Tea length is a fashion term used to describe a mid-length skirt hem that hits at the calf or shin. This type of skirt tends to skim the hips, then gradually billow out softly at the end. It is typically a slightly more relaxed and casual alternative to the floor-length skirts on ball gowns.
The first tea length hems were worn mostly by women in Western cultures, especially in England and the United States, starting roughly around the late 1800s. These were considered a more casual alternative to the full-length dresses during a time when it was not typically socially acceptable for a woman to wear pants. The first tea length dresses tended to be made of lightweight fabrics, such as cotton, and were generally deemed too casual to be worn out in public.
During the 1920s, the fashion for Western women began to change as women started to wear shorter skirts and trousers, so tea length skirts were no longer considered too casual to wear outside the home. Fashion designers started to make tea length dresses and skirts out of more formal fabrics, such as satin, which were worn widely up through the late 1950s and early 1960s. After the 1960s, women’s fashion tended to focus on shorter skirt lengths and pants, so calf-length dresses were not as commonly worn by Western women.
Modern designers produce tea length dresses, which are generally used for formal events. Some women prefer the skirt length because they want to evoke the conservative style of the first half of the twentieth century. To emphasize the gradual billowing at the end of the skirt, a woman can wear a slip made of tulle, a stiff fabric which adds more volume to the skirt. Others may choose this shorter hem if they are attending an outdoor formal event, in which a longer hem may risk becoming soiled or torn.
A tea length hem can have possible disadvantages as well, particularly due to the area of the leg where the hem hits. If a woman is petite or has short legs, the calf length hem may conceal such a large portion of her lower body that she may appear wider than she actually is. To remedy any particular fit issues, this mid-length hem is often worn with high heels to elongate the lower body and may require tailoring to ensure the hem lands precisely at the calf.