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Tuesday
Sep132016

“Get this Corset Off Me!”

In this day and age Western women take breathing easily for granted. But once upon a time it was not so easy. A century and a half ago women’s breathing and digestion was severely restricted by the regular wear of a corset; muscles were weakened, and more besides, depending upon how tightly the corset was laced. (Multiple petticoats must have been a pain too, not to mention straight shoes – lefts and rights were not invented until approximately the mid nineteenth-century.)

It is no wonder that in these circumstances the scandalous tea gown came to be invented.

What do you generally do when you come home? You make yourself comfortable. We kick off our shoes, remove our restrictive workwear (sometimes including even our bras) and don instead tracksuits, leggings, jeans or pyjamas and wear slippers or go barefoot. We throw ourselves onto our couches with a sigh of relief, and enjoy a tipple of our favourite beverage.

Edwardian lady wearing a tea gown. Image from 'Seduction' by Caroline Cox, Mitchell Beazley, 2006. (No image credit captioned.)Why should not the Edwardian lady have been the same? Picture her coming home and exclaiming to her maid as she rips the elaborate hat off her head, “Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.” She lounges back in her boudoir with a sigh of blissful relief and stretches her legs and wriggles her toes, and takes big breaths in between ladylike sips of restorative Earl Grey.

“Get this corset off me! Let me put up my feet and drink a cup of tea.”

And what was she wearing while she relaxed? At first perhaps she was wearing merely a wrapper over her chemise and bloomers, which meant she was not dressed to receive company. But what if her best friend paid her an afternoon call? She couldn’t receive her in her underwear! (Imagine if you did that today.)

And then the tea gown was born.

Broderie anglaise 'boudoir dress' by the House of Doeuillet; illustrated by André Marty for 'La Gazette du bon ton', 1913. From 'The Fine Art of Fashion' by Julian Robinson, Bay Books (no publish date listed – late 1980s?)Woman's tea gown, Miss Bishop 1870s; Silk satin with supplementary weft patterning, linen machine-made lace, and silk plain weave trim.

What, exactly, is a tea gown?

Tea gowns were worn from the 1870s until the 1930s, and essentially are gowns that can be put on and taken off without the assistance of a maid. They are extremely feminine; long and loose without defined waists, cut on princess lines and made from luxurious fabrics. Sleeves were at first tight, but by the 20s and 30s were also relaxed, so that the whole effect was flowing and languid, and principally, informal.

a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown

Because a tea gown was considered a hybrid somewhere between a wrapper (or bathrobe) and an evening gown, early versions were designed to look like a robe worn over a dress. The under-dress was waisted with a sash, and the robe on top was loose and open, and it usually featured a train. The tea gown generally had a high neck, as daytime garments always did, distinguishing it from the décolleté evening gown.

Fabrics featured lace; floral embellishments as part of the Art Nouveau movement; medieval details, historical elements from the 17th and 18th centuries; and also exotic details from the Chinese, Japanese and Indian arts popular at the time.

This 1899 engraving shows the stark difference between a day dress and a tea gown.Elaborate tea gown from the House of Rouff, c. 1900. Woven silk damask embroidered with glass, metal thread and beads, and embroidered net and lace. V&A

Emily Post, in 1922, describes it thus:

‘Every one knows that a tea-gown is a hybrid between a wrapper and a ball dress. It has always a train and usually long flowing sleeves; is made of rather gorgeous materials and goes on easily, and its chief use is not for wear at the tea-table so much as for dinner alone with one’s family. It can, however, very properly be put on for tea, and if one is dining at home, kept on for dinner.’ – Emily Post, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922.

Why were tea gowns so scandalous?

Silk tea gown in a glorious saffron shade, by American designer Jessica Franklin Turner, c. 1929. Perhaps at first the tea gown was worn in real privacy, then in the company of intimate friends over tea, macaroons and a cosy chat. Then one day a close gentleman friend might have come calling in the afternoon, and what harm in having him come in for a cup of tea too?

The design of the tea gown must have slowly evolved during this process, becoming more elaborate as it escaped its tenure in the boudoir and entered the dining room, then other friends’ dining rooms, and eventually out into the world. But at first it was considered scandalous because to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed. And to receive gentlemen callers thus attired showed a woman had shockingly lax morals – even, perhaps, lovers.

to wear a tea gown, or glorified wrapper, was to be en deshabille – that is, undressed

Much was made of the scandalous nature of tea gowns because of the supposition that naturally one must be entertaining lovers simply because it was so easy to remove, and one was practically naked beneath it. Surely not every woman who wore one had a lover! I maintain that the far greater attraction was the freedom of movement and breathing it allowed. Why else would it have emigrated from the boudoir? For at the turn of the twentieth century, reformers were campaigning for women to rid themselves of the corset once and for all, and the tea gown was proclaimed as an ideal garment. Its superior comfort must have been obvious to any woman who wore one. Some of the previously widely-proclaimed ills of daily corset-wearing have been debunked today, but there are still genuine health concerns – read about them in this modern corsetry guide.

By the 1920s and 30s, tea gowns more resembled just another style of afternoon dress, but even then with global lifestyle changes after industrialisation, two World Wars and revolutions in the class system, it became an impractical garment: a relic of an era and way of life long-gone. Today such a gown would – ironically – be considered quite dressy, perhaps something we might wear formally to a garden party or a wedding, but in fact its liberating spirit lives on, albeit in less graceful forms.

Chiffon dress, its bodice is overlaid with paisley embroidery, and is cut away to reveal a black lace knee-length slip – very much reminiscent of tea gowns; Christian Lacroix, c 1992; from British Vogue.Tea dresses styled haute grunge, by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, c. 1992; from British Vogue

Fashion Notes

My modern silk dress is of course not an authentic tea gown, but its colours, floral print and flowing lines all brought to mind the tea or afternoon dresses of the 1930s that I love. Its simple cut and ‘short’ length (ie, lack of train) do however make it more wearable as a day dress, which does fit in with the ethos of a tea gown. The earrings are hand made by myself from jade and Indian beaded beads; the ceramic ring is a souvenir from Barcelona; and the supremely comfortable ballet flats are by Sambag. (Both dress and shoes were bought second hand from thrift stores.)

~

To read about the evolution of tea gowns in greater detail, visit The Dreamstress, written by Leimomi Oakes, a textile and fashion historian.

Read more about the history and mythology of corset-wearing at Yesterday’s Thimble, by Lisha Vidler.

Photos: April 2016

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