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Downton Abbey‘s creator on the secret, sexy history of tea time

Nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series, Downton Abbey owes much of its success to creator and sole writer Julian Fellowes. We had the chance to sit down with him and find out the secrets Americans don’t know about the British custom of tea time.

Sure, Americans do drink tea, but after Britain tried to tax-gouge the colonies in 1773, the Sons of Liberty protested by dumping the tea into the ocean, creating the Boston Tea Party. Since then, coffee has been America’s main way to get caffeinated.

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Unlike the Brits, however, Americans don’t have a specific ritual around coffee, the way that tea time has become a standard daily event in Great Britain. But when we asked Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, what Americans need to know about tea time, his answer really surprised us.

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“I think tea time was a tremendously useful social device. The concept of tea time was invented by the Duchess of Bedford in about 1830. The Georgians had dinner at 5 o’clock and then they had a late supper of some oysters and other things,” said Fellowes, adding that as the century went on, dinner was getting pushed further and further back into the evening, closer to 7 or 8 p.m.

“The Duchess of Bedford felt that between luncheon and dinner, the time gap could be so big, it was necessary to have something to eat. Luncheon wasn’t a very heavy meal; originally it was at about 12 noon, and dinner was between 3 and 5 o’clock. But the gap was now beginning to get so big.”

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Fellowes said that tea time provided two very useful benefits, the first being unregulated social interaction.

“The great advantage was that you didn’t have to sit according to rank the way you did at dinner or lunch. With a buffet, like they’d have at tea, anyone could sit anywhere.”

Fellowes also added that the Victorians sure ate an awful lot of food. “They finished tea with the dressing gong to go up and get dressed for dinner. How they swallowed it all, I can’t imagine!”

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The second big advantage for the late Victorians was the introduction of the tea gown.

“The tea gown was almost like a dressing gown, but much more chic. It was loose and had sort of this drapery business. It was the only garment a woman could wear in the company of men that didn’t require corsets. So they could get back from shooting or whatever the event had been, take off their corsets, rest, get up, put on a tea gown over a loose chemise — it was perfectly decent — go downstairs, have tea and chat before gong, gong, gong! Then they’d go up, get into their corsets again and get ready for dinner.”

At least the ladies had two hours off from the highly constricting corsets. But time to breathe without whalebone crushing your intestines wasn’t the only benefit to wearing a tea gown. Here’s where Victorian women got sneaky, according to Fellowes.

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“In the country, you had house parties that contrived to give lovers rooms next to each other; the hostesses were all complicit in that. But in London, no one stayed with anyone else; that’s why all the palaces have great drawing rooms, but almost no bedrooms.

“In London, you received your lover, as the French called it, ‘cinq à sept,’ or ‘between 5 and 7,’ because that was the sort of unaccounted-for time in the day. The tea gown was wonderfully useful for that, because it was the only garment she could get out of without the help of her maid. She could go upstairs, receive her lover, and leave no sort of trace.”

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This was particularly damning if a woman was accused of adultery and the husband took his wife to court.

“The ladies’ maids were often questioned. Lady Colin Campbell, who made the mistake of receiving a lover in the morning, suffered when her maid testified against her that her underclothes had been fastened by an ‘untrained hand.’ And that was one of the reasons she lost the divorce.”

In other words, Lady Colin Campbell’s corset was done up in a messy fashion, indicating that her lover, not her maid, had done it up quickly and sloppily. Sheesh.

The sixth and final season of Downton Abbey returns to PBS in January 2016.


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