The Art of the Dressing Table

Just what purpose does a dressing table serve these days?  If you are like me, you throw your jewelry in a dish by your sink, put on eyeliner wherever there is light, apply lipstick on your way out the door, and wait to do your hair until it has dried while driving to work (at a stoplight, of course).

Yet for me, the old-fashioned idea of a woman’s dressing table being this central place of beauty and adornment, an explosion of all things feminine, a small corner of the world belonging solely to a house’s mistress, seems so romantic.

My maternal grandmother has always been a constant source of inspiration to me.  She has a truly unique eye, though she will self-effacingly shy away from being called ‘artistic’ (despite the fact that 3 of her 4 children and many grandchildren have professions in the arts, and we all know where we got it from).  She has always curated her living spaces with a balance of elegance, simplicity, maternal pride and ancestral appreciation.  Re-reading that description, I realize it makes little sense.  Luckily, just before my grandparents moved out of their family home in Middletown, it was photographed by Mick Hales for Bettie Pardee’s book Private Newport: At Home and in the Garden, and the following photos are hasty reproductions from that book (Bullfinch Press, available on and at most local booksellers).

This was Mimi’s dressing table at her house, Hopelands.  On the wall are pictures of my mom, my two aunts and my grandmother herself wearing the same wedding dress, which has been in the family since the 1700’s!  She’s also scattered family photos under the glass top of the table and in frames.  I love the warm and luminous quality of the mirror, which is real mercury glass.  All of this serves as a highly personal backdrop for her objets: ivory combs, brushes, button hooks, a hand mirror and…I don’t know what the rest of those tools are for, plus perfumes, a cute little pin cushion, one of her porcelain bunnies (which she collects) and roses from the garden.  Below, you can see the table set in the rest of the master bedroom, which is just a step away from the garden that my great grandmother planted.  (It’s also where I learned and fell in love with gardening).

This picture illustrates what I was trying to describe, that mimi’s dressing table was a little corner of elegance and femininity in an otherwise simple and relatively sparing room.  I imagine that for women in the 18th, 19th and maybe even early 20th centuries, when everything belonged to the man of the house, dressing tables were one small haven of ownership where a woman could display the only trinkets that really belonged to her.  There is a great, though sad, scene in the Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility, in which the Dashwood women are packing up to leave their home following the death of Mr. Dashwood, and the mother is tucking her small china figurines in with her clothes as she prepares to leave all other objects to the house’s new owners.  Maybe now, dressing tables are a nod to the only part of the material world that, historically, women were able to carve out for themselves.

When they moved, my grandmother gave us one of the smaller dressing tables from another bedroom, and it is now in my room.  Below is an assemblage of some of the objects I keep on it.  My dressing table is mostly a place of display, but I also keep my jewelry and perfume on it, and it is constantly changing as I add and rotate special objects.  It’s far from essential, but I like to think of it as a reminder, telling me to slow down, take my time getting ready, take care of myself, and appreciate beauty in all its varying forms.

I use this balsam fir sachet as a pincushion to keep earrings and rings in order.  The little tortoise shell scottie clip is a new favorite, made by France Luxe, the same company that supplies all the hair accessories at J.Crew.  I made the necklace using a strand of coral beads that belonged to my mother and a little wooden animal that was on an indian necklace I had as a child (and promptly broke).  The cosmetic compact was my great grandmother’s and is too pretty to keep in a drawer, and the sea glass, rock and silver shell are some of the little trinkets that I’ve assembled for display.

Chloé perfume is my new obsession.  The first time I encountered it was at a bar when a friend walked in wearing it.  I made her stand next to me the whole night so I could keep smelling it!  This size is a Sephora exclusive, it’s a .2 oz roller ball bottle, and at $25, it makes a great gift (to yourself or a friend).

Here is another dressing table from Private Newport.  It’s a completely different personality that, of course, must be a reflection of its mistress!

Happy dressing!

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