The idea of dressing for an English high tea is based on a prevalent misconception. During the 19th century, aristocrats began the custom of eating a snack of tea, bread and butter, and cake, served at about 4 p.m. It was meant to tide people over between the noontime meal and a formal, 8 p.m. dinner. Working families had their dinner at about 6 p.m. They drank tea also, and so the meal was called "high" or "meat" tea. There is no elegant, dainty "high tea" requiring formal clothes.
Dressing for Travel
To really attend a high tea would mean being invited to a private family's dinner at home, and the other tea of lighter foods and delicate sweets, served perhaps at a hotel, is simply the old, aristocratic "afternoon tea." So dressing for either occasion means following a few basic suggestions that experienced travelers offer for tourists in general---but how you dress abroad also depends a lot on your priorities regarding comfort, ease of packing and "not looking like a tourist." That said, there are some places serving afternoon tea that do have minimal rules about permitted clothing. Plan at least not to wear shorts or jeans.
Dressing like an Adult
Although that jeans and T-shirt uniform has very much swept the globe, there are still some basic differences between the way adult Europeans and Americans dress, and being aware of these may help you fit in (or be allowed in) at afternoon tea. Experienced travelers warn that the jeans and T-shirt uniform, plus big heavy gym shoes, baseball cap and fanny pack, creates a glaringly childlike look. Shorts are worse. Try lighter and more comfortable khakis, or capris, skirts or simple dresses for women. Polo shirts or sleeveless tanks or blouses, and sweaters in winter, would be correct. A muted look is best, and urban black is best of all.
Going straight to tea after a day spent walking might require you to rethink your shoes. Gym shoes are convenient for managing cobblestone streets, but to the European eye, athletic shoes---like athletic clothes---are meant for athletic activities, look odd elsewhere and indeed are hardly actual shoes. Instead, pair your khakis or capris with comfortable loafers, flats, wedges or sandals, or good-looking boots in winter.
Consult fashion magazines for ideas, not in order to wear couture to "high tea," but for advice on bright, chic accessories---a bag, a piece of funky jewelry, a scarf---for your muted travel wardrobe. There's nothing wrong with expressing some individuality in what you wear, but individuality doesn't always mean just comfort. And your biggest help in dressing for tea lies simply in knowing where you are not going. Andy Gilchrist, on his site Ask Andy About Clothes, calls it a "major faux pas" to confuse high tea with afternoon tea, a mistake made "by the uneducated, unsophisticated and little traveled."
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