A Woman's Vanity
By Karen Parr-Moody

Being down-to-earth modern ladies, the process of preening may seem a necessary evil. But the daily routine of transforming from duckling into swan is rendered more orderly, more comfortable, and certainly more glamorous by the addition of antique vanity accoutrements. GasLamp is filled with such items to transform a beauty routine from harried mess into glamorous process.

The notion of a conscripted "toilette" was most boldly ritualized by — who else? — the wealthy French of the 18th century. The word "toilette" derives from the French word "toile," or “cloth”, that was draped over a lady's shoulders while her hair was being dressed.

 The well-born lady of the house had an elaborate dressing room, or boudoir, where she would be groomed by her maid, devoting hours to having her hair groomed and picking the clothes she might wear. But her actions were not limited to mere grooming in this frivolous room, which might have nymphs painted on the ceiling and Cupids on the doors. She would also entertain visitors, eat breakfast and write letters. The wealthier the woman, the more elaborate this societal ritual of the morning hours. The center of her grooming operations, however, was a glamorous dressing table. In the photo, above right, is an example of a vintage vanity table, with a mirrored top and toile skirt for that extra bit of glamour (5-drawer vanity, $175; Booth B-200).

During the 18th century, the complexity of the operations of hairdressing and body care were only matched by the variety of accoutrements required for such. On the dressing table would have stood a mirror, various brushes, and containers for powder and make-up. As a woman sat before this array, believe it or not, her close friends or tradesmen would often be received as part of the routine.


As time went by, the beauty routine remained complex. By the time of the Victorian era, leading up to the early decades of the 20th century, women kept a table full of beauty accoutrements, as seen in the photo, above left (silver plate brushes and mirrors, ranging from $8 to $12; Booth W-477). To the far right of the photo, one sees a lovely painted box. This is a Victorian hair receiver, a common fixture on the dressing tables of that period (it is usually identified by a hole in the lid for inserting hair, but some were designed without this feature). Women of this era would cull hair from their hairbrush, then save it to later be stuffed into pincushions or pillows. Hair receivers also led to the creation of "ratts," which small balls of hair inserted into a hairstyle to add volume and fullness. Throughout history, women have gravitated toward big hair, it seems.

Toward the Art Deco era, women continued to surround themselves by an infinite amount of feminine luxuries, such as glass containers for perfumes and various unctions. The beautiful trio in the photo, right, is inspired by blue fabric, complete with tassels and fringe. The delicate flowers are hand-painted, along with the gilt accents and stoppers. These pieces are from Carlin Comforts and Company, makers of French porcelain accessories that were imported and sold in the U.S. during the 1930s (l-r, $35, $40 and $34; Booth B-231).

Despite the leisure pace of adornment, a lady must still keep an eye on the clock. The perfect answer to this problem is to accent an antique dressing table with an antique clock, such as the ultra-feminine Siegfried haller German Anniversary Clock in the photo, left ($145; Clock Booth). It runs for a full year without winding.

There is something so romantic in having the prettiest of tables readied for applying powder and paint, especially in today's harried world. But beyond beauty, there is logic in having a separate, orderly, lovely area for which to conduct the process of dressing. Imagine how much smoother a morning would go if one could sit, comfortably, before an array of surgically arranged accoutrements. It certainly would beat digging through the bathroom cabinets for a hairdryer or flat iron.


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