An institution created by the British elite
Tea etiquette at the times had already been established well into the 1860s, in fact, afternoon tea is a veritable institution created by the ruling elites of the United Kingdom. An institution which has since lost its gravitas. The charm and lavishness of this tradition was, and still is, at the center of social events such as anniversaries, wedding receptions, and family receptions.
A way of displaying wealth, refinement, and social status
During the period of Downton Abbey, custom for occasions involving only few guests was to serve tea in the drawing room or boudoir. For larger events however, the ball room, great hall, or garden was preferred. Banquet tables were dressed in immaculate white, perfectly ironed cloths.
During afternoon tea, everything would stop; it was an important pause in the day, the time was not for business discussions, politics, and money matters, but rather for lighthearted chatter, friendly conversation, and perhaps the odd pieces of gossip.
Worthy ladies and gentlemen took it upon themselves to have a household properly furnished and equipped with all the necessary dishes, cutlery, serving wares and accessories required for tea. The more becoming dish sets were made of delicate porcelain, often adorned with intricate gold-leaf patterns, and the serving wares usually made of sterling silver, along with the delicate spoons, and sugar tongs. Much importance was placed on the make, and quality of the dishes and serving cloths, especially for those seeking recognition from the higher classes. It was a way of demonstrating one’s wealth and refinement, as well as social hierarchy.
Special attention was given to table settings and ornaments, often chosen to please guests, or to create a theme of ambience for the occasion. The choice of accessories, decorations, and often of furniture, as wells as food had to reflect the style and refinement of the hosts and create an unforgettable event and project the grandeur of the estate. Servants were rigorously trained in preparing and serving tea, having to follow rigorous etiquette and rituals, the reputation of their employers being dependent on it.
Tango tea dances
Early in the 1900, dance and entertainment such as music and poetry recitals were often included in events. The arrival of Tango to London in 1910 revolutionised afternoon tea, creating the “Thés Dansant”. Rapidly adopted by the more eccentric, tea dances multiplied through to the chic residences and hotels. Professional tango dancers were hired to entertain the un-accompanied, all were expected to master the dance. Tango became an important influence, to the point purpose made dancing clothes became a symbol of status and elegance.
A bygone era
This era is long over, but has afternoon tea become in modern times? A simpler occasion.
The faster pace of modern life has led to the downfall of this ritual. Taking time for tea has become a privileged moment rather than a formal luxury. I like to believe we have brought tea back to its original virtue, without the needless show and opulence. Tea is a gift from Mother Nature, a product of hard labour from humble and courageous people. It doesn’t have to be accompanied by luxury and formality, to appreciate it requires only the simplicity of the moment, the quality of the leaves, the purity of the water, and some time to enjoy the taste!