Guest post written by Kathryn Sharman of Kat Got the Cream.
When I think of tea dresses it usually conjures up an image of Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller in the film The Edge of Love (if you still haven’t seen it yet, get the DVD and do so soon – it’s a feast for the eyes and ears!). Anyway, these two beauties spend much of the film whirling around in some great frocks and it’s worth watching just for the fashion inspiration (although the male leads Cillian Murphy and Matthew Rhys aren’t hard to watch either).
To my mind tea dresses are usually short-sleeved and knee-length - any higher and it's not really demure or practical enough. They often have a v-shaped neckline and cinched waist and, while they can be plain, should be made from some lovely floral print fabric. They should always be feminine, comfortable, flowery, chic and nostalgic. Tea dresses suit nearly everyone and are the ultimate in versatility. You could wear a tea dress to the office one day and to a wedding the next (depending on your accessories of course).
This may all seem like stating the obvious. After all, there's been a resurgence of the tea dress in recent years thanks to new takes on the old style by retailers such as Cath Kidston and even Pearl Lowe's collection for Peacocks.
However, this is what the tea dress style has become over the years. The tea dress we all identify with is the one of the WW2 and post war era. It's what Land Girls wore to dress up in, when they swapped their wellies for heels.
But the original tea dress or tea gown, as it was known, first came into being with the invention of tea itself. Not the drink - that was discovered a very long time ago. No, the tea we all refer to even now as afternoon tea. This tradition was first started in 1841 by Anna Maria Stanhope, the seventh Duchess of Bedford. You may have heard of the anecdote.
In those days, luncheon was served at noon and dinner was served at about 8 or 9pm so all the hard working ladies of the gentry would get famished by the afternoon - must have been all that promenading and sketching and secret novella reading. So, rather than faint with hunger (though that was a very cool thing to do at the time) clever old Anna would have a plate of sandwiches and cake and a pot of tea brought up to her room, where she could have a crafty snack.
Then Anna realised it would be much more fun if she invited a few of her best gal pals to join her for a bit of a 'scoff and goss' party. As you can imagine, the idea soon caught on. But given this was the 19th century, they would have been wearing something that was still a far cry from Sienna or Keira.
Nearly a hundred years later, the tea dress was still a very 'proper' outfit as Emily Post explains in her 1922 book, Etiquette. The tea dress is one that, '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.'
Back then a tea dress was a woman's at-home dress for informal entertaining and was characterised by unstructured lines and light fabrics. More importantly, the length would have been much nearer to ankle than the knee.
Thankfully we can now all wear our tea dresses how we like and where we wish, whether it's with a pair of Hunter's at Glasto or spruced up for a job interview with killer heels. Hey, we could even wear one dressed down with a cardigan and flats for, I dunno, maybe a chat and a cuppa with the girls? I'm sure Anna would have approved of that.