How to Dress for Afternoon High Tea: a Traveler’s Guide

Enjoying afternoon tea in a beautiful setting is one of my favorite things to do. Occasionally girlfriends and I dress up and spoil ourselves with tea at a local spot. But my absolute favorite is to have afternoon tea on vacation. Taking a few hours to sit, savoring finger sandwiches and delicate pastries, takes me out of touring mode and gives me a chance to relax. My challenge is how to dress for high tea while still packing light.

Though occasionally we book afternoon tea before leaving home, most of the time we haven’t planned for it and will have to make do with the clothes we’ve packed. If I’ve packed a capsule wardrobe I am ready for anything -high tea attire included!

Dressing for afternoon tea is half the fun! Three women toasting with champagne at the Plaza

What to wear for afternoon tea

Afternoon tea, or high tea as many in the U.S. call it, is an elegant affair. In most cases, you’ll be comfortable in country club casual – nice pants and top, or simple dress. But at the poshest hotels the tea dress code is a step above – think better than business casual but not quite Downton Abbey. But no matter where you decide to go, dressing for tea is half the fun!

Men’s Attire for Afternoon Tea

For a traditional afternoon tea in a high-end hotel men will be comfortable in a suit jacket, long pants, and dress shoes. But packing a jacket is not always feasible if you’re trying to pack light. In a pinch, a well-pressed collared shirt and smart jeans will usually suffice. Dress as you would as a wedding guest at an afternoon reception.

For more casual teas in a warm weather destination, a casual look, like polo shirt and shorts, is likely fine. Check the restaurant ahead of time if you’re not sure what smart casual attire means for them.

Suggested dress for women

What to wear for afternoon tea and still pack light

For many women dressing up in elegant outfits is much of the fun of afternoon tea. It’s the perfect excuse to wear hats, fascinators, and classic jewelry! But dressing to the nines with a feminine look is not required. Though some women will opt for a fancy dresses or long skirts, dress pants are fine if they’re well-tailored.

For garden party teas, a floral print dress and wide brimmed hat would be a stylish option. Alternately you could dress up a simple day dress or pants outfit with a bright colored scarf.

Afternoon tea in a London, Paris, or New York hotel is a formal event. Though both of the garden tea outfits would work (I’d remove the hat), in this fancier setting the skies the limit! For this special occasion wear your cashmere sweater and your grandmother’s pearls*.

Shoes: For any high tea party, high heels, low heels, or strappy sandals all look great. I usually pack a pair of ballet flats as that’s better for me at this stage of my life…

In considering what to wear for afternoon tea, sometimes it’s more about what not to wear than what to wear.

  • Don’t wear jeans or casual shorts
  • Don’t wear your skirt too high or your top too low
  • Don’t wear sneakers, flip flops, or hiking shoes
  • Think twice before wearing skin tight, or see through items.

Plan a travel wardrobe that’s tea-time ready

If you anticipate any fancy activities while traveling, it’s a good idea to adjust your capsule wardrobe to include a nicer item or two as options for attire for a tea party.

A quick summary for creating a capsule wardrobe:

Our formula for a capsule wardrobe:
  1. 2 tops and 1 bottom in your chosen neutral,
  2. a solid black, white, or neutral top and bottom,
  3. 2 colorful tops,
  4. a topper
  5. an optional lightweight dress
  6. a scarf

If you’re hoping to have afternoon tea, make sure to include the optional travel dress. An LBD is always a good choice, but floral dresses are just as nice and might be worn several more times on your trip. Remember to choose a tea dress that’s lightweight and easy-care. If you’re not a dress person, for #2 above packing a extra nice pair of black pants is a wonderful choice. Pair that with a classic white button-down shirt and a scarf and you’ve got a great high tea outfit!

Almost any outfit can be fancied up with accessories. Pack some costume jewelry (*leave the real things at home so you won’t be heartbroken if they’re lost), one or two scarves in fun prints, and a hair accessory and you’ve got a classy look.

How I’ve dressed up my capsule wardrobes

For ideas on creating high tea attire from a minimalistic travel wardrobe, take a minute to look at the 10-piece wardrobes I packed for recent trips. In particular, compare what I packed for Jordan, Nantucket, and NYC.

10 piece capsule wardrobes that give options for what to wear for afternoon tea.

On our trip to Jordan, we visited Petra, swam in the Dead Sea and hiked. My capsule for this trip was very casual – no dress. (Though I did dress up occasionally using my DKNY wrap, simple black skort and scarf)

For my week in Nantucket (New England Summer), I packed a print tea-length dress. This was ideal for dinners out and could have been worn if I’d had afternoon tea. But this 10-piece wardrobe has other great options that would be suitable for an afternoon tea outfit. My white pants, white button-down shirt and shawl would have been elegant, and but even the jean skirt would have worked for a more casual tearoom.

When I traveled to New York specifically for afternoon tea at the Plaza, my capsule stepped it up a notch with tea party attire -dress, white cardigan sweater, pearls, ballet flats, AND a fascinator! (But even for this trip I chose a convertible dress that I’d wear again as a top.)

“Dressing” for tea on an African safari… Ha!

What to wear to afternoon tea. Tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe
Afternoon tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel

Note: most establishments will not embarrass you if you’re not ‘tea perfect’. Do the best you can, understanding that your look should respect the other customers. As an example, we enjoyed tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe, one of the 9 best hotels for tea according to Travel & Leisure. We arrived to the hotel fresh from safari camp and wore our Exofficio shirts and pants. I freshened up in the ladies’ room and put on a pretty scarf, but I was NOT elegant. The host seated us without comment, and we enjoyed our favorite afternoon tea ever!

Questions from readers

Should I wear a hat to high tea?

Many women wear an elegant hat at a garden-style tea party. In most cases, hats aren’t worn at the table for indoor afternoon tea parties, though you can wear the hat for pictures beforehand if you’d like. If you want to indulge and have space in your luggage, consider a fascinator or a stylish headband. If you’ve packed a pretty scarf, rolling it into a colorful headband is a great idea!

Can I wear jeans to high tea?

If you’re opting for afternoon tea at spots that have strict dress codes, they likely prohibit jeans. But that’s a general rule. If you’re going to garden parties, a casual tea room, or having tea in a very touristy area you can wear jeans.

I hope this helps you decide what to wear for your next tea party. No matter where you go, and what you wear, have a great time! You’re in for a few hours of delicious food and fun!

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How to dress for high tea while traveling. Plan a capsule wardrobe that has great options for afternoon tea and other occasions. #hightea #afternoontea #packinglight #teaparty
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6 thoughts on “How to Dress for Afternoon High Tea: a Traveler’s Guide

  1. This sounds like so much fun! I’m a tea lover myself so it’s really interesting. I’ve never considered having a proper tea time when traveling. I can’t wait to try this on the next occasion!

  2. What a fun post! I’m a huge fan of afternoon tea but didn’t even realize that there was a certain way to dress. We are very active on our travels, a lot of outdoor activities so I’m usually just thinking about comfort and packing light. next time I’ll pack a scarf!

  3. this is the first time i’m hearing about a capsule wardrobe and it sounds super nifty for travel! definitely looking forward to saving loads of luggage space with this idea!

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