As the weather warms up, allowing a return to outdoor dining, we afternoon tea goers are looking forward to our next tearoom visits, which naturally leads to the question, what to wear? Today we’re talking tea fashion for the ladies, from head to toe, including special accessories for a lovely afternoon tea al fresco.
1. Tea Hat or Fascinator
One was certainly not considered dressed without something on the head. ‘Hairdressing’ meant dressing the hair: an elaborate evening coiffure was not complete without jewels, flowers or feathers among the curls. A lady always wears a hat when she goes out in the daytime, and without fail (which is twice as strong as ‘always’) for dress-up occasions, such as weddings, funerals or other religious services, and formal luncheons and teas.– Miss Manners, June 16, 1985
Taking it from the top, one of the prized possessions of an afternoon tea-goer is a fabulous tea hat or fascinator. What differentiates the two is that fascinators are typically attached to a headband or hair clip. Accessorizing with a tea hat or fascinator adds a flair and glamour to your afternoon tea look to signal a special occasion. Tea friends also delight in exclaiming over the many creative designs and colors of each other’s tea hats at afternoon tea.
FIND IT: Some tearooms have eclectic tea hat collections that you can try on and borrow during your teatime. If you’re not comfortable sharing hats, you can find tea hats and fascinators at discount department stores like Burlington or on Amazon. If you prefer to patronize local businesses, Etsy has several American hat makers to browse. Also Google your local milliners, like Chicago-based Debra Shirley (pictured below) or NYC-based Christine A. Moore whose hats are for sale in a dozen states from coast to coast.
Depending on the scene for your afternoon tea — garden party? upscale hotel? historic mansion? whimsical teahouse? — your jewelry choice can complement your custom look. We say, to honor the 180-year-old tradition of afternoon tea, seek out vintage earrings or don family heirlooms. It warms the heart imagining that perhaps they were worn to afternoon tea decades ago. Anything goes, but our one practical recommendation is that you leave any dangly bracelets at home, being that afternoon tea is largely a meal of finger foods, and you don’t want to accidentally dip a bracelet into the clotted cream!
FIND IT: Thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets are treasure troves for vintage jewelry. Well-made costume jewelry can make quite the statement, and we say, embrace those glittery clip-on earrings! If you’re looking for something new and unique, try a local jeweler or local artisan boutique. And if your aunts offer you the jewelry your grandmother once wore, your answer is, “yes, please!” Below I am wearing a gold and orange choker passed down from my Grandmother Freda.
Gloves became important objects that hinted at the wearer’s social status. Wealthy Victorian women often had a household full of servants to complete chores and other forms of labor. Wearing tight-fitting corsets, billowing skirts, and other impractical articles of clothing sent a message to her peers that she didn’t need to concern herself with hard work of any kind. They also kept their pale, soft, and delicate hands covered by gloves to maintain their unsullied appearance. During this era, gloves weren’t just a way to signify social status – they were also a way to hide it. Working-class women could cover their rough, tan hands with gloves to suggest they were of a higher social class than they actually were, but only if the gloves were properly tailored. Wearing ill-fitting gloves indicated you belonged in a lower class in society.”– “The Meaning and History of Gloves,” Wardrobeshop.com
Pictured on the left we have the “ladies of Downton Abbey, correctly wearing their gloves. They are not smoking, drinking, playing cards, or eating,” explains etiquette expert Maura Grauber. As you can see on the right, when at afternoon tea, gloves should be removed, but not placed on the table. You may place them in your lap, with your napkin covering them. As they can be worn year round, from day into evening, fashion gloves today are made in many fabrics and lengths, such as breathable wrist-length lace for summer months, and elegant elbow-length satin to complement formal dress.
FIND IT: For new gloves with that classic feel, check out the varied selection of San Diego-based Fabulous Party Hats or Amazon. Also check out Unique Vintage, and if you’d like to dream a bit, browse handmade gloves by the very same company that designs gloves for the Queen of England, and a little show called Bridgerton: Cornelia James.
4. The Fit
Because afternoon tea is a special occasion, we encourage a bit of showing off, though it’s not a requirement. The main guideline is “keep it classy.” After all, afternoon tea began as a social custom of the upper class. The only thing not to do is dress down (we’re talking about loungewear, sweats, ratty jeans, ultra-revealing tops and bottoms). For the church-going, “dressing for church” is a good baseline, but this is afternoon tea. Feel free to fully indulge your desire to costume yourself in far more fabulous choices, from period dress to haute couture. Oh, and yes, especially at themed afternoon teas, costumes are welcome!
Check out what the guests are wearing at Queen’s Tea House in Florida to see the wide variety of fashion choices seen at an afternoon tea.
FIND IT: For period inspiration, check out The Met’s collection of gowns, which can be sorted by country and date, or Vintage Dancer which has amassed a photo collection of “old-fashioned” dress options available for purchase from various sites. For Victorian or Regency era boots, heels or flats, try Victorian Trading Co. or American Duchess. Thrift stores are also great sources for retro shoe styles. For a modern look, the choices are limitless. Take advantage of this opportunity to dress yourself up, and perhaps treat yourself to a boutique purchase. Dress slacks or a fun skirt with a cute top work just as well as a gorgeous dress.
At the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign the parasols were quite plain, but by about 1850 tassels and frills grew in popularity. In each ensuing year the adornments became more ostentatious. If a dress had bows or flounces, the parasol could be adorned with the same decoration. This was a matter of taste, and ladies selected modest or extravagant versions for different circumstances, and based on what their income would allow. Of course it was only the wealthy who used parasols as a day-to-day accoutrement. A poor girl might have a simple parasol for church, or a Sunday afternoon stroll.”– Kate Tatterstall Adventures
Especially for a sunny garden tea, a delicate parasol can be the perfect (and very practical) finishing touch to a lady’s ensemble. Any style will do, from paper to lace to a fabulously patterned fabric, so long as it complements your color scheme. We are coveting the sleek, ballooning design of the parasol below, fashioned in the style popular in 1830s England, when the tea ritual was moving earlier in the day, from an after-dinner entertainment to an afternoon social call.
The Joys of Dressing for Afternoon Tea
Getting yourself ready for an afternoon tea is part of the excitement. We love taking the time to lay out clothes, shoes and accessories that complement the ambiance of a particular afternoon tea venue or tea party theme. One of the greater pleasures in life is discovering that special piece after searching online, in boutiques or thrift stores, to complete “the look.” We hope you will have many stylish afternoon teas in your future. Please tag us on social media (#destinationtea) so we can admire your afternoon tea fashion creations, and share our favorites.