Time for Tea: Afternoon Dresses from 1900-15

2009.300.3277. House of Worth Tea Gown. c1910. Silk, rhinestones and metal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Edwardian era began with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. With the death of the longest reigning monarch at the time, Britain was at first plunged into full mourning dress. However, after the black clothes subsided, and her eldest son Edward VII took the throne, the country was introduced to an era of opulence and extravagance.

The Edwardian era is often regarded as a period of elegance and graciousness (Wilson, Taylor: 1989. 43), whilst great social change occurred in regards to the conditions of the welfare state, and demands for the voting rights for women intensified. For the upper-class lady, couture fashions were increasingly lavish. In order to maintain appearances, she would require: a large fortune (it remained expensive to dress fashionably during Edwardian times), several outfit changes throughout the day, and a team of dedicated maids to help initiate these endless wardrobe transformations. Clothes needed to be changed at home at least 5 times a day.

2009.300.377. House of Worth velvet tea gown. c1905. Silk and metal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

According the fashion historian Valerie D. Mendes, in the Victoria and Albert Museum publication, 400 Years of Fashion:

‘well connected, fashionable women had to own a bewildering array of clothes in order to be dressed á la mode for every occasion – visiting, travelling, walking, boating and shooting; they needed gowns for races, garden parties, receptions and dinners and balls; tea gowns for “at home” wear.’ (Mendes: 1999 80)

For the leisured lady, much of her time was spent changing her outfits, and in particular, her tea gowns. Tea gowns were considered the perfect and most appropriate garment to wear when welcoming exclusive guests to the home between the hours of four and five during the afternoon, when tea was to be taken. Introduced in 1870, tea gowns were considered luxurious, and essential to the gracious living personified by upper-class women.

2009.300.1153a, b. Jacques Doucet afternoon dress. c1903. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As auctioneer Kerry Taylor writes in her text, Vintage Fashion & Couture: from Poiret to McQueen, gowns required for the various daily occasions and activities, included:

‘a déshabillé robe during the early morning, followed by a morning dress, an afternoon or slightly smarter reception dress, an orientalist tea gown (like a lavish dressing gown) where her corset could be removed at five ‘o’ clock when she would take tea, receive friends and finally a dinner gown (with corset), or opulent ball gown.’ (Taylor: 2013. 12)

Tea gowns reflected the opulence of the Edwardian era. Ladies patronised the House of Worth, London couturier Kate Reilly, and newly established Lucille. The gowns followed the Directoire and Empire styles revived during the early 1900’s. Garments were made from delicate silks, velvets, chiffons, laces and crepes, the epitome of feminine beauty.

2009.300.3093. Tea dress. c1910-15. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The following images are taken from Pauline Stevenson’s text Edwardian Fashion, which depicts various advertisements depicting gowns from Frank Bentall’s, which epitomise Edwardian silhouettes. Department stores such as Liberty & Co and Marshall & Snelgrove were additionally frequented for their range of appropriate morning, tea and afternoon gowns.

Neo-classical gowns were romantic and used draping, layered petticoats, and raised waists. Later couturiers such as Poiret introduced more exotic and oriental motifs into his designs, after the high-necked ‘S’ curve silhouettes, began to fall out of favour.

tea gown 1912

D84-1977. Tea dress . c1912. Silk tulle, linen tape lace, cotton thread. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

tea gown 1900

2009.300.2498. House of Worth tea gown. c1900-01. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The First World War marked the end of the universal tea gown. The Met Museum and indeed the V&A have more recent styles of tea gown, mostly from the 1940’s in their collections, but the hayday of the Edwardian tea gown had abruptly ended with the arrival of war.

Changes in class structure, the decline of the aristocracy, shortages in fabric supplies, and the increasing presence of women within the public sphere, were all reasons accounting for the decline of the tea gown. As women emerged from the war as workers, the tea gown was no longer appropriate for the busier, and more active lifestyles which emerged during the 1920’s.

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