Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table

Cosmetic Box of the Cupbearer Kemeni. Egypt, ca. 1814–1805 B.C.
Cosmetic Box of the Cupbearer Kemeni. Egypt, ca. 1814–1805 B.C.

Let’s face it: we humans love to dress up. Long before we were using metal tools, we were painting our faces and bodies, combing and dressing our hair, and deciding which necklace goes with which tunic.


In our modern, everyone-wears-khakis era, it’s easy to dismiss an interest in the artifacts of beautification as a superficial appreciation of history. But interest in ancient beauty rituals is interest in life – how it’s been lived around the world by distant ancestors both near and far. And as beauty rituals are universal, the connection is far from superficial.


Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has accommodated us beauty thrill seekers with a small exhibition. Metropolitan Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table gathers a roomful of the Met’s collection of beauty-related antiquities and fine furniture for a look at how beauty paraphernalia has developed over time.


Beauty in a Box

Before vanity tables existed as such, decorative boxes were used to keep grooming supplies together. The one above was inscribed to an Egyptian cupbearer, an important functionary in the King’s life. Maybe it was a gift from the King himself. Truly fancy cosmetic boxes were usually given as gifts. The one below, from Japan, was part of a bride’s trousseau, and probably only rarely used:


Cosmetic Stand with Design of Pine, Bamboo, and Cherry Blossom. Japan, 19th century.
Cosmetic Stand with Design of Pine, Bamboo, and Cherry Blossom. Japan, 19th century.


The Rise of the Toilette

In early Europe, Greeks and Romans enjoyed beautiful cosmetic jars and boxes, but after the fall of Rome the use of cosmetics fell out of favor. As the Renaissance began and courtly life in Europe developed, barbers and ladies-in-waiting would carry cosmetics (in boxes) to the private chambers of royalty. Much like a current pop star’s glam squad, they would set up there, laying out a piece of plain fabric to protect the table – a toile. The “toile” became “toilette”, describing the grooming process rather that just the towel.


And how did we get from boxes to furniture? It might have something to do with this:


The Toilette of Venus. François Boucher, 1751.
The Toilette of Venus. François Boucher, 1751.


We can’t all have cherubs attending us during our morning ritual, and we can’t all be Madame de Pompadour, the favorite mistress of King Louis XV, whose beauty supposedly inspired this portrait of Venus. But with the rise of expansive and elaborate toilettes, beautification became less secretive and more theatrical. Noblewomen were even entertaining visitors (or at least getting the morning’s orders out to their servants) while in their toilette, so a dedicated table, with its own mirror and compartments, could really come in handy.


And furniture makers turned out some beautiful dressing tables for their wealthy patrons, with exotic wood, marble, and even crystal inlays. Here’s one whose upper deck detaches as a bed table, with a mirror that reverses into a reading stand:


Combination vanity/reading table. Martin Carlin, France ca. 1775.
Combination vanity/reading table. Martin Carlin, France ca. 1775.


Vanities in Popular Culture

Having proved their usefulness, vanity tables changed with the tastes of the times. Larger mirrors, chairs that rotated to allow hairdressers to work, and more places to stash beauty tools and products were introduced. They became indispensable to the daily ritual of elegant women throughout Europe and the United States.


Vanity tables also featured as symbols themselves. Those “elegant women” at their vanity table could easily be portrayed as spoiled, vain, dangerous, or just in denial of the reality of life:


All Is Vanity. Charles Allan Gilbert, 1892.
All Is Vanity. Charles Allan Gilbert, 1892.


Yes, it’s true: even the beautiful will die. Today, our daily beauty rituals mostly take place in the bathroom, so it’s rare to find a vanity table in use. But collectors have been saving the most beautiful and interesting ones, so we can imagine a desk where the only job is to get beautiful.


The Met exhibition is tiny – blink while walking through the Modern galleries and you’ll miss it, but if you’re in NYC it’s worth a peek. And January 31, they’re hosting a related gallery event promising “an evening of beauty and grooming” and “interactive experiences with the art”.  There’s also a related publication, which features works at other museums as well as the exhibit itself.


As someone who quite often wanders around the Met’s galleries thinking about “scent, hairstyles, facial hair, and the art of grooming”, I was happy that the Met’s curators decided that beauty ritual was worth a curatorial space of its own. I’m underwhelmed at the actual exhibition – many of the works in the catalogue are in other galleries in the Museum, or not on display at all. Maybe beauty is not a blockbuster idea – oh wait, yes it is. With the wealth of their collection of art and antiquities, the Met could come up with a truly spectacular show on beauty and ritual. Perhaps someday they will.


Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 17, 2013–April 13, 2014.


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