Although affluent women of the upper classes patronized restaurants in the 19th century, they usually did not do so unless they had a male escort, preferably a brother, father, or husband. Respectable women were not supposed to appear too much in public view, and only in select eating places such as the dining rooms of leading hotels.
But as the century ended the situation began to change. Dining and entertaining in restaurants became fashionable and women appeared in public during the daytime without an escort, whether at lunch or afternoon tea. And they wanted to be seen.
The idea that there was a certain type of clothing right for these occasions began to take hold. Around 1900 the terms restaurant wear, restaurant gown, and restaurant frock proliferated in newspaper stories that reported on what stylish women were seen wearing in Paris restaurants.
It was a sign that restaurant-going had truly arrived. It no longer inevitably carried the stigma of vice and moral peril. Even though the majority of American women, especially those living in small towns and rural areas, might never see the inside of a swank tea room or café, those reading the society pages could imagine all eyes on them as they entered an elegant restaurant dressed in the latest style.
In 1903 women of Tacoma WA who followed their paper’s “Fashion Hints from the Shops” learned that black silk costumes for restaurant going were “quite the thing.” The prettiest gowns had skirts with flouncy semi-trains and a pleated top with velvet bows in front worn with a long fringed silk scarf.
Top tea rooms and restaurants became stages for virtual fashion shows. Clever dressmakers were said to “haunt” tea rooms to get ideas of the latest styles. In New York, Delmonico’s and Sherry’s were prime spots to see the pleats, flounces, laces, scallops, eyelets, and ribbons of the much be-decked outfits of 1905. The wisdom of the day had it that women went to such places not for the food, but to see what other women were wearing.
Those traveling in the open autos of 1909 wore heavy, unattractive coats to protect them from road dirt and grime. But the bright side, pointed out the Philadelphia Inquirer, was that the coats were loose enough around the shoulders that “really elaborate costumes may be worn beneath them without harm.” The example, hard to appreciate in the black and white drawing here, was a coral pink restaurant frock with braided trim and crocheted buttons topped with a hat sporting what were mysteriously described as “vivid coral wings.”
Enormous attention was paid to women’s necklines with the new interest in restaurant wear. Time and again readers were warned not to confuse restaurant wear with formal wear. The rules were firm. Formal wear meant revealingly plunging necklines, bare arms, and no hat. Restaurant wear, by contrast, meant a frontal coverup, with a moderate neckline or even a high choker-style collar. The dress must have sleeves and the costume was to be topped off with a hat.
But rules are often broken. According to Julian Street’s 1910 magazine article titled “Lobster Palace Society,” gauche gold-trimmed Babylonian restaurants such as the Café de l’Opera in New York’s Times Square made every effort to seat women with low necklines prominently on the ground floor.
The 1920s featured a new silhouette, as shown in this advertisement for glamorous gowns in 1922 as sold in Philadelphia’s Frank & Seder department store. Hats were getting smaller in the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes replaced with hair ornaments.
Far from the Depression dampening the wish to get dressed up and go out on the town, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 introduced a new fashion category, the cocktail dress. Tailored looks prevailed, and in 1938 a fashion columnist chided women who instead chose “luscious, romantic, billowy” frocks to wear to restaurants and nightclubs, sternly telling them that “such fragile, pale bits of formality are not worn!”
The trend toward simplification and informality continued in the 1940s with a wartime preference for plain, dark dresses as shown here. By the mid-1950s many women reportedly tried to pass off sundresses as appropriate for the cocktail hour (verdict: “Nothing could be more incorrect for after-five-wear.”) while teens couldn’t see why they shouldn’t wear jeans to a restaurant. Not nearly special enough, reasoned the columnist Dorothy Dix. Advice thrown aside, the casual trend continued.
Since the 1970s “restaurant wear” has come to refer mainly to uniforms for restaurant staff.
© Jan Whitaker, 2017