What to wear to an Afternoon Tea

So in case you haven’t heard- In honor of Queen Victoria’s 200th Birthday (and Maggie May Clothing’s 25th anniversary), we are hosting an authentic Victorian Era Afternoon Tea on Saturday, May 25, 2019 at the beautifully restored American Legion Hall in South Pittsburg, Tennessee! But what exactly is an Afternoon Tea anyway? And what should I wear?

Afternoon Tea for two at the Leonard Hotel in London

Unlike High Tea, which happens late into the evening hours and includes a hot dish, Afternoon Tea (or Low Tea) is reserved for an intimate gathering of friends with light refreshment including finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets. Because the length of time between lunch and supper was quite long, an intermittent course of finger foods and tea was served to stave off hunger- thus becoming what we know today as Afternoon Tea! (The term “Low Tea” has nothing to do with reduced luxury- but instead the height of the tables on which it was served!)

A Cream Tea Service for two

A less extensive version of Afternoon Tea is know as Cream Tea which consists of just scones and cream. On special occasions, a final course of champagne was served during Afternoon Tea, thus becoming a Royal Tea service.

Royal Tea Service includes champagne and is reserved for special occasions!

Regardless of whether you are attending an Afternoon Tea/Low Tea, a Cream Tea, or a Royal Tea, mode of dress is always semi-formal. Historically, being invited to attend Tea meant one would dress in Sunday best out of respect for the hostess. Long ago, before the emerging informalities ushered in by the post modern world, people “dressed for occasion.” Formality was part of the cultural norm and how one dressed, behaved, and spoke was directly tied to moral character and one’s upbringing. This is still a pervasive theme in America’s Southern culture today.

So this sounds like lots of fun… but what should I wear?

Full Historical

Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819. This is the period we call The Regency Era (or The Georgian Period depending on where you live). This is the time period we often associate with Jane Austen (d.1817). It is known as The Era of Good Feelings. It is the same year Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, Alabama became the 22nd state, and Spain ceded Florida.

The Regency Period is recognized by its long, sleek, Greek and Roman inspired silhouettes. Free-flowing cotton gowns pulled in just below the bust were popular during this period. Simple, straight-forward gowns were offset by elaborate accessories! Short waisted jackets, shawls, bonnets, jewelry, hats, and parasols were all the rage!

Volare Digital Capture
“Court Dress of Lady Worsley Holmes worn at the first Drawing Room of George IV”
La Belle Assemblée,July 1820 
A lovely roller printed cotton gown c. 1820s

Men’s dress consisted of a set of close fitting trousers, shirt, waistcoat (sometimes 2!), cravat, and jacket. Accessories such as tall hats, walking sticks, and boutonnieres were very fashionable.

Image courtesy the V&A

When Victoria became Queen in 1837, she ushered in a new time period called the Victorian Era. This period lasted until her death in 1901. The clothing of this era consisted of corsets, tightly fitted bodies, full skirts, and (later on) bustles. The use of accessories did not diminish. Shawls, jewelry, and parasols were often used. Gloves became an important accessory during this period and were worn during formal and semi-formal occasions.

Dress c. 1840 Fashion Museum, Bath
Dress c. 1870s Kent State University
Dress c. 1890s House of Worth

Men’s fashions did not change considerably as time progressed and a respectable gentleman never went out without his trousers, shirt, waistcoat, cravat (later on necktie), and jacket. Even working class men wore all these garments. Hats, walking sticks, and umbrellas were typical accessories.

Prince Bertie

Victorian-Inspired

In the modern world, the term “Victorian” has come to be associated with “old fashioned” clothing that has a romantic flair. Long flowing skirts, lots and lots of lace, sheer fabrics, large hats, floral prints, pastel colors, high heeled boots- these are all images that come to mind. This is thanks to the Neo- Victorian revival that happened in the 1980s. This fashion trend has its foundations in the 19th century Victorian period and thus are all perfectly suitable for Queen Victoria’s Tea.

Dresses c. 1986 Laura Ashley
1980s Laura Ashley dress!

Hats! Hats! Hats!

If there is one garment that is “Oh- So British,” it is the hat! Large hats, small hats, fascinators, tiaras, capotes, outrageous hats! You name it! They wear it! And oh how they wear it with style!

Kate Middleton in a lovely Victorian inspired hat. Understated elegance is a signature of British style.
WINDSOR, ENGLAND – MAY 19: (L-R)Abigail Spencer and Priyanka Chopra arrive at the wedding of Prince Harry to Ms Meghan Markle at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

With that being said, we would prefer to avoid Gothic, Lolita, and Steampunk for this event. These are 21st century styles that (while I love) just do not quite fit the atmosphere we would like to create for this particular event!

Left= Neo-Victorian YES!/Right=Gothic NO!
Left= Neo-Victorian YES!/Right=Gothic No!

You can read more about the fashions of The Regency Era and The Victorian Era on our Fashion History pages! More about the event.

About Susan

Hi! My name is Susan and I am a historian, seamstress, teacher, mother, and wife. My passion for history has manifested itself in the art of recreating clothing from different periods of time. Growing up in the American South, I am heavily schooled in the art of recreating clothing from the 19th century. After nearly a decade of immersing myself primarily in the Victorian period, I found the need to branch out and explore other periods of time. However, it is my connection with the American South and the clothing of rural America that continues to be the driving force behind my designs.