Baroness Blanche Staffe wrote in her 1893 Etiquette book “The dressing room of every well-bred woman should be both elegant and comfortable in proportion to her fortune and position.”
Nowhere was this more true than in the 19th century, when a lady delighted in “getting ready” for the day or evening at a luxuriously appointed vanity, her personal space for which she chose a glittering assortment of mirrors, brushes, boxes and products she used for making herself more beautiful.
A dressing table, or vanity, that eminently feminine piece of furniture, served as a personal oasis where she concentrated on her beauty rituals, and transformed herself into the most elegant, alluring being she could be.
Elaborate boxes to hold beautifying accoutrements such as flasks for rare perfume, implements for applying makeup, and mirrors were constructed since ancient times. An inlaid cedar cosmetics box found in an Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb by Howard Carter — who later discover Tutankhamun’s tomb — contained perfumes, face paints and stone ointment jars, and a hand mirror made of polished metal with a wooden handle decorated in gold. 3000 years old, this box is the ancestor to the vanity, or dressing table.
Women have always desired a designated place to keep their precious ointments and perfumes. The earlier boxes were portable, the French cosmetic boxes, nécessaires, were made of the most luxurious materials.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century in France, when the box was placed on a small table by an astute lady or her personal maid, that the dressing or vanity table we recognize today was born.
Louis XIV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, is credited with designating a whole room as a boudoir, a room filled with a dressing table for pampering and primping. The boudoir was a private space where a woman could retreat to bathe, put on make up, have her hair done, and also entertain visitors to share the latest court gossip.
Unabashedly feminine, Madame de Pompadour was her generation’s style setter, she commissioned the best furniture makers to create luxurious specialized dressing tables for her boudoir.
By the late 1800’s, no Victorian lady’s boudoir or dressing room was complete without a vanity or dressing table and mirror, and all the accoutrements she required for primping.
Fashionable ladies spent much of their time preparing their toilette for the endless array of social appearances they were expected to attend.
While the luxurious dressing tables that epitomize the Victorian concept of femininity are certainly antiques well worth collecting, it is the array of exquisite objects used in private quarters during the Victorian era that are beloved by today’s collector for their exceptional quality and fine craftsmanship.
Of the highest quality, alluring and of exceptional beauty, the powder jars, brush and hand mirror sets, vanity trays, perfume bottles, pin cushions and jewelry caskets are but a few of the pieces that make a true collector’s heart beat faster.
Some are collected simply for their sentiment and whimsy, such as the sterling button hooks, as these are not things we use in our daily lives anymore.
We have many elegant antique vanity or dressing table antiques to choose from. They can still be used daily, and displayed with joy.
An array of crystal jars and bottles topped with repousse sterling caps together with several Victorian silver hand mirrors will create an elegant and romantic setting in your bedroom or bathroom.
Many of the exceptional pieces featured in this article are still available.