Lady’s Dressing Tables Had Varied Names & Looks

dressing table victoruanBy Anne Gilbert

A look at many of today’s auction catalogs and antique dealer offerings is a trip through the history of the “dressing table” or “vanity.” These days dressing tables are usually “built-ins” that come with a house or Condo. They are a far cry from the elegant examples made of fine woods and often gilded.
Not only did it take several centuries to change women’s role in society but to create furniture for their special needs such as the dressing table.

Credit Marie Antoinette for owning the first dressing table for women. In 1778 she commissioned the master cabinet maker, Jean Henri Riesener to create a special dressing table. The result was a mechanical table that was a combination dressing table, writing table, breakfast table and reading table all in one. The French word was “Poudreuse”, a derivation of face powder. Simplified versions were made in France after that and copies were made in England in the French style by Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Chippendale.

However, historically, a version was first made for men earlier in the 17th century, as a shaving mirror. By the 18th century, in England, they were in the form of a kneehole desk, in the masculine style. The top would lift up to a fitted mirror. Others were simply lowboys with lift tops and interior mirrors. Sometimes they were adapted for women and scaled down in size.

dressing table art decoIn early 19th century America, the dressing table became simplified. Some had a simple one drawer, table form with a mirrored box on top. Other were elaborately painted and sometimes trimmed with a drapery swag underneath. The biggest change, in Europe and America during the 19th century was the combining of the mirror and table into a single piece. By the 20th century it became known as a “vanity.”

CLUES: Each succeeding era reflected the design trend of the times such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Mid century modern. During the 20th century it became part of the mass produced bedroom suites made around the world.

However, following World War 11, it was sold as an “extra,” rather than part of a set. These days they are often used as a decorative accent. Reproductions of antique styles are rampant.

PHOTO to the right: Victorian dressing table.
PHOTO to the left: Art Deco style vanity.

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