Nothing inspires 1920s nostalgia quite like fashion. In a decade filled with fabulous flappers and changing trends, dresses that were worn for special occasions somehow have even more of an impact. From white tea dresses to the breezy gowns worn at glamorous garden parties, upper class women during the Roaring Twenties knew how to turn up the charm when it came to elegant events.
Read on to learn more Garden Parties and other events held in the 1920s. Then, we’ll examine Afternoon Dresses, White Tea Dresses & Garden Dresses from the 1920s to determine exactly what made these iconic dresses so exceptional.
The History Behind 1920s Garden Parties
Nothing captures the splendor of the early 20th century quite like a garden party. The term “garden party” conjures up images of breezy, blue sky days in the great outdoors, where ladylike women in gossamer white dresses floated amongst a sea of greenery. This charming image exudes a type of elegance that is all but missing from the modern era.
Garden Parties first became popular thanks to the fashionable Queen Victoria in the 1860s. She famously gathered groups together for outdoor breakfasts that would last into the afternoon. These parties attracted the attention of royals, noble families, and other upper-class members of society. Eventually, this tradition trickled down until garden parties became important summer events held by all members of society.
As the name suggests, these parties were held outdoors during warm summer months. The refreshments offered at these events often mimicked what you would find at a traditional British tea - scones, clotted cream, jam, petit fours, and finger sandwiches were easy to eat and perfect for warm summer afternoons.
1920s Garden Party Activities
Garden parties and other posh daytime activities that took place in the 1920s were rich in tradition. Many lawn games that are still played today became popular during these events to entertain guests.
Games played at these parties included:
Croquet - Croquet first arrived in England in the mid 1800s. Soon, it became a popular co-ed sport that men and women could enjoy equally. In fact, Wimbledon began by hosting croquet championships in 1870 but stopped when “lawn tennis” became a more popular pastime among the masses. When playing croquet, flat soled shoes were required as well as a brimmed hat to shield one’s eyes from the sun. Wearing all-white attire was also the tradition, making it perfect for prim, proper garden gatherings.
Bocce Ball - Many people in the present day play Bocce Ball, a pastime that requires players to land their team’s balls in closer proximity to a target ball - known as a “pallino” - than their opponents. This game was popular in the 1920s and frequently played at traditional British garden parties. Because it doesn’t require a large amount of physical exertion, people could easily play it in their all-white party attire.
Badminton - Badminton is another backyard pastime that is still popular in the present era. In the late 1800s, the Duke of Beaufort held a garden party at his country home in Badminton. There, guests tried to re-create a popular game that they had seen played in India during their travels there. What they invented was Badminton, a game that requires players on each side of a net to hit a shuttlecock back and forth. White dresses known as “tennis frocks” were what women wore during this backyard pastime.
Royal Garden Parties
In general, garden parties were prestigious events that were only attended by the wealthiest or most elite members of society. The most famous garden party of all is the one held at Buckingham Palace by the British Royal Family. The photo above - which was taken in 1911 - depicts one of these famous outdoor events. According to reports at the time, these garden parties welcomed “elite members of London society together with other individuals from the British Empire who had connections with the court of St. James.”
As time went on, garden parties changed slightly from those started by Queen Victoria in 1860. Still, they served as a way for wealthy invited guests to mingle and enjoy a fashionable party held on the grounds of the Royal Palace and Marlborough House. They also have served as debutante presentations where wealthy young women would “come out” to society members.
The tradition of the Royal Garden Party continues into the modern era. Although they have changed slightly over time, Queen Elizabeth II decided to maintain the tradition. Every year, at least three formal garden parties are held at Buckingham Palace. Just like in the days of yesteryear, royals like Prince Harry, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie attend these charming events every year.
The Tradition of Afternoon Tea
Tea has long been the favorite beverage of Britain. The tradition of afternoon tea, however, began in the 19th century, when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, popularized the practice. Anna found that she would often get tired and hungry in the long hours between lunch and dinner. To fix this “sinking feeling,” she would take a pot of tea and a light snack in her boudoir during the later afternoon.
When she returned to London, she invited several of her friends to join her every afternoon. Soon, this tradition caught on amongst other members of high society and became an important social occasion. Over time Afternoon Tea became commonplace in the lives of people all over England. It was customary that around 3:00pm tea would be served with light snacks including scones, finger sandwiches, and dainty cakes.
During the fall and winter, afternoon parties could no longer be held outdoors. Instead, women held luncheons or afternoon tea in their parlors. These social gatherings were slightly less formal than traditional English Garden Parties. Nonetheless, women were still expected to wear a semi-formal dress that was less fancy than their eveningwear but more formal than something they would wear in the comfort of their own homes.
1920s Dinner Parties
People in the 1920s loved all kinds of social gatherings, including those that occurred in the evening. Dinner parties were another type of get together that people looked forward to during this era. These were also far more formal than any similar event held today.
Not unlike garden parties, formal dinner parties offered plenty of ways to show off your wealth. In the 1920s, refrigerators and freezers were household luxuries that were only owned by the very rich. It’s for this reason that serving foods that were cold or partially frozen were incredibly impressive to guests. During this decade, serving foods in a gel-like substance called Aspic was also incredibly popular.
1920s Dinner Party Etiquette
A dinner party etiquette guide that was written in 1928 by Florence Austin Chase provides a look into what was required of guests when they attended a Jazz Age dinner party -
“- Do not sit with elbow on the table.
- Do not toy with food or tuck the napkin under the chin or fold it when finishing eating in a public eating house.
- Do not mash food with a fork or comment on food at a dinner party.
- Do not stir liquids more than a second or two, and after using any of the silver for your food, knife or spoon, do not retain it in your hand, but lay it on the table.
- Do not throw out elbows while eating and do not lounge slouchily in your chair.
- Of course, following the party it is courteous to thank the hostess for her hospitality, but it is both awkward and unnecessary to repeat such to the host.”
“Since a dinner invitation is the highest compliment that can be paid a guest, it is the guest’s duty to repay the hostess by proper dressing for the occasion and assist in making things go smoothly.”
1920s Dinner Party Attire
To a formal dinner, men were expected to show up in their finest suits. They traditionally would change into a dinner jacket, tailcoat, a white shirt, and flat-front pants. These tuxedo-style suits would also traditionally be accompanied by a formal top hat, a black bowtie, and black Oxford shoes.
Women also would arrive in their finest gowns for dinners and other events held during the evening hours. 1920s evening dresses were elegant and elaborate. Women were expected to wear long gowns that featured necklines that were slightly lower than that of their daytime attire. Accessories like long white gloves, glittering hair combs, and their finest jewelry would accompany these formal ensembles.
A Closer Look at Tea Dresses, Afternoon Dresses, & Garden Party Dresses
The White Tea Dress
1920s Tea Attire
During the early 20th century, the tradition of afternoon tea remained a staple in upper class families. To them, it was a special event that required its own distinctive attire. Specifically, the white tea dress was incredibly popular among high society women in the 1920s. As most women know, a white garment is notoriously hard to keep clean. Upper class women who had servants to tend to their laundry flaunted this fact by dressing in a luxurious white gown when it came time for tea.
1920s Tea Dresses were often made of lightweight fabrics like silk, organdy, cotton voile, or linen. Often, they were accented with elements like sheer lace or eyelet fabrics. This made them look incredibly ethereal while also keeping the wearer cool during warm summer months. In the winter, you might find tea dresses made from heavier fabric or accented by fur-trimmed jackets.
As with all outfits during the 1920s, accessories were of the utmost importance. Sheer silk stockings were a staple of every woman’s wardrobe and were paired with these lightweight white dresses. White Mary Janes or white pumps were also appropriate footwear. Accessories like hairpieces, jewelry, or perhaps even a hat put the perfect finishing touch on these exquisite ensembles.
The Afternoon Dress
The Importance of Afternoon Dresses
During the 1920s, society was still quite formal. Women - especially women of means - had attire for every occasion and frequently changed their wardrobe throughout the day. They had different dresses for the morning, afternoon, and tea, as well as evening gowns for formal dinners or important parties.
In the afternoons, women needed a dress that could easily transition from their daytime events to more formal evening activities. The versatile Afternoon Dress was a semi-formal style that nearly every woman had in her boudoir during the 1920s. Less formal than a dramatic evening gown but more special than her daytime attire, these dresses were a staple of nearly every wealthy women’s wardrobe.
1920s Afternoon Dresses
In general, Afternoon Dresses featured bold colors or patterned fabrics that were accented by elegant details. It wasn’t uncommon for these dresses to include contrasting embroidery, lace trims, or even touches of metallic shimmer. Not unlike day dresses during the 1920s, they featured a dropped waist silhouette and had a skirt that extended to just below the knee.
These dresses also featured high V-shaped necklines or high boatnecks. This was a stark contrast to daytime dresses, which usually featured collar accents at the neckline. The skirts were typically quite fancy and accented with ruffles or lace applique. Towards the end of the 1920s, dresses were slightly more streamlined and featured tailored lines and sharply pleated skirts instead.
When accessorizing these dresses, fashionable ladies from the 1920s kept it classy. They paired their colorful Afternoon Dresses with black heeled shoes and dark silk stockings. Accessories like parasols, cloche hats, fur stoles, and other decadent pieces were also a favorite when women ventured into public during the afternoon hours.
The Garden Party Dress
1920s Garden Party Attire
Garden Parties were extremely formal events. With that said, it would of course be inappropriate to show up to one of these warm, outdoor parties wearing your most decadent evening gown. Instead, women needed a beautiful dress that was formal enough to impress royalty - or whoever else happened to attend - yet lightweight enough to keep them cool.
White dresses made from linen, eyelet lace, and other breathable fabrics were the attire of choice for British women attending a formal garden party in the early 20th century. As mentioned before, wearing a white gown outdoors subtly signaled that the wearer was wealthy enough to afford to have someone else attend to her laundry.
Although these gowns were striking and sophisticated enough on their own, accessories were also added to increase their visual impact. White gloves that extended to the ankle were decidedly appropriate for such an event. A white lace parasol was another stylish accoutrement that could shield your face from the hot summer sun.