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Laughing Moon Mercantile sewing pattern #140 - Princess Seam Tea Gown - 1870s to 1880s

History Notes:

First, I am not an historian or a textile expert. I am a patternmaker. But when I copy (interpret) a garment in my collection into a sewing pattern, I am curious about it. This is what happened when I purchased an extant tea gown (c. 1889?) made by Debenham and Freebody some years ago. Here is the Pinterest page showing some photos of the gown.

There has been interest in tea gowns in recent years.Many want to know when and where the fashion originated. It is my opinion that several movements affected the style of dress called tea gowns popular at the end of the 19th century. And some are curious whether those who wore them were aware of the style’s origins.I think that some of these influences would be known and understood by the wearer in the 19th century but it is also possible that a percentage of the wearers might be unaware of any of these influences. It is also likely that some wearers might own these garments because tea gowns were simply fashionable and socially acceptable.

A warning: The terms used at the time (and now) overlap each other and can sometimes be used interchangeably. The words “artistic” and “aesthetic” are particularly thorny when trying to tell them apart. And the influence of Japonisme is often lumped into aesthetic without comment.There are more linguistic challenges which you will find as you read and compare information between writings about the exact same topic. At times I tried to understand the differences between these influences as they stood alone as they related to dress, and I could not do it. I found there is too much interdependency and cross-pollination.

Some of the influences, according to the experts: (Some of this has been copied from Wikipedia.)

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner who formed a seven-member "Brotherhood" modelled in part on the Nazarene movement. Their depiction of their interpretation of medieval dress influenced popular culture. The influence on dress has been called “artistic dress”, meaning some design elements found in medieval costumes have been incorporated into (then) modern dresses.

Aestheticism, late 19th-century European arts movement which centered on the doctrine that art exists for the sake of its beauty alone, and that it need serve no political, didactic, or other purpose.For instance, aesthetic style furniture is characterized by several common themes:

  • Ebonized wood with gilt highlights.

  • Far Eastern influence.

  • Prominent use of nature, especially flowers (sunflower), birds, ginkgo leaves, and peacock feathers.

  • Blue and white on porcelain and other fine china.

It was a movement that encompassed ideas that also influenced art, dress, literary works, and the decorative arts. The importance and relationship of this movement to other art movements, such as Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, is best described by those who know more about the subject (not me). Searching the topic on the internet will provide that information.

Japonisme is a French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design in western Europe in the nineteenth century following the forced reopening of trade of Japan in 1858. Japonisme was first described by French art critic and collector Philippe Burty in 1872.

Victorian dress reform was an objective of the Victorian dress reform movement (also known as the rational dress movement) of the middle and late Victorian era, comprising various reformers who proposed, designed, and wore clothing considered more practical and comfortable than the fashions of the time. Dress reformists were largely middle class women involved in the first wave of feminism in the Western World, from the 1850s through the 1890s. The movement emerged in the Progressive Era along with calls for temperance, women's education, suffrage and moral purity. Dress reform called for emancipation from the "dictates of fashion", expressed a desire to “cover the limbs as well as the torso adequately,” and promoted "rational dress". The movement had its greatest success in the reform of women's undergarments, which could be modified without exposing the wearer to social ridicule. Dress reformers were also influential in persuading women to adopt simplified garments for athletic activities such as bicycling or swimming.

There is information about all these influences in the books and articles listed below. While some of the written material specifically mentions tea gowns, these gowns are a subset of the same influences on other types of dress. These influences also affected corsets, underwear, sporting clothing, and more.

I tried to find anything written about Victorian tea gowns specifically and came up with some good written information. Following is a bibliography of the information I found.My review of the material follows.

Cunningham, Patricia A. Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920, Politics, Health, and Art. Kent, Ohio. The Kent State University Press, 2003.

Newton, Stella Mary. Health, Art & Reason, Dress Reformers of the 19th Century. Great Britain: Cox & Wyman Ltd., 1974.

Wahl, Kimberly. Dressed as in a Painting, Women and British Aestheticism in an Age of Reform. Durham, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire, 2013.

AnneBissonnette (2018) Victorian Tea Gowns, Dress,44:1, 1-26, DOI:10.1080/03612112.2018.1435347

Wilde, Oscar and Cooper, John. The Philosophy of Dress. Philadelphia: CSM Press, 2013. (This exists as a book and an online download available on from Amazon for the Kindle.)

The following was written by Robyne Calver in 2012 as a PHD thesis for the University of Glasgow entitled “Fashioning the Artist: Artistic Dress in Victorian Britain 1848-1900”. It is available as a download at:


I have read all of these and will give my impressions of them below. However, I would recommend that the reader would read them for themselves to do their own research.

Health, Art & Reason:As far as tea gowns go, this is probably the least useful of the references. She never mentions them at all and there are only a few references to artistic dress. This is not surprising as the book was written in 1974 and there has been more research done since then. However, if you are interested in Dress Reform it would be worthwhile to read this book.

Dressed as in a Painting, Women and British Aestheticism in an Age of Reform:As described in the title, this book focuses on the painters of the day who used aesthetic dress in their portraits and other paintings. Notice how the author specifies “age of reform” to refer to the other influence of reform dress. And it was possible to wear aesthetic dress and not be wearing a tea gown. She also describes where and when this type of dress was worn.Chapter 4 is about how aesthetic dress affected tea gowns. The chapter’s title is “Popular Culture and the Fashioning of Aestheticism”. The Chapter 5 endeavors to explain why the tea gown fell out of favor. This is a very good book for information about tea gowns.

Reforming Women’s Fashion, 1850-1920, Politics, Health, and Art:This is the best book about dress reform and aesthetic dress. The tea gown is mentioned in places throughout. An argument can be made that tea gowns are inherently also aesthetic dress so much of the rest of the book applies to tea gowns. Another argument can be made that the tea gown grew out of dress reform as well. This is an excellent book all around.

Victorian Tea Gowns by Anne Bissonnette: Originally published in Dress, the Journal of the Costume Society of America. The bad news is that you must pay for the download of this article. However, it is very informative. There is discussion of the practicalities of tea gowns: When and where they were worn, what they looked like, what was worn under them, and the time period during which they were popular. If you are studying tea gowns the information is essential. I might go so far as to say that if you are only interested in tea gowns this might be all you need to read.

Fashioning the Artist: This article provides information about how “artistic” dress is different from “aesthetic” or “reform” dress. It is very informative and will help to differentiate these terms for those who are studying the subject.

The Philosophy of Dress: What’s Oscar Wilde got to do with it? Oscar Wilde is remembered for the written word now, but he gave many lectures about Aestheticism and aesthetic dress in particular. This is the only transcription of the lectures he gave on the subject. I found most of what he wrote to be so general as to be useless. Students of Aestheticism and of the person himself will find the information to be valuable however. The only thing that struck me at the time of reading was his advice about the lines of dress, specifically vertical and horizontal. He emphasized that the third line, the “oblique” line was the most pleasing. As a dressmaker I was very puzzled as to how to implement this advice. Then I stumbled on this photograph and the weird arrangement of the dresses became clear. Perhaps this is what someone would do to try to follow this suggestion.

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