As a girl, I remember sitting at that strange altar, on a chair, the triptych mirror in front of me. All the tools of glamour, sterling-silver pieces engraved with initials, were laid out on a glass surface: a brush, a comb, a hand mirror, a shoe horn, a button hook. I would have to be permitted to sit there or I would have to sneak into the room and dare to, when no one else was looking.
It was my grandmother’s vanity table in a weekend house, outside of Montreal, we called The Farm. Built as a hunting lodge in the early 19th century, the house was both oddly cozy and spooky, creaking in the night like an ark upon the sea. I remember heavy black grates in the ceiling to let the heat rise to the upper floor from the huge fireplace in the living room, a kitchen pantry with Ovaltine, a dark wood-panelled den with First World War artifacts (including a German Pickelhaube helmet) gathered from the battlefield by my great-grandfather. And there was my grandmother’s spacious, airy bedroom, that of the lady of the house, with the ornate vanity table set by the window.
In the season of spring-cleaning, when we decide what to throw out, I also find myself thinking about what I’d like to add. I don’t have a vanity table now – who does anymore? – although I did as a girl. Getting one wouldn’t be to play out some retro version of femininity. It would be partly for nostalgia, and to have a place to display intriguing artifacts of femininity. (I have a thing for the delicate beauty of perfume bottles. And my grandmother gave me her set of sterling-silver dressing-table pieces, which now reside in a drawer.) And maybe, as someone who lives with the complexity of modern female life, I would sit there with a sense of pleasure – that I could feel what it’s like to have a moment of stillness, just for me – and one of irony, too – that as much as I wanted (and have) a life that was different from those of the women who came before me, there’s something about theirs I still envy.
The vanity table was a place of gazing – at oneself, out the window across a field – and of quiet reflection, where you entertained your private thoughts at the same time as you prepared to adopt a guise, distracting adornments for public scrutiny and, mostly, for the pleasure of men. As the spot for that ritual, it was the seat of mature womanhood.
Think of Lady Mary sitting at her vanity table in Downton Abbey, the popular TV period drama set in the early 20th century. It is her seat of power, a gendered object. (And just in case you don’t get the significance, the vanity table is often skirted with pleated fabric to hide the legs.)
Not surprisingly, this iconic, character-defining thing, the history of which is traced back to the 18th century, when it was known as a toilet table in the boudoir, has had a central role in cultural perceptions of femininity. Carla Jeanne Cesare writes in an academic paper, At The Dressing Table, The Seat of Modern Femininity, how it was often used in female portraiture. She notes that even etiquette maven Emily Post weighed in with a description of the standards for the ideal dressing table in her 1930 book The Personality of a House. Lighting, Post wrote, should be overhead. And the table is best placed by a window. Accessories such as perfume bottles, combs and brushes are important. Women’s magazines often ran features on dressing-table fashion and its importance in home decor. Vogue magazine once featured a regular column, At The Vanity, which showcased the latest makeup and dressing-table objects a woman might want, according to Cesare. She points out how it was used in several 1930s-era films as a code of femininity, to signify both bad and good girls. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck plays a sexual predator who uses her looks to get what she wants. Her dressing table, which is draped in fabric with a mirror that is carved and heavily ornamented, is a key part of the set design.
But the furniture lost its relevance as women’s lives changed. Once a fixture that elevated the importance of adornment in female identity and helped to define the role of women in society, the vanity table became a symbol of listless Stepford Wife self-reflection, where a trivial interest in fashion and makeup was indulged because the sitter had the time to do so and nothing better (or more productive) to occupy her. In the drive for equality in the workplace and on the homefront, such gendered objects are rare, if not nonexistent, now. We take offence at the suggestion that any one household object or room – the kitchen, for example – is the domain of the woman or the man. For the most part, we have outsourced the ultrafeminine space – to the spa.
Well, I plan to bring it back inside my home somehow, if I can find the space. The vanity table I want would be a shrine to memory, too, of course, the memory of my grandmother. I might even go and buy L’Air du Temps, her favourite perfume, to bring her back more fully. Furniture as function? Sure, I have some for that. But I also need some pieces purely for the emotions they can hold.