Dressing for Tea …It’s Kind of a Big Deal

Tea etiquette and events are gaining popularity in the United States, but some of us need a little guidance in what we’re doing.

Dressing for tea is relatively new to Americans outside of the  American south or the American east coast. The original English colonies  found in the eastern and southern United States are more familiar and  comfortable with the idea of “taking tea” as an event, a social  gathering, or as a party and generally have an inkling of what’s  expected in regards to attire.

Unfortunately, taking tea has taken on some confusing interpretations in the United States which has impacted how we dress to take tea.

As celebrity culture and “reality television” grow in popularity in  the U.S., many viewers are looking to this newly anointed  pseudo-aristocracy as the arbiters of etiquette –including the etiquette  of “taking tea” and dressing for such.

In my post “High Tea is Not What You Think…,”  individuals unfamiliar with tea taking confuse “high tea” with  “afternoon tea.” This confusion in tea events is only exaggerated by  reality shows that portray seemingly wealthy women throwing lavish “high  tea” parties, including the obnoxiously excessive accoutrements that  accompany the confusion.

As I mention in my post “High Tea is Not What You Think…,”  individuals unfamiliar with tea taking confuse “high tea” with  “afternoon tea.” This confusion in tea events is only exaggerated by  reality shows that portray seemingly wealthy women throwing lavish “high  tea” parties, including the obnoxiously excessive accoutrements that  accompany the confusion.

For this post, I’ll focus on social tea events and tea events at higher end tea rooms and hotels.

(Informal tea invitations or popping into your local tearoom aren’t  as formalized, but it’s always nice to ditch the yoga pants and athletic  shoes every once and a while.)

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea is not “high tea.”

What most people associate with “high tea” is Afternoon Tea which  commonly occurs from 2 o’clock to 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Afternoon  Tea can be something as simple as a Cream Tea (primarily tea accompanied  by scones with clotted cream and jam) to a more elaborate Royal Tea  which serves champagne and/or sherry and includes an elaborate salad  with sweets and sandwiches.

Afternoon Tea can be social or informal. In the past women visited  each other’s homes or invited over women from a comparable class “to  tea.”

High Tea

High tea attire. High Tea is less formal and closer to a supper that includes tea.  It’s also called a “meat tea” because meat, savory items, and heartier  fare were included in the tea.

Tea Party

A tea party is not a political event; it is a social event. A tea  party is a wonderful way to celebrate an occasion. With a tea party you  can offer self-serve tea with a buffet of sweets and sandwiches, or as a  plated lunch event with each table having it’s own 3-tiered stand of  goodies and fresh pot of loose leaf tea. (Make sure there are personal  or pot fitted strainers to catch the leaves.)

The occasion falls in line with whether it’s afternoon tea or high tea, or even Elevensies (that’s for another post).

Since a tea party is a more social occasion involving a group of invited guests, the host can provide the dress code.

For all teas, however, throw the stereotypes out of the window.

  • Do not put your pinky “up”! It’s an affectation that has no place at a tea. It’s almost seen as a mocking of the tradition of taking tea. Keep those pinkies down…please.
  • A hat is not required, unless the host suggests it as a dress attire. Keep the fascinators –which are not  hats(!)—and outrageous hats at home unless the host suggests it. Hats  were originally a part of the occasion because women wore hats and  gloves in public and if one were invited to a tea, then one would be  wearing both when they arrived, but they would remove their gloves for  tea. It’s the twenty first century and women are not required to wear  hats and gloves in public. If you are invited to a royal tea or to a tea  with a public official or to a public social tea, then keep the hat and  gloves understated, fashionable, matching, and tasteful. Save the  outrageous hats for Ascot (outside of the Royal Enclosure) or the  Kentucky Derby…unless your host requests it.
  • A dress is not required. Again, this is the 21st  century. Women are not relegated to only dresses. Fashionable and  tasteful suits, slacks, blouses, and jumpsuits can be equally elegant.
  • This is not the time to “shock and awe” your host, unless that is what they’re requesting.  
  • Just because someone lives in the American south and invites you to a tea event it does not mean that they want you to dress like Scarlett  O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”! The over-the-top Chantilly lace, hoop  skirts, and “fiddley-dee” ruffles do not automatically equate to the  south. Many in the south still adhere to feminine aesthetics in  clothing, but also many established events are very contemporary and  would look at you askance if you reverted to a dress stereotype. A  fail-safe is to ask your host or the sponsoring individual/group about  the attire or look at photos from past events. 

Dress Guidelines

The best dress code for everyone is to be neat, clean, and smartly  dressed in items that fit well, are not too revealing or too tight, are  well made, and reflect the color of the festive occasion or season.

Informal Afternoon Tea

Tailored slacks or dark denim with dark threading, blazers, suiting,  full length or mid-length jumpsuits, mid-calf or knee length dress, and  enclosed flats, pumps, heels or enclosed shoes with no shoelace holes.  Button-down shirts, sports jackets/blazers and slacks.

Formal or Royal Afternoon Tea

Full-length tailored slacks, blazers, suiting, full-length jumpsuits,  no “spaghetti straps,” no “strapless” dresses or tops without a  covering like a cardigan or blazer, dress flats or mid- or high heels,  pumps, and button-down blouse/shirt.

High Tea

Business casual or dressing with full-length slacks or jumpsuits and  covered arms, blazers, and enclosed shoes. Since High Tea occurs after  5:00 p.m., your clothing should accommodate for cooler evenings.  

If you plan to just pop in to your local tea room to meet friends, consider the tea rooms dress policy, if there even is one.

The hard and fast rules are no athletic shoes, no yoga pants, and no  revealing tops  or over exposure. Save your “flop around” clothes for  errands, the beach, and more low key activities.

Hey, What About Traditionally Male Attire?

The question about what masculine presenting persons should wear to tea has been asked. This is a great question! 

Tea as a ceremony or event is often presented as solely the domain of women and girls and this is not true. “Taking Tea” is neither feminine or masculine –it just is. In the United States it has taken on an almost performative exercise in what people think happens when taking tea for leisure or as an event. 

Fashion blogger Carl Thompson

For the majority of the world, tea is a regular part of the day; however, when it is presented in a formal or semi-formal environment or as an event, it does require some adjusting as outlined above.

For men or a masculine presenting person, there are some cues for dressing for tea.

Fashion blogger Carl Thompson provides some helpful tips on his blog post “What to Wear to Afternoon Tea.”

For styling tips from Mr. Thompson, please visit his blog!

Again, if you’re unsure, just ask your host!

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