A tea gown was a woman’s at-home dress for informal entertaining, characterized by unstructured lines and light fabrics, which became popular around the mid 19th century. Early tea gowns were a European development influenced by Asian clothing and historical approach from the 18th century which led to the renaissance time period of long, flowing sleeves. Part of this European sense of fashion came from the Japanese Kimono as they were worn by Japanese women during a wedding or any formal ceremony. During the 19th century, it was not appropriate for women to be seen in public wearing a tea gown, perhaps because of the lack of a corset. They were intended to be worn indoors with family and close friends during a dinner party (or tea party).
Though tea gowns started out as afternoon wear, and as garments that were exclusively worn in ones own home, their role gradually widened, so that by 1900 they were worn for evening wear, and to outside events at the homes of close friends. You can tell the difference between the two mainly by observing the necklines and (to some extent) the tightness of the bodice. While turn of the century tea gowns for afternoon wear had high necks, those for evening had lower necks. As for the waist, more formal tea gowns tended to be more tightly fitted.
For a more authoritative description, lets turn to author and etiquette expert Emily Post;
“Everyone 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.
A wrapper, as you may know, was essentially a bathrobe and a ball gown was the epitome of luxury and design. Put them together and what have you got? The tea gown. Modern tea gowns range from simple, to fancy, loosely fitting, to snug.
A tea gown was a very luxurious item, indispensable to a well-appointed wardrobe. And all that beautiful material did not come cheap, as this humorous poem 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 dream in red
Had cost but two pounds ten.”
I hope you enjoyed this glance back into the history of fashion. I certainly did! 😊 Thank you for your time!