If the re-gram game of London’s Sketch Gallery (the Pink Panther-hued brasserie known for a sybaritic high tea) is any indication of the public’s current appetite for finger foods and fine china, tea parties are having a serious moment. Long liberated from their stuffy overtones, tea parties today are a mix of OOO tradition and contemporary whimsicality. Whether you brew up a tea party festooned with vintage florals or colors that look swiped straight from the macaroon plate, tea parties are the perfect theme for a shower, luncheon, or just-because affair. If you’re mulling over the idea of hosting a tea party but don’t know where to begin, consider a vintage tea party. Rife with character, they exude both a poshness and a playfulness. Ahead, we spotlight four vintage tea party tablescapes, ideal for any occasion, from birthdays to brunches to Brit-themed binge-watches!
The History of High Tea
Part of the appeal of hosting a tea is undoubtedly the ritualistic aura surrounding it. If you’ve ever been curious about how the tradition of high tea came to be, it has roots in the Edwardian era. Specifically, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is credited with its invention. Tired of the peckishness that plagued her between lunch and dinner, the Duchess requested a plate of sweetbreads and a pot of tea from the royal staff to tie her over. The ritual became fashionable with other nobility and soon became commonplace among all of Britian. Ceramic and pottery manufacturers undoubtedly played a role in the rise of high tea as well. Spode and Wedgwood china materialized to fill the need for stylish drinkware, elevating afternoon tea to a performance art of sorts.
A floral-themed vintage tea party doesn’t exactly spell rebellion. However, it is possible to reinvent the classic theme so that it feels fabulously fresh. To avoid going full-blown grandma, partner antiques with newbies. For instance: layer a more contemporary placemat over an antique lace tablecloth. While classic floral print china works, floral-shaped plates that echo majolica cabbageware feel more avant-garde. The same goes for lucite-handled flatware. To keep the yin-and-yang momentum going, try peppering in classic silver pieces with modern glassware (in the case above the swirled glass tumblers introduce a modern Murano vibe). Rather than tight, condensed florals, nosegays of crawly nasturtium and Icelandic poppies temper the formality with their plucked-straight-from-the-garden feel.
Those with an aversion to bridal tea parties and baby showers bathed in pink should consider “going green.” The perfect accomplice to a selection of green teas (offer bowls of loose-leaf on the table and equip each guests’ place-setting with a tea ball), a green-themed vintage tea party feels eminently elegant. Setting a mean green table isn’t hard, but making it feel apropos for a spot of tea requires a few tweaks. First, forgo a refined tablecloth. A jauntily checked tablecloth sets a mood that’s fitting for a dainty vintage tea. Next, factor in dishware with a bit of color. Tobacco leaf plates, a popular 18th-century Chinese relic, can add a playful dose. Lastly, pepper in accouterments with whimsy. Ceramic elephant bud vases and baluster-style glass candlesticks make for a table that feels more madcap than overly mannered.
Pastel-themed tea parties may co-opt most of the spotlight, but one rendered in more steeped hues can be just as arresting. Consider colors like mauve and violet for a vintage tea party, especially if you’ll be celebrating anywhere in the shadow of the fall equinox. While Chinoiserie prints have a reputation for skewing vernal, they can be ideal for a fall vintage tea party. The trick to making them feel autumnal? Integrate dark lacquered iterations. The setting above utilizes a black lacquered dining table scrawled with gold Chinoiserie etchings as a base, but platters or canisters in similar colorways would sub nicely. And just like tea party canapes should straddle sweet and savory, so should your flowers. Temper aristocratic-feelings roses with more frolicsome blooms, including anemones and tendrils of sweet pea.
When it comes to capturing the essence of a vintage Parisian tea salon, nothing tops Chinoiserie. While Chinoiserie can procured in just about any palette, varying pigments of pinks feel particularly festive for a vintage tea party. To take a more unexpected slant to this traditional motif, consider starting with a strategically off-base base layer. For instance, try a table covering with a French Provincial feel. Ground yourself by looking for patterns that have the same movement as Chinoiserie. Mixing and matching dishware will also lend a forward-feeling exuberance. Layer in traditional chinoiserie platters with more liberal interpretations, as shown above. As for the finishing touches, sprinkle in spunky majolica pieces. They’ll spike your vintage tea with a bit of irreverence and modern-day wit. Similarly, bunches of hyacinth and ranunculus will offer a sculpted element that feels in sync with the majolica pieces’ carven feel.
Lead image design by Megg Braff Designs / Photo by J. Savage Gibson