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19th Century Wrappers & Tea Gowns

Earlier this week I posted on Instagram a compilation of photos of an 1890s Japanese wrapper, and have gotten slightly fascinated in these 'at-home' garments. Over the last few months, I've acquired three wrappers (and most likely should be attributed as tea gowns) for the bustle collection, and hopefully will one day make a small traveling exhibit with these. The abundance of textures, colors, and variety of fabrics belie that these dresses were glorified housecoats, robes, or even the 'clothes I do my tidying up in'. Additionally, there's quite the rabbit hole when it comes to wrappers and tea gowns and their relation to dress reform and the Aesthetic movement - but I'm jumping ahead of myself!

1890s wrapper in the bustle collection

In the latter half of the 19th century, a shift occurred between the societal norms of what was accepted to wear around the house at different times of the day. Prior to the 1870s, a wrapper - also known as a dressing gown, peignoir, or morning robe - were the typical style of dress worn at home when not receiving family or friends. Their bold colors and patterns, plus the printing on cotton instead of the heavy silk taffeta seen in most day or evening gowns, allowed for easy laundering. These bold patterns and textures also hid soiling and stains from household chores. They were loose, and could be worn with or without a corset, depending on what you were doing or who you were seeing. These garments were strictly at-home dresses, and it was socially unacceptable to be seen in your wrapper, which is so surprising to me as they're all flat out gorgeous!

The wrappers above date to the 1840s-1850s, all from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Collection.

In the mid-1870s, a subtle shift in wrappers occurred, creating a new style of 'at-home' garment called a tea gown. These interior gowns, like wrappers, were worn inside the home, but could also double as reception gowns, dresses worn for afternoon tea, and even informal dinner gowns when entertaining immediate family. More importantly, tea gowns were meant for gender-segregated leisure activities, and walked a fine line between a state of undress and half dress (full dress being what an upper class woman wore to the opera or an evening ball or other event outside the home).

The tea gowns above date to the 1870s and 1880s, and are all part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Collection, except the upper right image. The gowns in this image are part of the bustle collection.

Although most women probably wore these tea gowns solely as dressing gowns, they pervaded late Victorian closets, providing a more comfortable means of dressing to society's high standards without the petticoats, bustles, and other heavy undergarments. In fact, when looking at 1880s catalogs, there are several pages of patterns for wrappers.

These tea gowns date to the 1890s, and are all from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Collection, except the lower right image, which is part of the bustle collection.

While some scholars claim that the late Victorian tea gown was a category of dress reform and part of the Aesthetic Movement (art exists for the sake of its beauty alone), in many cases these garments were solely articles of clothing that were comfortable, easy to get on and off, and were easily cleaned - much like today's sweatpants. In the 1890s, both tea dresses and wrappers were ways to illustrate 18th century, medieval, or Asian influences on a contemporary garment, but with modern silhouettes and trims. This trend continued into the 19teens and 1920s with Fortuny's Greek influenced Delphos gown, which began as an 'at-home' gown that quickly morphed into exotic evening gowns.

Although this post is brief, I plan to delve further into the three wrappers/tea gowns in my collections, as well as read more technical and scholarly articles on tea gowns, their inclusion in late 19th century dress reform, the Aesthetic movement's influence over the changing styles and ideas, and how these dresses fit into that movement.

Until then, I hope you discover your own style of comfortable morning robe or peignoir (sweatpants count in my book!), and I'll see you all next time!

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1 Comment

Vanessa Howard
Vanessa Howard
May 12, 2022

Finding your article very interesting. I am currently researching the history of ladies nightwear and am eager to learn more. I have only one gown in my own collection dating approx 1890.

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