Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dressing for Tea: 1890-1920

If only I loved history in high school as much as I do now, we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.

I recently attended a presentation at a local library entitled: DRESSING FOR TEA: 1890 - 1920 - The Clothing and Customs. This program was presented by the Costume Resource Center at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, NY.

Short history lesson: President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, NY on September 14, 1901. Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt was vice president. He came to Buffalo to be sworn into office, hence The Buffalo Museum. This event took place in the Ansley Wilcox House, which today houses the museum.

The costume resource center is part of the museum. The presenters brought with them what a well to do woman would wear to tea in that 30 year span. In that time frame many events took place that had great historical import. Queen Victoria died, King Edward took the British throne, the Boar War was taking place in Africa where British colonialism was contested and independence was the prize, British women won the right to vote and WW I was taking place on European soil. These events greatly affected life in the U.S.

The 1890's woman wore what would be considered today a huge amount of clothing. The presenters had a mannequin dressed for the occasion. She wore the cinnamon colored dress, a fedora hat, pale colored kid leather gloves, shoes, stockings, and carried a matching purse. This is what the audience saw. But underneath, she had many more layers.

The presenters undressed her, layer by layer. They explained what each piece was and it's purpose. The dress was silk. At this time in history, you either had a silk dress, a cotton one or a wool one. A dressmaker would have made the dress for you. The dress was partly machine sewn and partly hand sewn. (the sewing machine had been invented in 1850). You could not just go to a store a purchase one. The dressmaker would have made your purse as well. The cinnamon dress was two pieces, the skirt and the top were separate and matching. Very detailed, leg o' mutton sleeves, tucks, matching lace at the neck. That removed, we saw the white cotton, lace trimmed petticoat. Each and every one of these garments closed with buttons. No zippers, no velcro. She wore a white, button front, lace trimmed, fitted camisole tucked into her petticoat. Under that she had on a corset, drawers and stockings.

The stockings were cotton or silk at this time. Later, in wartime, silk could not be had. The garment called "drawers" was so named because one would draw them up over one leg, then draw them up over the other - thus "drawers". They ONLY covered legs. They were woven white cotton and lace trimmed, of course. note: the only knitted garment was hosiery. When I say, the drawers only covered legs, I am saying there was no crotch or behind in this garment. It was all open. They looked much like an apron with legs. note: with all this clothing on, a visit to the bathroom could possibly be a very tense situation - having "drawers" that facilitated this event, I'm sure was very much appreciated.

The corset laced up in the back. The front had hooks and eyes. It was a very rigid garment, meant to give an hour glass figure. The rigidity was provided by whalebone or metal stays. This garment was not laundered often because of its construction. Many women wore a very thin garment under it to keep it reasonably clean. Garters were attached to the bottom edges of the corset to hold up the stockings.

Then the lovely miss put on her shoes, her gloves, her hat and carried her purse. Now she was ready to go to tea.

She would have been invited to this tea by hand written invitation.

The tradition of afternoon tea came about in the 1840's because lunch was skimpy. People were hungry again in the late afternoon. Not dinnertime yet, they needed a cup of tea with bread and butter. Therefore, tea time.

One of the items in her purse would have been smelling salts. Wearing those corsets prevented one from ever taking a deep breath. Much fainting was the result. The corset also, over time, changed the contours of a woman's torso. Her rib cage and her pelvis were squeezed together. This too, caused unhealthy respiration, as well as many miscarriages and deformed births.

When this part of the presentation concluded, the presenters then dressed another mannequin from the inside out. She has the white dress on. You will note her crocheted purse. It is called a "reticule". Any purse with a drawstring was called a reticule. You may also notice her hat. The crown of the 1890's hats were very large to accommodate big hair. The women saved all the hair in her comb and hair brush in a small container. When she had a goodly amount, she would wrap that hair in a net. Then used it to give her hairstyle extra height for pompadours and Gibson girl up do's. Hence, hats with large crowns.

It was also during this time that women wore bustles which were created with yet another undergarment. This one, all wires and tape. The dresses were all longer in the back in order to accommodate the bustle. The figure gained by this look was called "the powder pigeon". Women looked much like a walking pigeon wagging its behind.

As history played on, women became more and more emancipated and their clothing reflected this. By the 1920's, the flapper girl had cut her hair into a bob style. She wore very few undergarments, no corsets, shapeless dresses that had lots of swing to them.

Closed up undies began to appear in the 1920's. In the 20's, a bandeau could be had to wear under the teddie but it had no shaping. Stockings were held up by garters. A cloche was the hat style, pulled down over the bob hair do.

The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site looks like a lovely destination for a girlz day out........


  1. That is such interesting information about women's fashion over the years. Man have times changed. Women wore too much back then, now they wear too little today. I had forgotten that President McKinley had been assasinated.

  2. I cannot even imagine wearing all those layers. I probably would have fainted. The purse is stunning and the clothing is like pieces of art.


  3. Very interesting! I am with Sue:) I don't think I could have handled all the layers:)

  4. I often wonder if I was born in the wrong time LOL

    Love the clothes!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. Very interesting.
    Did you know in Australia we call our evening meal "tea".

    1. No, I didn't know that supper/dinner was referred to as "tea" in Aus. In America, as with the UK, tea was late afternoon (I imagine 4-5 PM). The ladies were hungry then. Dinner was not scheduled until 8PM after the nurse/nanny took the children to the nursery to read stories and get ready for bed. Dinner was a adult affair.

  6. Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing with us. Niki x

  7. How often do we say, "Oh, I wish I could have lived in the 1800's!"? I think we forget what these women went through just to get dressed everyday! I would love the era, NOT the clothes!

  8. Thank the good Lord for emancipation. Not that I like skimpy clothes, I just wouldn't want to wear all of those layers. The clothing in itself was a work of art though. I've always like the look of the white dress, just not all the undergarments. :0) Thanks for sharing that with us.

  9. Wow... thank God for women's emancipation, indeed! Gosh... they must've died on hot days! Can't imagine...

    I believe Minnie Mouse was designed like a flapper girl...

  10. wow! So glad I got to be born in this era. Even though I often want to tell others to cover up, at least I don't have to wear all of that!
    Very interesting.

  11. Really enjoyed this post, especially after writing nostalgically (is that a word?) about the Art of Visiting. I've always wondered what made a reticule any different from any other purse type. I can also see why a woman would need assistance in getting dressed!!

  12. Enjoyed reading this post -- very interesting and amusing how things have changed.