Comfort and Elegance – a Brief History of the Tea Gown

In general, women’s fashion during the 1800s had the tendency to be restrictive and uncomfortable, but it was all for the sake of physical beauty. 

Corsets, crinolines, crinolettes, and bustles were among those fashion trends designed to give a women’s body a flattering silhouette. But wearing any of them was not only an uncomfortable, inconvenient, and painful experience, but it proved to be detrimental to women’s health, especially when worn for a prolonged period.

But fortunately, after a difficult day at the mercy of the crinoline, crinolette, bustle, and the corset, 19th-century women could now find comfort and relief in the tea gown.

A tea gown was a woman’s dress that was typically worn at home when informally entertaining guests. The tea gown was either loose and straight or semi-fitted, usually with long sleeves, a high collar, and long (and usually loose and flowing) sleeves. It was a cross between a robe and a ball gown.

a black-and-white photograph of a woman in tea gown

Compared to the corset and other types of restrictive clothing items, the tea gown could be easily put on by the wearer herself without needing the maids’ assistance. It was sewn with soft, sumptuous fabrics and decorated with lots of lace. Some tea gowns also featured long trains. 

Tea gowns took their inspiration from somewhere in the Far East. The earliest-known tea gowns were evident of Asian influence, as their loose-sleeved features resembled those of the Japanese kimono. Aside from that, a historical approach from the 1700s – particularly the Rococo period – also led to the renaissance period dresses that featured long, flowing sleeves.

While the tea gown was usually considered as a house dress because of its relative informality and comfort, it was nevertheless consummately elegant. Depending on the wearer’s preference, she might wear a loose-fitting corset or no corset at all, although tea gowns were really intended to be worn without a corset.

beige tea gown with black lace and ribbons in 1875

By the mid-1880s, tea gowns were considered in vogue, particularly among followers of the aesthetic movement, who believed that life was meant to be lived intensely, along with an ideal of beauty.

However, wearing tea gowns was limited within the confines of one’s home. It was considered inappropriate for women to be wearing tea gowns outside of their homes and in public. They were intended to be worn only indoors with family members and close friends during a gathering.

As drinking tea was an afternoon pastime especially among the aristocrats, tea gowns were intended to be worn during midday. As mentioned before, tea gowns featured high collars. But some tea gowns also featured a low collar or a small opening at the neck, and this variation was usually worn during the evening. Women began wearing tea gowns in the evening for informal dinners at home with family and friends at the turn of the century.

gold tea gown in the 1920s

By the 1920s, the popularity of tea gowns had begun to wind down, by which time they were quite sheer and lightweight. They were typically made of sheer, light fabric or metallic thread, giving them a somewhat shimmering look.