The White Room offers another explanation that need not be contradictory. They say the concept of the afternoon tea traces its origin back to the French colonisation of Morocco. And presumably because Europeans were not all familiar with the custom, books on Victorian Era etiquette included instructions for hosting such gatherings.
Tea-Time, James Tissot, 1872, private collection
Afternoon Tea, Francisco Miralles, c1875, private collection
The Tea, Mary Cassatt, 1880, MFA Boston
Clearly Victorian afternoon tea started as an English-based custom in a feminine space, filled with flowers, soft tea dresses, polished silver and pastel table cloths. Afternoon tea continued to be very fashionable throughout the Edwardian period and before war broke out, when the Argentinean Tango arrived, London’s loveliest hotels began to host tea dances. These tea dances often had a live, palm-court orchestra playing light classical music. So as well as the tangos, people at tea dances loved to do the waltz.
Palm court, Waldorf Hotel London
There are plenty of records that suggest that the tea dance became popular again after the war ended and continued to be an important social event into the inter-war period. But did the English take their customs to wherever they found themselves in far flung countries?
In the early C20th, The Astor House was the finest hotel in Shanghai, where ex-pat Britons, sundry Europeans and wealthy Chinese business peoples loved to spend time. Largely protected from the nightmares of WW1, the hotel’s ballroom was remodelled during the war and the concept of tea dances was introduced. Held every afternoon in the ballroom, the custom quickly spread to The Palace and Majestic Hotels. Shanghai’s well heeled citizens, with leisure time to fill, were delighted to wile away their afternoons, pouring tea out of silver pots and dancing on the ballroom floor. At least until World War Two.
Shanghai Peninsula, lobby, set up for a tea dance, 2009
How interesting then that The Peninsula Shanghai has once again revived the tradition of the Afternoon Tea Dance every Sunday. This is when guests can relive the languid glamour of the city’s golden days; not only dainty sandwiches and Devonshire teas, but even The Peninsula’s 18-piece big band is attracting patronage. Afternoon tea may have been a British custom since the Duchess of Bedford’s friends were peckish, but now it seems to be appealing to a different generation and a very different country.
After I had already written this post, I found one by Laura Porter on Tango Tea Dances at London's Waldorf Hilton. "In the 1920s, tango tea dances were an essential part of social life and quickly became the trademark of The Waldorf Hilton hotel. As part of its centenary celebrations, the Tango Tea has returned. Hilton first reintroduced Tango Tea in June 2007 and has been holding the events regularly ever since". The event includes an open dance floor for guests, a live five piece band, dance shows from professionals and plenty of finger food. This is wonderful - the cycle has now completed itself.