Etiquette, formalities and fashion reign at Victorian afternoon teas
“Mrs. J’Nean Henderson requests the pleasure of your company for afternoon tea March 1, between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. at her home in League City. Kindly RSVP.”
Such an invitation is typical of what ladies might have received in the mid-1800s or early 1900s when asked to afternoon tea. The handwritten note was either personally delivered or announced via a visiting card.
J’Nean Henderson spent more than two decades researching Queen Victoria’s reign of the United Kingdom — 1837–1901 — and how the era influenced a certain segment of the United States. Descendants of John Jacob Astor and William Henry Vanderbilt played a big part in popularizing the movement during the early 1900s and America took notice.
In 1994, Henderson’s research prompted her to create The Victorian Lady, Victorian Presentations and Education, by offering fashion shows, seminars and teas.
She had owned a tearoom in League City where she and daughter-in-law, Kim Sesher, dressed in costume and enlightened customers with tidbits about the bygone era.
“I wanted to create an ambience for ladies that was totally different from anything they’d ever seen,” Henderson said. “I attended a symposium on Victorian clothing in Ohio years ago and obtained volumes of information. I was hosting fashion shows locally and all over the state of Texas, so I eventually sold the tearoom to devote more time to the shows. COVID-19 brought that to a halt last year, causing me to focus more on Victorian teas.”
HISTORY OF AFTERNOON TEA
“It started around the 1840s when the Seventh Duchess of Bedford became hungry between breakfast and dinner, so she sent her maid to the kitchen for tea and sandwiches,” Henderson said. “Queen Victoria took it to a new art form by delivering engraved invitations and serving elaborate pastries with tea. As the tradition became popular, afternoon teas flourished in popularity.”
IMPORTANCE OF ATTIRE
“Most attendees came to tea in a tea gown, an elegant and ornate garment,” Henderson said. “If you were in society, you had to be careful to avoid a fashion faux pas because hierarchy was a factor. If the tea consisted of a small gathering, the hostess might wear a tea wrapper, similar to a dressing gown or robe, which was the only garment she could wear without a corset. Tea gowns required a vast number of underpinnings like camisoles, petticoats, corsets and often bustles and hoops. Hats were frilly and ornate and matched the gown as did the shoes. Gloves were a must, as was a ridicule, a tiny purse that attached to one’s belt, finger or wrist. During this period, ladies paid close attention to Harper’s Bazaar magazine, featuring the latest fashions, trends in Europe and proper conduct.”
FORMALITIES AND ETIQUETTE
“As you arrived for tea, the butler or maid would greet you, and you would hand him or her your invitation,” Henderson said. “After being announced, the hostess would take over the formalities and offer you a seat in the parlor or at the dining room table. This was an opportunity for women to chat about latest fashions, engage in small talk, exchange gossip and discuss current events. There was a social etiquette that ladies adhered to during afternoon tea: you never removed your hat, but you did remove your gloves when your hostess awarded you to eat. You always addressed the hostess by her married name, for example, Mrs. Henderson.”
ART OF TEA
“The table was adorned with a linen tablecloth, flowers, fine china and tiered trays of delicate sandwiches, scones, confections, clotted cream and lemon curd,” Henderson said. “The ritual of making the tea, pouring the tea and serving the tea was most important. Before the hostess brought tea to the table, boiling water from a kettle was poured into the teapot, swished around to warm the pot, tea leaves added and steeped for five minutes. One teaspoon of tea leaves per cup, plus one for the pot, was the measurement. Once the teapot arrived at the table, the hostess would ask each lady, ‘How do you take your tea?’ If with cream and sugar, the sugar was added first, then tea and last the cream, which was technically milk since cream curdles. The hostess would then serve the tea with a servette — cloth napkin — under the saucer and hand it to the attendee, who would then put the servette in her lap.
“With a small gathering, it was appropriate for the women to continue helping themselves to the refreshments as they conversed with each other,” Henderson said. “After the hour was up, it was time for everyone to leave, thanking the hostess as they departed, and went about their day. The Victorian lady had a tight schedule, so these teas were relaxing and important to her.”
Henderson plans on hosting various types of teas in 2021 during which she will teach the art form, she said.
“Teas run the gamut from mourning tea — honoring someone deceased — to high tea, low tea, even a Champagne tea, and I’m anxious to share what I know,” she said.