If you’ve ever heard a story about the origins of the British Teatime, you’ve probably heard that it was a phrase coined by Anna Marie Russell, the Duchess of Bedford in the mid 1840s. She reportedly couldn’t handle the wait between a midday lunchtime and an 8pm formal dinner, (a girl after my own heart), and insisted on taking a casual tea snack with close friends around 4pm in her chambers.
Sounds innocuous, sure!
But this is the beginning of the association of tea time with intimate settings and saucy, yet liberating intimate fashions.
You see the number of places upper class, patrician women were allowed to visit outside homes, either accompanied or unaccompanied, were very limited. Up until the invention of afternoon tea, these women were only allowed to socialize in certain settings like formal luncheons, dances, balls or dinner parties and these were generally chaperoned. So when the notion of an afternoon tea time caught on with upper classes, it quickly became a favorite setting for suitors as a quieter and more intimate occasion to get to know your special lady friend. As author Vicky Striker puts it:
“Tea parties allowed the blossoming of romance. Among games played was hide and seek, with ladies being ‘too afraid’ to hide alone, and parings of young men and women scurrying into nooks and crannies of the house. As long as the pair did not take too long to be discovered, this provided single girls with at least a little covert behaviour.”
When we talk about the social mores of the Victorian era, we often erase the experiences of the working class, people of color, escorts and those who just didn’t ‘fit in’.
TheJane Austinperception of balls, garden parties and elite social circles full of people who seemed to have endless time on their hands, was a way of life limited to the upper class and the emerging middle/upper middle classes. Modern methods of night dating at restaurants, bars or theatres originated with the working class who often lived in boarding houses or in cramped family situations and had to date around their work hours. For example, the flower selling Eliza Dolittlewould have been able to attend certain bars and theatres that the prince-flirting Eliza Dolittle would not, even if both Eliza’s still would have required a male chaperone.
In conjunction with this budding romantic connotation, the intimate setting of tea gatherings in drawing rooms and salons gave these women an opportunity to wear more forgiving dresses in mixed company. Fashions began to develop that gave them a break from restricting travel and formal wear. The tea gown emerged. It was more or less a fancy version of a nightie and robe combo.
Earlier forms of which were puffy and flowing, allowing a woman to wear a looser corset, (or none at all).
You can also see the international and what would have been considered exotic influences in early tea gowns. Adventurous flamboyance was more accepted in intimate settings; whereas outside of the home they may have classified you as eccentric or as an escort. Also some female hosted teatime gatherings were seen as a natural successor to the female-run European intellectual salons of the 1600-1700s, and therefore designers catered to a worldlier sensibility. This would have made more traditional fashions look prudish by comparison.
The idea of wearing a fancy nightgown in public was tantalizing enough but as the popularity of the comfortable tea gowns grew, the easier they were made to be taken off, (so that women were able to change for this occasion without the assistance of a handmaid). I’m sure you can imagine how provocative this must have seen in an otherwise corsetted world. Carmen Rotaru puts it this way:
“What gave the tea gown an erotic and naughty touch was the fact that it was easy to take it off and put on, which made it a devoted adjutant of the seduction games played by the ladies of the day.”
“With suggestive associations, ladies wearing tea dresses apparently formed the habit of conducting conversation and games which alluded to the dress worn. So while gossip was purveyed as the pleasure partaken by women at tea parties, for some, conversation was actually not at the forefront of their attention!”
But as with all things risque, exposure gradually made these gowns more acceptable. Tea time acted as a sort of social intermediary for the acceptance of casual dresses. This was particularly fueled by the gathering popularity of the women’s rights movement, compulsory education for women, the anti corset Rational Dress Society and eventually the shifting of female roles during WWI. Freedom of movement became more desirable and stiff social restrictions softened during wartime, leaving room for soldiers and their honies to be a little more open about flirtations.
Consequently certain salacious dances became popular in the early 1900s, (the most recognizable of which is the ‘Tango’), and tea time became a time to host ‘tea-dances’. When given in the home, the guests would take up these dances. But soon, tea dances became popular enough to be hosted in theatres or dance halls. Striker tells us:
“Tea dances that took place in theatres involved watching hired dancers go through the steps while the onlookers were served tea and indulged in accompanying dainties. Following the dance performance in theatres would be a fashion show of the latest ensembles. … Designers and dressmakers fashioned clothes around stockings, waists and shoes suited to dancing the tango.”
These events still required male accompaniment of course, but they were a far cry from the then less respectable dance halls, biergartens and burlesque theaters that were attended by lower class women and escorts.
This bridge to respectability sparked an idea with burgeoning tea room owners.
Catherine Cranston was the first to realize that women had a need to refresh themselves during a lengthy shopping trip or a day of business around town. She opened Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms in 1878, a franchise of stylish tea rooms that were respectable enough for upper class women to patronize without a male chaperone. The idea exploded as the service of tea migrated from the sometimes exclusively male coffee houses to these new specialized tea rooms and suddenly women had a place to gather unaccompanied outside the home.