Furniture Matters: The Vanity or Dressing Table

An eminently feminine piece of furniture, the vanity, or dressing table, accompanies a lady through her beauty ritual. Although it’s not as common as the other furniture I covered in our Furniture Matters series, it’s still a popular piece that regularly graces the bedrooms and bathrooms of women of quality (or those with a lot of makeup!).

The vanity: A history

The history of the vanity is short: it’s a variation on the chest of drawers with only one or two rows, instead of three or more. Another name for it is the “lowboy”. The lowboy appeared in the 18th century and was very popular both in England and the United States.

One characteristic of the lowboy is its decorative elements: the drawer handles were often of brass and in the shape of escutcheons, and the legs were regularly carved in intricate designs. The dressing table differs from the lowboy by its mirror.

The French invented a hybrid between the dressing table and the writing table, where owners could both write their letters and take care of their appearance.

It’s interesting to note that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the dressing table was used by men just as much as by women: men could keep their hair powders, razors, oils and combs there.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the popularity of the dressing table has waned as modern bathrooms started including expansive drawers and counter space, but vanities are still used, often in bedrooms, for a woman’s jewelry, makeup and hair care accessories.

The vanity: A cultural view

Culturally, the dressing table reflects our care for our appearance. It conveniently appeared in the 18th century, where the need (and fashion) for personal grooming started becoming a fact of life rather than a luxury reserved for the elite. Its rise coincides with the rise of the middle class.

Many books, paintings and prints of the period present ladies at their dressing table, a maid brushing their hair. The dressing table was a feminine space where secrets and confessions were shared between a lady and her servant, often highlighting the importance of this relationship and the possible closeness between two women of different classes.

As the name implies, the dressing table can also represent vanity, one’s excessive belief in one’s attractiveness to others. Vain ladies and gentlemen (but more often ladies than gentlemen) would spend too much time in front of their dressing table’s mirror, while smart and humble maidens would rather read a book in the library (think Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre). Vain women would get punished by a disfiguring accident or a bad marriage, while the humble one gained a good husband and a life filled with good fortune. The dressing table is the symbol of the temptation to put too much importance on our looks, at the neglect of our virtues.

Many contemporary movies still use the dressing table as a metaphor for vanity and excessive selfishness.

The vanity: A personal view

I’ve never owned a vanity, but I often dream of having a bedroom big enough for it. I like the thought of having all my beauty accessories close to my clothing, where I can mix and match without having to run to the bathroom with each new set of clothes.

While sitting at the vanity, you can indulge in taking care of yourself. It’s a surprisingly intimate space, where you develop a relationship with your own body that is hopefully positive. People with low self-esteem are not likely to indulge in long sessions of hair brushing and makeup tests. (Which is sad, because everyone should love themselves are they are. But I digress.)

I have friends who keep their most intimate secrets in their dressing table: diaries and precious pictures and mementoes of friendships and relationships. The dressing table is a treasure chest of memories, filled to the brim with objects of high sentimental value. Teenagers put pictures of their best friends and boyfriends all around the mirror to keep them near, until the heartbreaking moment where a fight or a breakup demands a purge.

Do you have a vanity or a dressing table? How do you use it? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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