Tea parties were popular feminine events that allowed fashionable women to mingle, gossip, and model the latest attire, while also enjoying the “cup that cheers.” Victorians also wanted to solve problems, and sometime around the 1850s, women’s suffrage became a hot topic. Women who believed in women’s suffrage, also believed the constrictions caused by their corsets, along with restrictions brought on by multiple and cumbersome layers of clothing, was an area that needed to change.
This idea of change was moved along with a health journal called the Water-Cure Journal. In the journal women were urged to dress in ways that would not be injurious to their health, and this advice resulted in readers inventing versions of a short skirt and trousers or “Turkish dress.” Some women began to wear them but they did not catch on until Elizabeth Smith Miller, an advocate and financial supporter of the women’s rights movement, wore them to Amelia Bloomer’s house. Shortly, thereafter, Bloomer, an American women’s rights and temperance advocate, announced in her temperance journal that she had adopted this new fashion.
Bloomer’s adoption of the new fashion inspired other women to wear them, and soon everyone began calling them “bloomers.” During the summer of 1851, the nation was seized by a “bloomer craze,” and as the craze for bloomers grew, it created public outrage. Thus, it did not take long for more feminine apparel to be invented as a backlash against the feminist movement and bloomers, which some people described as too masculine and immodest.
When the tea-gown became popular, one 1879 paper didn’t see any connection to bloomers or feminism, and they wrote:
“Our London ladies, who a few years ago would have considered the idea appalling, calmly array themselves in the glorified dressing-robe known as a ‘tea-gown,’ and proceed to display themselves to the eyes of their admirers. The reason, perhaps, is not very far to seek. Certain adventurous dames, who determined, some years since, an invasion of man’s last stronghold, the smoking-room, arrayed themselves for conquest in bewitching robes de chambre. Their less enterprising sisters, not quite daring to follow them to nocturnal extremities, were unwilling to be defrauded of the opportunity of adding another weapon to the arsenal of the toilet, hence the origin of the tea-gown. Of course, it in no way resembles the dressing-gown of utility. It is of elaborate design and infinite cost. It is absolutely useless and utterly ridiculous; but this is not the worst that may be said about it. It is, to all intents and purposes, a deshabille, and so great is the force of association, that the conversation is exceedingly apt, nay, almost certain to become deshabille as well.”
Although the tea-gown was not necessarily deshabille, it was some sort of hybrid, halfway between a wrap and a ball gown. Tea-gowns were also diaphanous, comfortable and flowing, and they could be worn with or without the restrictive, waist-scrunching corsets, which was one reason why women liked them and why they became popular. Interest in bloomers had also revived during the 1893 Woman’s Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition. At that time it was claimed bloomers could aid women’s health through exercise. Perhaps, that was another reason why tea-gowns appeared. After all tea-gowns were feminine and had none of the manly appearance so often associated bloomers. But it was still surprising that the informal tea-gown was accepted by Victorians, which was noted in one article written in 1879:
“It is not so very long ago that the appearance in the drawing room or in any other place where she was visible to the naked eye of the male sex, of a lady loosely wrapped in her dressing gown, would have been an impossibility. But the world moves rapidly in this last quarter of the nineteenth century; and ladies … proceed to display themselves to the eyes of their admirers … [These so-called] tea gowns have descended to the drawing-room and the hall, and have become more marvellous [sic] and more voyant in the transit.”
Tea-gowns continued in vogue ten years later. At that time they were somewhat different looking. Good Housekeeping wrote an article about them in 1889, stating:
“The most fashionable … dress for reception, is a tea-gown … It clothes the figure loosely, but gracefully … It is invariably a demi-trained garment … [with a] princess effect … [and] as now made is a modification of the Empire style.”
Women loved the loose comfortable style of the tea-gown, even if it hovered on respectability and had limits as to where it could and could not be worn. For instance, in the nineteenth century, tea-gowns could be worn indoors but were deemed inappropriate when walking on the street. So how did a woman chose her tea-gown? She selected it based on the time of day and the degree of formality — undress (casual), half dress (dressy casual), or full dress (formal wear). Thus, tea-gown fell into one of the following categories listed below:
Morning Wear (Undress): According to one etiquette book, “Morning dress should be simple but fastidiously neat,” and so tea-gowns worn in early morning were similar to a wrapper, which was essentially a bathrobe.
Afternoon Wear (Half Dress): Tea-gowns worn during the afternoon consisted of a high neckline and long, flowing sleeves. For the first time, these gowns also allowed women to go without corsets, and so these tea-gowns were worn primarily in front of close friends or family.
Evening wear (Full Dress): Tea-gowns were not necessarily worn during the evening, but a hostess could wear one at her own dinner party. The tea-gown was extremely fashionable by 1900 and consisted of low necklines, sometimes with no sleeves or short sleeves. Additionally, many women accessorized them with matching handbags, gloves, or hats.
Supposedly, Queen Victoria was first introduced to the tea-gown in the 1840s by the woman who legend claims created afternoon tea. Her name was Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford. Fifty years later, the flowing, sheer gowns that required no maid’s help to get in or out of, were still popular with the fashionable set. The Aukland Star noted in the mid 1890s, “Tea-gowns are as much worn as ever. It is such a useful fashion that I hope we may long retain the custom.” The Star was in luck. Just as tea time remained popular, tea-gowns also remained popular. Part of the reason was the tea-gown combined style, comfort, and usefulness. In fact, the gowns stayed fashionable into the Edwardian Era, which resulted in new silhouettes and styles with names such as Merveilleuse, Directoire, and Empire.
-  “The Tea-Gown,” Nelson Evening Mail, February 1879, p. 4.
-  Stubbs, Philip, etal., A Phillip Stubbs’s Anatomy of the Abuses in England in Shakspere’s [sic] Youth A.D. 1583, 1879, p. 93.
-  “Family Fashions and Fancies,” Good Housekeeping, Vol. 8, 1889, p. 90.
-  “Latest London Fashions,” The Aukland Star, 7 March 1891, p. 1.
-  “Latest London Fashions,” The Aukland Star, 9 February 1895, p. 2.