There are very few activities that make the everyday person feel like royalty, but high tea is certainly one of them. High teas are often held in opulent venues complete with fine china and elegant decor, all of which add to the luxurious ambience of the occasion.
Most of us won’t find ourselves at a high tea on any old weekend; it’s generally considered a special activity reserved for important occasions such as Mother’s Day, bridal showers, baby showers, and birthdays.
So, if you’re not a regular high tea-goer, you may be wondering what to wear to your event. Do you need to don a ball gown and tiara, or will your everyday jeans suffice? Generally, high tea attire falls somewhere between these two extremes. Here, we explain what to wear to high tea depending on the season and the occasion.
What is a High Tea?
Oddly enough, high tea technically isn’t what we’ve all been led to believe it is.
When we say high tea, you’re likely picturing white tablecloths, scones, dainty cups of tea, sandwiches, and cakes. These elements are actually hallmarks of afternoon tea, which is served around 2 to 3pm.
The concept of high tea actually stems from 19th century Britain. It refers to a meal eaten around 6pm — a light supper of sorts, served with tea — which includes a more extensive and hearty range of dishes such as cold meats, vegetables, tarts, pies, bread, and cakes.
So, why the name high tea? The first theory is that the word ‘high’ is associated with nobility and the upper classes (traditionally, only these groups were fortunate enough to indulge in scones, jam, and cream in the middle of the day).
The second, less charming theory, actually just comes down to chairs. Yep, chairs. Historically, afternoon tea was generally served on low comfortable chairs indoors or in the garden, while the post-work high tea was served at the dining table on high-backed dining chairs.
So, somewhere along the line, the wires got crossed. Now, what is more accurately known as afternoon tea is now referred to as high tea.
Given we’ve all become so accustomed to calling the occasion high tea, we’re going to stick with that throughout this article.
Plus, high tea just sounds better.
High Tea Dress Codes
There’s no specific dress code applied to all high teas in general, but there are some unwritten rules when it comes to picking your outfit.
Firstly, workwear and clubbing attire is out of the mix. Slowly back away from the black pencil skirt and bodycon mini dress…
High tea calls for something a little more refined. If we had to pick a dress code that best suits high tea, we’d go with smart casual.
High Tea Outfits: By Season
The first way to approach high tea styling is to consider the season.
The weather can help to guide your choices in terms of silhouette, colour palette, accessories, and design features.
Autumn and Winter High Tea Outfits
Unsure what to wear to a high tea in winter? We’ve got you covered.
In cooler seasons, earthy and jewel tones are ideal. Emerald green, navy, dark-based florals, and wine hues are the key colours to work with during autumn and winter.
As for silhouettes, opt for something with sleeves. Not only will they keep you cosy and comfortable, but they also exude understated elegance and sophistication.
For a modern high tea look in winter, go for a silky wrap dress. Silk is to winter as linen is to summer. The Zimmerman Silk Wrap Midi Dress is a great option. Crafted from silk chartreuse with a semi-matte finish, this dress features bishop sleeves and a statement asymmetrical hem. The waist tie and plunging neckline add a contemporary twist to the classically feminine look.
If you find that ruffles and floaty silhouettes overwhelm your figure, look to a more structured silhouette. The Pasduchas Composure Midi is fitted in the body and includes a draped top layer. These elements work together to create an effortlessly chic structure.
For those looking to lean into the regality of a high tea, we love the Acler Horrock Dress. It’s crafted from heavyweight satin which gives the dress a truly luxurious feel. The puffed sleeves and gold-toned hardware create a whimsical, old-worldly look that will work beautifully in a high tea setting. Let the dark-based florals take centre stage and pair the dress with neutral accessories.
Spring and Summer High Tea Outfits
As the weather warms, swap out dark-based florals and jewel tones for bright colours and prints. Look to pink, orange, and violet hues for a warmer feel.
If the air is still a little chilly, we love the Zimmerman Lola Paisley Dress. Made from linen — spring and summer’s favourite fabric — this dress boasts a signature paisley print in bright, head-turning shades. The bell sleeves and stand-up collar seem to draw inspiration from early 19th century designs, delivering a traditional, high tea-ready look.
The Aje Casabianca Braided Asymmetric Puff Sleeve Mini Dress offers a modern solution to high tea styling. The puff sleeves and ruffled hem exude classic romanticism and femininity, while the cropped length and asymmetric neckline add a contemporary element. We love the bright pink hue for high tea events in warmer months.
Our final spring/summer high tea outfit recommendation is the Rebecca Vallance Catania Mini Dress. The mini hemline and waist cut-out will keep you cool on especially hot days, as will the lightweight linen fabrication. The puff sleeves work to elevate the fitted silhouette and make it high tea-appropriate. The bright, playful print is ideal for these warmer seasons, and pairs perfectly with colourful accessories.
High Tea Outfits: By Occasion
Now that we’ve shared some seasonal outfit recommendations, we’ll take a look at event-specific options.
High Tea Bridal Shower
Firstly, if you’re the bride to be — you’ve got all the freedom! Why not use this as an opportunity to step out in a white two-piece suit? We love this look from Rebecca Vallance. It’s the perfect outfit if you’re looking to go with the traditional bride-in-white theme, but want to save wearing a white dress before the big day. This statement suit features shoulder pads and fit-and-flare pants, which create a modern, powerful silhouette.
For guests wondering what to wear to a high tea bridal shower, steer clear of white unless otherwise stated by the bride-to-be. Go for something bright and floral to symbolise the joyful occasion. The Alemais Farrah Cut Out Dress is a gorgeous option. The high neckline and blouson sleeves are classically cic, while the O-ring delta and waist cut-outs add a modern flair.
High Tea Baby Shower
Mums-to-be, this bump-friendly dress by Rebecca Vallance is perfect for your high tea. Pink dresses and high teas kind of go hand in hand. The boucle tweed fabrication allows for comfort and ease of movement, while the grosgrain bow straps and fit-and-flare skirt create a beautifully feminine silhouette.
Guests — dark colours are a no-go. For a high tea baby shower, opt for a bold block colour or vibrant print. Our top pick is the Zimmerman Amelie Flip Hem Short Dress. The balloon sleeves give the dress a sense of traditional opulence, while the short flippy hem keeps the look relevant in a contemporary landscape.
High Tea Birthday Lunch
At your own high tea birthday lunch, you have permission to go all out. That’s why the Acler Palms Dress is our number one choice. Arriving in a striking orange hue, this dress combines modern-day preferences with classic features. The low v neckline and open back speak to the current trends, while the delicate pleating and billowing sleeves are reminiscent of historical designs. This gorgeous option makes for the perfect eye-catching birthday outfit.
If you’re off to a loved one’s high tea birthday celebration, consider the Rebecca Valance Belle Top and Skirt. The blouse features an open back, puff sleeves, and a timeless round neckline, and comes with a matching belted midi skirt. The white-based rainbow polka dot print is perfect for celebrations and brings a bit of playfulness to a formal high tea setting.
Find Your Fit
Now you’re across what to wear to a high tea, it’s time to start browsing.
At Dress For A Night, we believe everyone should be able to wear beautiful designer pieces, but we know they carry a weighty price tag. That’s why we work with a hire-and-return model; you can hire each of the pieces mentioned above for a fraction of the retail price. You’ll save money and wardrobe space, and you’re also making a more environmentally-sound choice.