gown unknowable to its male critic). Perhaps the tea gown is also just what the locked-down, early-sunsetting end of 2020 calls for as well, offering us a lift off of our collective couches into the depths of history and encouraging us to engage in costumed camouflage with the interiors of the homes to which we are confined. This seems an opportunity too tempting to pass up in favour of sweatpants.

Designer unknown (American), Tea Gown, 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession no. 2009.300.397.

by Ruby Redstone

Sources

‘Free and Easy Manners in London Society. (London World.)’. Evening Post Vol. XVII, Iss. 387 (5 April 1879): 5. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP18790405.2.35.

Hartzell, Freyja. ‘The Velvet Touch: Fashion, Furniture, and the Fabric of the Interior.’ Fashion Theory Vol. 13, Iss. 1 (2009): 51-81. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175174109X381328.

Lee, Summer. ‘1898-1901 Green Silk Embroidered Tea Gown’. Fashion Institute of Technology Fashion History Timeline. Last updated 13 January 2020. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1898-tea-gown/.’

Liberty. ‘Our Heritage’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.libertylondon.com/uk/information/our-heritage.html.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘House of Worth, Tea Gown, 1900-1901’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/157330.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘Tea Gown, 1900’. Accessed 26 November 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/158923.

 

‘A Charming Consideration’: Edwardian Lingerie Dresses

The woman preparing food for this boat picnic wears a sheer lingerie dress, c. 1910. Courtesy SSPL/Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images.

When the heat of June rolls in and spring layers give way to bright, flowing dresses, I cannot help but be reminded of the quintessential summer garment, and perhaps my favorite historical fashion trend, the Edwardian lingerie dress. Its name derived from the undergarment-like materials with which the dress was made: sheer cotton or linen inset with lace, all bleached vivid white, with a white or pastel silk slip underneath. Primarily worn from the early 1900s until 1914, these delicate gowns embodied docile and leisured Edwardian femininity.

Women’s Dress, 1908. Cotton organdy with machine-made Valenciennes lace and trim. Made in the United States. Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession number: 1966-163-2).

Despite its salacious name, the lingerie dress was a staple of a respectable woman’s wardrobe. The 1905 Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette, for example, suggested that women have a ‘white lingerie dress’ for luncheon or afternoon tea. It could also be worn as a wedding dress or a casual evening gown during the summer. Since it was appropriate attire for multiple occasions, the lingerie dress is commonly identified as a tea gown, an afternoon dress, a summer dress, or (when made with plain weave cotton or linen) a lawn dress. The lingerie dress eschewed the loose, comfortable fit of the late-nineteenth century tea gown, its predecessor, in favor of the fashionable silhouette. An American lingerie dress from the 1908, pictured above, demonstrates the silhouette of the first decade of the twentieth century, the thrust-forward bust and curved back indicative of the s-bend, or swan bill, corset. Later lingerie dresses exhibit the straight line introduced in Poiret’s Directoire revival gowns.

Actress Carol McComas in a lace gown, 1905. Courtesy London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images.

Lingerie dresses were available at many price points, with some simple styles ready-made and more ornate designs offered by top couturiers. Doucet and Redfern, for instance, produced lavishly embellished gowns of hand-made lace and extensive embroidery. Such dresses were suitable for trips to the races and other society functions. White lingerie dresses, at least at first, represented the unhurried, tidy lifestyle of upper class women. Their delicate embellishments necessitated careful cleaning, an especially arduous task for white gowns which had to be washed at extremely high temperatures and repeatedly bleached. As its popularity increased, less elaborate gowns with machine-made lace were produced. These dresses, theoretically, could be machine washed; thus, women of the lower-middle class could wear lingerie dresses similar to those worn by society women without the laborious washing process of more delicate gowns. This proliferation of the lingerie dress across socio-economic boundaries indicates a society-wide aspiration to toward a pure, tranquil femininity of upper class leisure.

Suffragettes in ‘Votes for Women’ sashes and all white ensembles, c. 1910. Courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The symbolism of the white lingerie dress was later co-opted by British suffragettes as they campaigned for women’s rights. Throughout the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement allied closely with dress reform, both aimed at increasing female liberation. Trouser-like garments such as the bifurcated skirt doomed those attempts to notoriety, since the adoption of masculine clothing was viewed as a challenge to patriarchal power. The suffragette uniform of white shirtwaists and tailor-made skirts capitalized on the reputation of the white lingerie dress. As Kimberly Wahl describes, white not only acknowledged accepted fashion, but also, ‘offered itself as a purified and visible marker of difference, conforming to gender binaries of the period, and was thus reassuringly feminine.’ Women’s liberation groups, then, manipulated the white lingerie dress, a symbol of traditional Edwardian femininity, to advance their cause. Though primarily a representation of traditional gender roles, the lingerie dress established sartorial conventions for the suffragettes and helped democratize dress across social boundaries.

Sources

Clare Rose, Art Nouveau Fashion (London: V&A Publishing, 2014)

Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl, ‘The 1900s,’ in The History of Modern Fashion (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015), pp. 77-98

Kimberly Wahl, ‘Purity and Parity: The White Dress of the Suffrage Movement in Early Twentieth Century Britain,’ in Jonathan Faiers, Mary Westerman Bulgarella, ed., Colors in Fashion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 21-33

Marion Harland and Virginia van de Water, Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1905)