More Tea Gowns- 1885 Style

Lately it seems to be all about tea gowns here at the Atelier but when you’re on a roll… 😊 Today we feature this circa 1885 tea gown that was made by Liberty:

Liberty & Co., Tea Gown, c. 1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.3384)

This gown is constructed of pink and ivory silk, most likely taffeta, and is cut to give the appearance of an open robe draped over an underdress. The pink silk fashion fabric composing the outer layer is a solid color and appears to be of one piece with minimal three-quarter length sleeves. Also, although the staging is not the best, one can make out a gathered train. For the undergarment, the fashion fabric is decorated with a floral design on the skirt fore-part and it appears to have been embroidered. And just to finish everything off nicely, the neck and cuffs are of gauze/lace.

Rear View

In many respects, this tea gown incorporates the basic Aesthetic Dress style elements of a seemingly unstructured flowing silhouette, simple ornamentation, and an emphasis on practicality (although that can be a relative term). Clearly this gown was far too elegant for a simple “at-home” dress and it’s definitely meant as something more. At the same time, the gown builds on basic morning/house dress styles (the terms tend to be used interchangeably). Overall, this is a nice example of a mid-1880s tea gown and will definitely serve as a source of inspiration.



Aesthetic Dress & Reaction

As it was noted in yesterday’s post, the Aesthetic Movement, and more specifically Aesthetic Dress, arose in response to the predominant fashions of the Victorian Era and as such, sought to replace challenged convention in advocating for less structured and confining fashions. In all fashion movements, there’s always friction between competing trends and styles and advent of Aesthetic Dress was no exception; this friction is subtly captured in this 1881 painting by William Powell Frith:

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

This painting is a who’s who of British society and many notable people are depicted:

The annotated version…

For our purposes, what’s notable are the two groups of people in the front wearing aesthetic dress. Oscar Wilde is included with the right aesthetic dress group, speaking about the artwork. Also, behind the right group is a group of men reacting negatively to Oscar and his group. The painting was meant to be a caricature in that Frith had little regard for aesthetic dress nor Oscar Wilde, one of the aesthetic movement’s most vocal advocates. Frith explains in My Autobiography and Reminiscences, Vol. 2 (pp. 256-27):

Seven years ago certain ladies delighted to display themselves at public gatherings in what are called aesthetic dresses; in some cases the costumes were pretty enough, in others they seemed to rival each other in ugliness of form and oddity of colour. There were — and still are, I believe — preachers of aestheticism in dress; but I think, and hope, that the preaching is much less effective than it used to be. The contrast between the really beautiful costumes of some of the lady habituées of our private view, and the eccentric garments of others, together with the opportunity offered for portraits of eminent persons, suggested a subject for a picture, and I hastened to avail myself of it. Beyond the desire of recording for posterity the aesthetic craze as regards dress, I wished to hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste, whether in dress or art. I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. He is supposed to be explaining his theories to willing ears, taking some picture on the Academy walls for his text. A group of well-known artists are watching the scene.

The motivation for making this painting could simply be attributed to his simple dislike of Oscar Wilde (often referred to as “the apostle of the beautiful”) but it also reveals a reaction towards aesthetic dress and the aesthetic movement whose ideas ran counter to the structured realist painting style that was predominant in Victorian Britain.  It certainly strikes us as modern readers as seemingly much ado about nothing- aesthetic dress was pretty innocuous and with its emphasis on unstructured movement, it did offer an alternative for women.

Sometimes it seems that there was some overlap between aesthetic dress and existing house dress and wrapper styles.1Wrappers were a fashion items dating back to at least the 1840s, if not much earlier. Here’s one very simple example from circa 1881 that belonged to a one Annie Cronk, the daughter of a farmer and the wife of a railroad station agent, raised a family in rural Oregon, Wisconsin2Wisconsin Historical Society website:

A few observations are in order- essentially this could be considered to be a house dress, that is a dress intended for wear around the house and not for going out in public (whether those norms were always observed is an interesting question in itself). This dress is primarily constructed from a red wool with a velvet collar; overall the dress has very little adornment, as what would be expected. Below is a picture of the dresse’s understructure:

House Dress, c. 1881; Wisconsin Historical Society (1952.128)

Here we see a structured underlayment that’s shaped and darted (and may even be boned); it’s not structured enough to act as a corset in its own right but there’s no doubt that the person wearing this garment would have had some sort of corset on underneath. Ultimately, while these styles pointed towards greater freedom of movement, there were limits. Also, it could be argued that this was simply a house dress chosen by Mrs. Cronk for utilitarian reasons and that the “aesthetic dress” considerations played no role in its creation but the silhouettes between all these garments are fairly similar and that except for differences in materials and degrees of decoration with lace and other trims. So, given that the basic silhouette of aesthetic dress and already existing house dress/wrappers were fairly similar, why the reaction? Our own theory is that it was more about these styles being worn in public than anything else but that’s just speculation on our part.

Ultimately, what we found compelling here is that we see a trend and a reaction before us in an explicit way and it’s interesting to watch the conflict develop. As a fashion trend, aesthetic dress didn’t last long; fundamental changes in women’s wear was another 20 years or so off with visionaries such as Paul Poiret. However, it’s a good illustration of how fashion trends and their reactions are often rooted in cultural conflicts.



Aesthetic Dress & Tea Gowns- When Design & Function Come Together

Aesthetic, or Artistic, dress was an outgrowth of the Aesthetic Movement and as such, was a fashion trend that arose out of reaction to the heavily structured and trim heavily trimmed fashions of the late Nineteenth Century. In contrast, the Aesthetic Dress movement focused on basing fashion on simplicity of design and quality materials.

Aesthetic Dress drew many of its ideas from the Reform/Rational Dress Movement and at their core, both movements sought to create more simple utilitarian garments that would give women freedom of movement, free from the restrictions of tight-lacing corsetry and elaborate undergarments such as bustles and the like.

William Blake Richmond, Mrs Luke Ionides, 1882; V&A Museum (E.1062:1, 2-2003)

Many Aesthetic Dress styles drew inspiration from the loosely flowing robes characteristic of the late Middle Ages and were based off of the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic movement that sought a return to the artistic styles of the abundant detail, intense colors and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art . It was almost natural that the influence of the Aesthetic Dress Movement would be reflected in tea gowns such as this example from circa 1897 made by Liberty London:

Liberty of London, Tea Gown c. 1897; Kerry Taylor Auctions

The  tea  gown  consists  of  two parts, a peach/light orange silk  outer dress  trimmed in peach/red-orange colored silk with floral pattern embroidery running along the front edges and back collar. On the front, the outer dress mimics an open robe with an inner dress made of an ivory colored linen or cotton material. The outer dress is sleeveless, the inner dress providing the sleeves. Overall, this dress reads late Medieval/early Renaissance and definitely succeeds in capturing that aesthetic.     

In this view, one can see a Watteau style back running down the length of the dress. Below is an earlier example from circa 1883 example from Liberty. During the late Nineteenth Century, Liberty London positioned itself as the leading supplier of Aesthetic style garments and there are a a number of extant garments from the era. Stay tuned for future postings on this interesting sub-fashion genre of the late Nineteenth Century.



Memories of Munich- Part 2

Part 2 of our wanderings in Munich back in 2019. One of the most striking things about Munich was that while it seemed somewhat familiar, it was very different from Paris or London. Although we are very familiar with German history and culture, to actually see it up close and personal was a different matter and we found it very interesting see the differences (and we don’t mean that the beer was better, which it was!). Anyway, someday we’ll post more on that but in the meantime enjoy our travelogue… 🙂


Lunch was a delightful low-key affair at a local cafe that had an excellent view of the Residenz and after having recharged ourselves, we returned to the Residenz to view the Treasury and Cuvilliés Theatre. The Treasury itself is pretty straight-forward- essentially a large vault with a very massive door- that now houses the Wittelsbach Crown Jewels and other valuable mementos to include a coin collection with some 300,000 pieces. Below are just a couple of examples:

The Wittlesbach Crown Jewels.

It was hard to get decent pictures in the Treasury due to the lighting and glass display cases so I had to lift the above two pictures off of Wikipedia.

We next visited the Cuvilliés Theatre which was a visual treat. Like much of the Residenz, it’s been completely rebuilt on a site that’s close to the original site but it follows the same plan as the original and many of the fittings to include the boxes are original, having been stored away for security during the war. Originally built in from 1751 to 1755 under the Elector Max III Joseph, it was designed by the architect François Cuvilliés the Elder (who designed a number of structures in the Residenz complex). Below are some views that we got:

The stage- This is actually a working theater.

Looking up from the ground floor. There were four levels of seating.

Looking towards the main entrance. Above the entrance is the King’s private box.

Interestingly enough, the theater is a functioning theater and performances are staged here on a regular basis. Of all the places we visited, the theater was the most compelling, helped by the fact that it was fully air conditioned. 🙂 One of the downsides of visiting museums in Europe during the warmer times of the year they have minimal ventilation and the atmosphere is warm and stifling. But in spite of the challenges, it was well worth the effort and just the scale and magnitude of the structures and their furnishings is simply amazing. Stay tuned for more! 🙂