What to Wear to Afternoon Tea: An Easy Guide to High Tea Dress Code

The quintessentially British tradition of afternoon tea is an affair brimming with refinement and centuries-old character. From its royal heritage to its modern-day presence in luxurious tea rooms and high-end hotels, its charm continues to enrapture the discerning epicure.

But, unravelling the nuances of this ritual demands specialist insight. Afternoon tea’s lasting appeal comes with cultural customs that you should know before embarking on your first foray into the world of elegant dining. 

To help you navigate this beloved tradition, we’ll explore the etiquette and explain the proper afternoon tea dress code for the occasion. Discover our top tips for what to wear to afternoon tea below.

What is afternoon tea?

The tradition of afternoon tea is a custom that has been indulged in since the 19th century. It originated in the early 1840s when Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, sought a light meal in the late afternoon to tide her over until dinnertime. The Duchess would go on to request a pot of tea and snacks, which would be privately enjoyed in her living quarters.

Eventually, the Duchess was joined by close friends, and the afternoon meal became a social event that spread amongst the British aristocracy and upper classes. 

Today, afternoon tea is not just a meal but an event, an elaborate affair where a fine selection of loose-leaf teas are served, accompanied by a variety of delicate finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and jam, and an array of delightful pastries and cakes. 

It’s used to celebrate special occasions and is a popular choice for enjoying a birthday treat or a social gathering, often in grand stately homes, hotels, or tearooms that hark back to a bygone era.

What time is afternoon tea?

Historically, afternoon tea was served between 3-5 pm. However, today it's common for afternoon tea to be enjoyed between 1-6 pm, allowing for more time for this indulgent pastime. 

What is the difference between afternoon tea and high tea?

You may have heard of 'afternoon tea' and 'high tea' being synonymous with each other, but they actually refer to entirely different meals with their own origins. Afternoon tea was a light meal enjoyed by socialites and the upper classes to fill the long gap between lunch and dinner. It was traditionally served on low, comfortable lounge chairs and sofas. High tea was quite the opposite.

For Britain’s working class, high tea was a hearty evening meal served at the end of a long workday, often around 5-7 pm. People would sit at high dining tables to enjoy heavier fares of meat, fish, cheese, bread, and sometimes, a sweet treat.

While afternoon tea was an elegant, relaxed affair, high tea was a more casual and hearty meal. Despite their differences, the two terms are used interchangeably today and both refer to a light meal in the afternoon.

What is the dress code for afternoon tea?

Originally, those who partook in afternoon tea attended the event in elaborate dresses, as was the style in the 1800s, to convey an air of refinement that characterised their social class.

Today, the dress code for afternoon tea isn’t quite as formal, but it still leans towards the side of elegant sophistication rather than casual comfort. If you’re attending tea at a country house or prestigious hotel, the venue will usually have a smart-casual dress code unless stated otherwise.

Smart-casual leaves much room for interpretation, but the most important thing is that there are few hard or fast rules to abide by – striking a balance between style and comfort is more than acceptable. For footwear, however, trainers are usually considered overly casual and should be left at home in favour of smarter options.

Wearing a dress to afternoon tea isn’t essential, but as it tends to be used to celebrate a special occasion, many people take the opportunity to dress up and wear something smarter than usual.

What to wear to afternoon tea

For women


1. A midi dress

Exude timeless elegance with an airy printed dress. We love our Chiffon Pleat Dress with its endlessly alluring and wonderfully light material - a perfect piece for your seasonal capsule wardrobe. Covered buttons run down the front to a fabric tie from which delicate pleats tumble to just below the knee in this sophisticated design. An intriguing option for afternoon tea, it's a truly captivating piece that can't help but draw the eye making it perfect for a smart-casual dress code.


2. A long skirt

Enjoy fine-dining attire that speaks to sophistication and grace with a beautifully tailored long skirt. Emanate a feminine aura with a gentle flare at the hemline to strike a harmonious balance between elegance and comfort. 

Our bias flannel skirt is crafted from premium flannel for maximum comfort and warmth and is fully lined.

3. Smart trousers

If a dress or skirt isn’t to your taste, look for a tailored trouser option instead. Select a straight or wide-leg cut for a contemporary style, balancing out your look by tucking in a tight fitting blouse or jumper. The sumptuously soft velvet fabric of our trousers imparts extravagance, while the vibrant burgundy shade adds a rich pop of colour. For a dressier feel, opt for a matching blazer to add an air of luxurious sophistication.

4. A delicate blouse

A delicate blouse works hard to bring your look together. If pairing with a colourful or printed skirt or pair of trousers, look for a plain blouse in a neutral shade to balance out your attire – white is endlessly versatile and an excellent canvas for accessorising with glittering jewellery.

Our pintuck blouse is made in crisp and comfortable 100% cotton, featuring a bibbed front across the chest while covered buttons with rouleau loops run like pearls down the front. Shaped cuffs, a curved hem and a frilled stand collar add a final stylish flourish to the piece.

5. A Cashmere cardigan

Transitional weather calls for trading in your lightweight blouses for a natural fibre-woven piece of knitwear. We love cashmere for its utterly opulent appearance and feel; its exquisite knitted rib adds elegant detail while keeping you warm when it gets cooler. A solid-colour cardigan can be worn with a printed or pleated skirt in tonal shades for a perennially glamorous look that never goes out of style. To find out how to make your cashmere go further, read our cashmere care guide here.

6. A short jacket

If you’re enjoying high tea outdoors, a lightweight jacket is an excellent layering choice for protecting against changing weather. To make sure your outerwear accentuates your outfit without overshadowing it, a short, fitted piece is ideal and can be easily dressed up to meet a smart-casual dress code. Statement fabrics like boucle and tweed add character and country charm that can be stylishly draped over your shoulders when the sun dips behind the clouds.

7. A low heel


Enjoy practicality and elegance in both measures with a low-heeled shoe to elongate your silhouette while remaining comfortable as you dine. Nothing quite says sophistication like a block-heel slingback or pump; select a pair in rich suede to add glamour to your look.

For men


1. A button-down shirt

A well-tailored button-down shirt is an indispensable part of any gentleman's afternoon tea attire. Choose 100% pure organic cotton for maximum breathability and comfort; select one in a neutral colour or pattern to create a versatile base for a range of looks. On balmy days, roll the sleeves up for a relaxed feel – pairing with tailored trousers will help keep your outfit smart but stylish.

2. A cashmere jumper

For an enduring investment that will see you through season after season, opt for a wonderfully warm cashmere jumper. Cashmere’s prized fibres add a touch of luxury to any look: layer over your shirt if the temperature drops, or wear alone for a more relaxed feel. No discerning country gentleman should be without a piece of premium cashmere knitwear for everyday and special occasions. 

3. Flannel trousers

With suit trousers erring closer to formalwear, high tea calls for a more relaxed alternative. Flannel trousers have a napped finish which creates a softer look for occasions like afternoon tea that calls for a blend of smart and casual. Gentle tailoring gives them a refined touch, making them a versatile addition to any wardrobe. Opt for neutral colours like grey, navy, or khaki instead of flat black for a livelier ensemble.

4. Loafers

Lastly, polish off your afternoon tea outfit with a classic choice of footwear. Penny loafers are a timeless shoe that toe the line between casual and smart attire with ease. Look for suede or nubuck loafers, as their textured finish lends to more casual dressing, compared to satin or patent leather's buttery smoothness and shine. Learn more about the different types of leather and how to care for them here.

This effortless style can complement a range of dress codes and is essential in your shoe rotation, so be sure to invest in a quality pair that guarantees comfort and style for years to come.

What to wear to afternoon tea

Whether celebrating a birthday or spending quality time with your loved ones, make sure you dine in style. From airy dresses to luxurious knitwear, you can find something special to wear to afternoon tea with The House of Bruar.

Or, visit our blog to discover more styling advice and fashion inspiration.