We Met For Tea At The Blackstone Library

Mary Johnson PhotoThe proper etiquette for afternoon tea in London, particularly in the Edwardian era, required a good deal of preparation, especially for the ladies. Recently the underside—or shall we say underbelly—of getting dressed for a formal tea was unveiled at a special event at the Blackstone Memorial Library.

Mary Johnson PhotoInspired by the devotion of many to the award-winning British television drama on PBS, Downton Abbey, the Friends of the Blackstone Memorial Library held a high tea. More than 120 guests attended, first to watch a one-woman show explaining the art of getting dressed in order to take tea properly.  Many in the audience dressed for the occasion.

Mary Johnson PhotoTea took place in the grand classical rotunda of the Blackstone Memorial Library, octagonal in shape and located just inside the library doors. The library provided the perfect historical setting, having opened in the proper era, 1897 to be precise. 

With PermissionHelen Wong, the president of the Friends, dressed for the occasion. So did her husband,  Frazier Bronson, who was the butler for the Downton Abbey Tea event. She thanked those who prepared scores of cucumbers and watercress finger sandwiches at Orchard House earlier in the day. “Very British,” she said in striving for historical accuracy.

Mary Johnson PhotoThe high tea, typically held at 4 p.m., was a sell-out event.   

Mary Johnson PhotoThe place was packed, first for an intimate look of a Victorian lady getting ready for her day and then, once properly attired, for the tea itself. Some in the audience appeared very proper, wearing a variation of the corseted dress; some wore wide- brimmed hats. All seemed to be fascinated by the intricacies of being a woman in the era of Downton Abbey.

Oh yes, there was a man here and there in the audience. If you didn’t see him, the actress of the day, Kandi Carle, announced: “Hello, Ladies and Gentleman. And you thought you could hide. I see you back there …”

Carle explained she started her one-woman act 17 years ago. Her goal was to take the audience “back 100 years,” when the Brownie camera had just become available, in the late Victorian era. Carle noted that “a lot can happen” and not happen during an age characterized by the name of a king or a queen. There’s a lot of waiting, she observed of the Royals. “Like Charles is doing now,” she said, referring to the 67-year-old heir to the British throne, the first-born son of Queen Elizabeth, who is 88 years old and still going strong.

Undressed For The Occasion  

The setting for the beginning of Downtown Abbey is 1912. Carle was dressed – or at the outset of her one-woman show, undressed—accordingly.

Marcia Chambers PHotoShe came onstage in a long robe under which she wore a white slip, long drawers, (not bloomers, mind you), and various other accoutrements, made of fine cotton, of course, and with embroidery, when required. 

Mary Johnson PhotoAnd with her entrance, her stance and her bearing, one learned about the proper way for an Edwardian woman to dress, beginning with the garments from inside out.

Mary Johnson PhotoStarting from inside required time, she noted.

Mary Johnson PhotoThe major undergarment was the corset. Not any old corset, mind you, but one that is especially made for the lady, using her measurements.

Mary Johnson PhotoThen the corset was laced up, laced up tightly. (Remember that scene from Gone With the Wind when Scarlett O’Hara is holding the bedpost as Mammy laces her into her corset, pulling tightly so that her waist becomes tiny?)

Mary Johnson PhotoCarle, by her own admission hardly petite, had her corset especially made for her, too. Like Scarlett she required help from someone else. She called her young woman assistant up to the stage and she did her best to help pull Carle into her dress for tea.

The corset has several functions, one of which, Carle said is to make one “sit up straight.”   

Tying up the corset takes time, willpower and lots of deep breaths. “A great diet aid,” Carle observed when finally pulled together.

Then there were stockings, a Victorian woman’s stockings, which were held up by garters and garter belts that one wore around one’s waist.

Mary Johnson PhotoAfter the corset was appropriately laced, hands go up and a slip goes on.

Mary Johnson PhotoNext came the dress. 

There were spats, requiring four to five buttons under a shoe. Their purpose was to cover a lady’s ankle in such a way as to prevent dirt from reaching a foot. 

Mary Johnson PhotoFinishing touches required a belt, a fan, appropriate furs, muffs (also a fur), a hat and the finishing touch, gloves, long gloves, of course.
Mary Johnson PhotoOnce attired, with corset, stockings, dress, hat and gloves, the lady would head for tea. With all the access paraphernalia, she was 8 pounds heavier, but if the corset worked, she looked eight pounds lighter. 

Carle seemed to love the transformation. So did the audience. But when all was said and done, one woman whispered to the Eagle on her way out the door, “I’m glad we don’t have to go through that!”

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