Tea gowns are long, loosely fitted dresses that were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often called an “at-home dress” or a “rest robe,” the tea gown was generally worn by a woman in the comfort of her own quarters. The body-length dress was typically made of soft, flowing materials with distinctly feminine attributes. Women often purchased tea gowns constructed of a few different pieces, so as to change the look from afternoon to evening wear.
Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and close friend of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, is generally credited with starting the trend of tea gowns. The Duchess is also known for originating “afternoon tea,” during which the gown would also be worn. As afternoon tea became popular, so did unstructured gowns. The roomier gowns allowed a woman to have a sandwich or small cake more comfortably, as corsets were typically not worn with them, either.
A tea gown's fabric typically consisted of gauzy chiffon or silk. Wool and velvet would have been used more in the cooler months. Women also accessorized their tea gowns with lace trim and handkerchiefs, as well as ruffles, attention-grabbing patterns and baubles. The dress often had a short train. A bracelet, necklace or earrings could have been worn with the tea length gown, as well.
The gown generally had less buttons or fasteners than other popular dress types of the era. Because of its casual, amorphous shape, it is said that men found a certain element of sexual intrigue in the tea gown. As women often hosted afternoon tea for female and male guests while her husband was out, the tea gown is often associated with stories of mistresses. As such gowns were designed to be put on or taken off with ease, quick access was available to the man and his mistress for a timely foray.
If a woman wasn’t entertaining guests with afternoon tea during the day, she may have been in her sitting room or private quarters. A woman was not to leave the house in her tea gown unless it was to visit family or an intimate friend. Taking off or adding supplementary dress segments would make an afternoon tea gown acceptable for evening wear. At night, the neckline would drop, revealing more of the neck, chest or shoulders.
Tea gowns were generally part of a woman’s everyday wear for an entire season or two. Thus, the gown had to be both comfortable and appealing to visitors, as well as to the woman, herself. A woman may have designed her own tea gown, or given the dressmaker suggestions for a dress that would appeal to her individual style. The materials and accents of a tea gown also had to fit into a woman’s budget.