Analyzing a REAL 1910s Tea Dress!!!

Always go into your local antique store when you get the chance. Always.

A few weeks ago, my mom and I wandered into this antique store that we literally drive by all the time. We had never even been in there despite all the times we drove past it! As it turned out, the place was really huge inside. It was endless, with piles of old stuff everywhere. Everything from dishes to furniture to dollhouses and pretty much every random thing you can think of. I was most interested in the clothes, as you might imagine! They had a lot of cool clothes, like 1940s bomber jackets, 1960s party dresses, 1980s wedding dresses, and they even had this beautiful 1910s tea dress. I couldn’t believe they actually had one.

~Some background information about Edwardian tea dresses~

For the middle and upper class in the early 20th century, women usually wore four outfits every day. In the morning you would wear a morning suit, which was very form fitting and tailored and made out of a heavier material. Then would come the afternoon dress, and around 4:00 PM each day you would have tea. Teatime was a more relaxed time of day. You would take a break from your corset and probably entertain guests during that time. (A side note: I am a proponent of wearing corsets and I believe that they don’t cause any dangers to your health if they’re worn correctly, but it is a good idea to take a break after wearing one for a while.) Tea dresses were white, lacy, and usually pretty sheer, and lightweight so you feel comfortable sitting out in the sun in it. Here are some examples of 1910s tea dresses.

People often comment on the timeless, enduring nature of Edwardian tea dresses. Many of them look like they could just be a bohemian maxi dress from today.

~How I know it is actually from the 1910s~

Before we bought it, I inspected it closely to see if it really was a 1910s dress. I am no professional antique appraiser, so everything I know may not be 100% accurate, but I’m pretty confident that this is a real 1910s tea dress. A couple of things tipped me off.

The seams and raw edge finishing techniques. One way to know for sure if something is NOT Edwardian is if it has serged edges. (A serger is a fancy sewing machine that can do really nice, perfect hems and raw edges.) If you look at the shirt you are wearing right now, there is a high chance that the hem has really fancy zigzag stitches on the underside. That was done by a serger. They didn’t have those in 1910, though they did have simple sewing machines that could do running stitches. And all the seams in my dress looked like this:

If you look super closely at them, you can see that they are really finely done French seams. A French seam is where you stitch the raw edges together right side out, trim off the excess, turn it inside out, fold it over and stitch it again, so that it looks like that on the inside. (Here’s a good tutorial if you’re having a hard time visualizing this.) You can see that the edge is not folded over, it is stitched together at the top on the underside. Just after I got the dress, I was scratching my head and wondering how they did that! But after reading about French seams it all makes sense. (It’s an excellent technique, by the way, for finishing seams on lightweight fabrics.) So, in short, we know that the French seam was used in the Edwardian era, and that a serger was not used on this dress.

Another thing to note is the sleeve construction. In the 1910s, the “kimono sleeve” was very popular. To do this, the bodice or blouse is cut in one piece, on a fold, with the sleeves already attached so you don’t need a shoulder seam. In other words, it looks kind of like a letter T when you cut it out. My dress was cut in the kimono sleeve style- it does not have seams at the shoulder.

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Looking at the hem of the skirt, in the lining layer, you can see that the hem was turned up very far (like what we talked about in the last post). Edwardians did this to help the skirt train nicely.

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You can also see if you open up the back that this dress closes in two layers- the lining closes separately from the outer fabric. This is consistent with what I’ve seen in pretty much every museum antique dress that has the back opened up.

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(Note: This shows the left side of the dress only. The inner layer closes with hooks and eyes, and the outer layer closes with snaps.)

A common 1910s technique was to mount the bodice and skirt on a waistband- this helps make construction easier.

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Another important factor in determining the age of a dress is the fabric type. If it’s polyester, you can know for sure that it’s from, like, the 1960s or later because they just didn’t have polyester before that. This dress is definitely not polyester. I would guess that the outer fabric is cotton voile and the lining fabric is some sort of lightweight silk, silk crepe maybe?

Finally, you can just see by the style that this is consistent with the 1910s style. I’m saving the pictures of the full dress for the end, but it has a high waistline and slim silhouette, as was common in the 1910s.

~Details and Embellishments~

After I looked at this dress thoroughly, I realized that somebody really put a lot of thought and a lot of love into it. First of all, just look at all the pintucks. (A pintuck is when you pinch a small amount of fabric and stitch it down to make a tiny fold.) You have them all over the hips…

Each one is an eighth of an inch wide and they just look so perfect. Trust me when I tell you that this would take a LONG time and really good technique to make them look this good!

There is also lace at several places- under the bust, at the arms, at the neckline, on the sleeves and on the skirt hem. Even more amazing to me is the fact that this lace appears to have been all made by hand. It doesn’t have the sterilized perfection that machine made lace has today. (Make sure to click through all 5 pictures here- it’s a slideshow.)

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Did you notice the little pastel-colored knots at the neckline, and the colored embroidery floss that weaves through some of the lace edges? And that there are even more pintucks underneath some of the lace? The attention to detail in this dress is simply mind boggling!

I get kind of scared when handling that lace. It feels kind of dried out and really fragile, like it will just fall apart at any second.

Another detail I appreciated was the details on the bodice and skirt that made the entire material look lacy.

The picture on the left gives away how they did this. I think somebody used a stencil with this flowery pattern and used fabric paint or something to paint the shapes on there, and then sewed embroidery floss onto the edges to give it a puffed out, 3D sort of look. This is really neat because, from a distance, it makes it look like there are holes in the dress, or a different material underneath! I am saving this to my arsenal of DIY fabric embellishment ideas!

Few of us today can fathom the amount of time and patience that went into a dress like this, especially when so much of it is not noticed or not seen. Everyone likes to harp on the faults of Edwardian society, like the class distinctions and racism and sexism. But there are pretty bad faults in today’s society too, and there are a lot of things I think we can learn from the Edwardians and the 20th century in general. They used to put so much excellence into everyday things like clothes. I wish we would put that much effort into things we do today.

~Damage and imperfections on the dress~

This dress is wearable and in pretty decent condition. But there is a lot of damage on the lining of the bodice.

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Remember that Bible verse about how you don’t patch up old fabric with new fabric because that will make the tear worse? Definitely true here. Apparently there were some pretty bad rips in the underarm area, and somebody tried to patch them up with fabric that didn’t match perfectly. And now the original fabric of the dress is pulling away from the patches and making the tear worse! I wish they hadn’t done that. Whoever owned this dress should have replaced the bodice lining as soon as the rip happened. Because now, I’m scared to actually try to fix it myself. That silk lining is very tightly stitched to the lace and the cotton voile, so there’s a big risk of that being damaged if I were to try to replace the bodice lining. I also don’t want to further hurt the dress by using new thread on it. That just seems like a bad idea. And also, no matter what I get, the bodice lining just won’t match the skirt lining. My feeling is to just leave it alone and maybe try to stitch up the holes as best I can to prevent further damage.

There’s also a lot of other, smaller holes in the skirt lining. The cotton voile on the outside is in pretty great shape, thankfully. There’s also some perspiration stains at the underarms, and I think a tea stain on the hem. I’m going to research vinegar treatments to see if I can reverse the discoloring there, or at least lessen it.

With that being said, it is pretty impressive that the dress is still an off-white color, and not yellowed from being in the sun! That tells me that this dress has been in a closet for many years.

~Final Pictures and My Theory on the Dress’ Story~

As I have hopefully made obvious, somebody REALLY cared about this dress. There’s so much hand stitching and attempts at repairs, and obviously the pintucks and the lace. Somebody desperately tried to salvage the bodice lining after it really took a beating from some aggressive use. If I were to guess, I would say that this dress has a lot of nostalgia for someone. Maybe the owner’s grandma hand-made all this lace for her as a gift. The owner probably was so attached to it that she refused to give it up, and probably just put it away sometime in the 1920s. It probably was not worn much after that because it was out of style, and it is very small, so maybe the owner was not able to wear it after several years. But she loved it too much to just throw it away. My guess is that she died, and her family found it and sold it to this antique store. Who knows how long it was waiting around at that store before I bought it! I may very well be the first person in almost 100 years to wear that thing…..

That’s the final amazing thing about my dress- it actually fits me. It’s not too long, which is pretty incredible considering that I’m not even 5’2″. It’s a little loose in the waist but I think it’s supposed to be that way. I have never been able to purchase a full-length dress today without having to hem it or have it custom made. People were closer to my size back then, I guess.

I feel so blessed and thankful to finally have a little piece of my favorite period in history!

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3 thoughts on “Analyzing a REAL 1910s Tea Dress!!!

  1. Pingback: Making Edwardian Combinations (Chemise and Drawers) | aurorascostuming

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