Updated: Mar 19, 2022
Throwing a tea party based on your love for Jane Austen and everything she represents SOUNDS straightforward, but it isn’t really, and that’s because of the setting. Building an event around an iconic, recognizable era, such as Regency era Britain, means that you want your guests to feel like they’ve been transported to another time and place, and it’s actually kind of tricky to achieve the look and feel of the early 1800s because very few of us live in a space that resembles Regency architecture, and it’s hard to get your hands on contemporary fashion that resembles those gorgeous Regency gowns.
[NOTE: To watch this discussion on YouTube (with WAY more photos) please CLICK HERE]
BUT, all is not lost! This minor challenge just means that we need to think outside the box to recreate the manor house of our dreams, and of course there’s no pressure to be historically accurate, as this event is not a film set but a fun party for your friends who also love Jane Austen, and they love you anyway so they won’t judge.. Which means we have a lot of wiggle room here :)
This post will cover the four main elements of a memorable event: immersive decor, themed food & drinks, book-inspired activities and period costuming. Let’s get started!
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the key to hosting a party where your guests will feel magically transported to another time and place is worldbuilding. It would be pretty hard to feel like Mr Darcy is just around the corner if we were surrounded by modern artwork and technology, so the first thing we’ll do is build a vintage-inspired setting for your party.
As I mentioned, we don’t all live in a Regency-era manor house, but we can set our party in a neutral space, then gather together a few iconic items (some that we already have, and a few that we spring for), and arrange them in this space we have so that they suggest a vintage room. And if you’re a big enough fan of Jane Austen to want to throw a party inspired by her, you have vintage things around that you can use! Now, don’t feel like you have to go out and spend a ton of money to recreate this look. It really just takes a few pretty items to pull together a stunning vintage tea party atmosphere.
So what sort of things are we looking for as we search around our house for items to decorate our Jane Austen tea party?
Picture your favorite Jane Austen movie in your mind … the rooms are full of light and pale pastel shades, the furniture is dainty and features scrolls and curves, the details in the room and on the costuming are very soft and shimmery, with lace and flowing fabrics. Everything is elegant and subdued, just like all the ladies are expected to be!
We’ll start by choosing the best available room that you have for the party. Pick someplace with a fairly simple background and as many windows as we can possibly get. If your dining room fits this description, you’re ahead of the game, but if it doesn’t, you can always set up a table and chairs in another room, or even outdoors. And remember, your tea party doesn’t necessarily have to be arranged around one large table. You can set up comfortable chairs around a small coffee table, and you can even host this event like a cocktail party, where everyone is standing, but that’s not ideal, since it’s hard to juggle a teacup and saucer AND a plate for your food, so seating of some kind is preferable.
Once you’ve chosen your location, you’ll have a better idea of what you need to add or even subtract to create the elegant Regency look that Jane would recognize. Start with a nice pale tablecloth, even a lace one if you have it. Collect all the mismatched china you can find, from plates and teacups to serving dishes and the nicest silverware you have. No plastic at this party! Pull out your teapots and creamers and sugar bowls, and if you have fabric napkins, definitely bring those out too.
Everything at this party should be as light and feminine as you can possibly manage. You’ll definitely need flowers for your Jane Austen tea party, and not just in the center of the table, but displayed around the room in a lot of small bouquets. And don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of vases - you can use small glasses and even teapots to hold the flowers.
There’s always a bit of shimmer in Regency rooms, so look around for things you have that are silver, or have crystals on them, or even small mirrors that you can lay on the table and place your tea things on. And of course, if you have an official tea set, this will become your centerpiece, but if you don’t, an eclectic mix of teapots and teacups is just as beautiful.
To give your party decorations some age, bring out all the old, hardcover books you can find. You can pile these in various places around the room, and make little still lives with flowers and old photos, or even silhouettes of Jane Austen. If you’re planning to display your refreshments in a buffet style, books will do very nicely to add height to your arrangement too.
You can add little details to your centerpiece or your satellite still lives with any dainty accessories you happen to have around, and these don’t have to be tea related … think about white gloves, or paper fans, or a top hat or even a beaded purse. Pretty things like these will draw your guests’ eyes, and any anachronistic items still left in the room will fade into the background.
If you’ve scavenged through your house and called all your friends to borrow their vintage accessories and you still feel like you need a few more things to really pull together your vintage look, take a trip to your local thrift shop. My local Goodwill store sells china teacups for just a dollar or two apiece, and I always find cute little china serving plates for under $5. Remember, just a couple of really beautiful pieces will go a long way toward bringing your theme together, so you don’t need to spend a tremendous amount of money on this. And, if you plan to host more tea parties in the future, you can actually think of picking up a few teacups and serving items as a solid investment!
Add some quiet, classical music in the background, and your stage is set.
TEA & FOOD
Tea parties are so fun to create menus for. You probably already know that a traditional tea includes three courses: scones, little sandwiches, and tiny desserts. And, if you’ve watched any of my other tea party videos you know that I’m a big fan of modifying food that I can get at the grocery store to save time and energy. So this section of this video will be very straightforward.
You can certainly bake scones and desserts from scratch, and make a dozen kinds of fancy sandwiches, and if that’s how you want to spend your time then far be it from me to talk you out of it. But if you don’t want to cook, no one will know! because there are so many delicious and affordable ways to tweak grocery store items and make them adorable.
Start with scones from the bakery section, and display them with little pots of jam and cream. Traditionally, these would be served with clotted cream, but if you can’t find that (Whole Foods has it, but not many other places), cream cheese will do fine.
For your sandwiches, get the nicest white bread you can find that has a tight crumb, then choose three or four different types of filling. You’ll want to offer a balance of fillings -- typically one with a cream cheese base, one with a protein in it, and one with egg. Now by cream cheese filling I mean you can start by spreading cream cheese on your bread, then top that with a combination of something delicious, like bananas and brown sugar, or cucumbers and dill, or radishes and chives … you have a lot of options here. Then your egg sandwich is usually an egg salad, but if you don’t like egg salad (and I don’t) you can scramble some eggs and add roasted tomatoes or parmesan cheese and roasted peppers, or even spinach and feta, so you get more of the savory effect that an omlette would have, and less of that sulfur-y taste of egg salad. Then lastly, your protein-filled sandwich can start with a premade deli salad as a base, like a ham salad or chicken salad, that you can add some extra oomph to with pickles or curry powder, or I even like to add cashews and purple grapes to my chicken salad. Just make sure you cut the crusts off your sandwiches, cut them into small quarters on the diagonal, and wrap them up tightly in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out before your party.
Then your dessert course is the easiest to pull together. Choose your favorite tiny treat, like miniature brownies or little fruit tarts, or even cake cut into very small pieces, and add something sweet like jam and a fresh raspberry, or a little store-made chocolate mousse and tiny chocolate chips, or you can even make your own miniature trifles in tiny cups with layers of cake, pudding, whipped cream and jam. And if you want to send your guests into ecstasies over your dessert, serve it in china teacups!
Now for your tea, you can certainly offer a selection of hot or iced teas in a variety of flavors, but let’s talk about something different. Have you ever heard of a tea-tini? It’s a combination of iced tea with a little juice or sparkling water, served in a martini glass! You can add alcohol or not, and either way, it’s just adorable. Everyone loves a pretty cocktail, and you can really use any punch recipe, add a little flavored iced tea, and now you have a teatini!
Now just a little housekeeping before we move on to our next section … plan ahead for the practical aspects of serving tea and your party will run much more smoothly. Make sure you set out sugar substitute for those who might want it, and alternative milks if you think your guests will want some … figure out how you’ll keep your hot water hot if you’re serving traditional tea ... and think of how your guests will dispose of their tea bags if you’re planning to use those - we don’t want them just wandering around with trash. Think through these little details ahead of time, and you won’t be running around putting out fires during the party, you’ll be gliding around elegantly making witty remarks.
Every immersive party needs a guided activity to really bring it to life. Picture the difference between an event where your guests are just seated around a table, trying awkwardly to make small talk while secretly worrying that their attempt at a bonnet doesn’t look right, versus a party where everyone is doing something fun together, like playing trivia or making a cute craft out of old book pages, or even having a book swap. The energy in the room is completely different when you encourage your guests to work together, and it’s that feeling of laughing and having fun that they’ll remember long after the party is over.
So it’s up to you what kind of activity you’d like to plan, and the three ideas I just mentioned are good, solid, failsafe options. These work.
If you want to hold a trivia contest, collect all kinds of information from the internet, like quotes from Jane Austen books and movies, or facts about Jane’s life, and write them up either on a list that you’ll read aloud, or on little pieces of paper that guests will pull from a teapot, or find rolled up on their place setting. You can have your guests play in teams, or individually, and definitely offer a prize or two for the winners -- maybe a beautiful teacup and saucer, or a pretty edition of a Jane Austen novel.
And speaking of books, a book swap is another fun activity at your tea party. You can ask each guest to bring their favorite book to trade (and this can be a used book), and you can either have them wrap them and do a blind swap, or leave them unwrapped and make a game out of trading them.
If you’re planning to have your guests make a craft, you’ll want to set aside a space for this that’s different from the space where you’ll be eating, so you don’t end up with drips of glue and little scraps of paper on your buffet. Crafts made out of old book pages are all the rage, and you can make all kinds of cute little things like a pennant banner, a paper chain, a tissue paper flower -- Pinterest is full of ideas for this kind of thing, so grab an old encyclopedia and practice making your craft ahead of time so if there are adjustments you need to make to the process, you’ll be prepared. Collect all the supplies you need, and you may even want to pre-cut some of the pages to save time … that all depends on how engaged you think your guests will be with this activity.
And then whatever you make becomes a charming favor for your guests to take home!