During the 1880s and 1890s, tea gowns evolved as an alternative form of day wear. Influenced in part by a growing interest in Japonisme and the desire for an alternative to the tightly structured dress styles created by corseting, the tea gown provided an ideal alternative. The tea gown was a loose-fitting garment that was essentially an elaborate dressing gown/wrapper and as such was meant to be worn at home in the company of immediate family and close friends and especially if one was dining or taking tea. The tea gown was meant to be worn without a corset (although some women wore them anyway) and was never worn outside the house. This was as close to informal wear as it got for Victorians. Below are a few examples:
Tea Gown, c. 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.39.3)
The above gown has an Aesthetic Movement feel to it while the one below is more formal.
Tea Gown, c. 1898 – 1901; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.558)
Close-up of front.
And the influence of Japonisme was also evident as with this gown constructed so as to mimic a kimono:
As with any garment, high fashion versions of the tea gown developed, characterized by layers of soft fabrics such as tulle, chiffon, silk and velvet, combined with lace (lots of lace). Also, while tea gown were fairly shapeless, there were versions that were inspired by the Far East such as ones designed as a Kimono of sorts:
Tea Gown, c. 1885; FIDM Museum (80.40.1)
And even Maison Worth got involved as with this tea gown constructed out of cut velvet that was featured in the the December 12, 1891 edition of Harper’s Bazar:
And here’s a description:
It is a long flowing caftan of beige-colored cloth, draped over a velvet gown which fits the slender figure with sheath-like closeness. Velours frappe (stamped velvet), with maroon design on lighter ground, is used for the front of the close gown; it is fitted by darts and extends far back on the sides, fastening invisibly on the left. The back of the bodice is simply a continuation of the silk lining covered at the top with velvet in yoke shape. The full topped sleeves are also of velvet, which is drawn up below the elbow over close sleeves of cloth.
Upon this gown is hung the graceful caftan of supple cloth, which falls in sweeping folds to the floor. The fronts frame subtle slight figure with wide revers of white plush; their fullness is narrowly massed on the shoulders, with ends carried thence to the middle of the back, and knotted there above full back breadths that fall in Watteau-like pleats. A high collar has velvet at the back, and is covered in front with white lace extending lower in a pointed plastron. Deep cuffs of ]ace are on the sleeves.
The above passage is interesting in that it describes a garment that’s anything but what a tea gown is supposed to be, especially with its tight contours that follow the body’s curves, curves that only could be created by corseting. It’s the triumph of form over function. Below is one such tea gown produced by Worth in 1895 that closely matches the above description:
Tea Dress, Worth c. 1895; Palais Galliera (GAL1964.20.4)
However, Worth also produced styles that were more closely followed the tea gown ideal of soft lines and fabrics as with this design from circa 1900 – 1901:
Worth, Tea Gown; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.2498)
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the world of the tea gown and as we can see, the style could be interpreted in a number of different ways. In future posts, we hope to be able to explore this theme a little further.