From Madame Pompadour to Hollywood royalty, explore the history of how the vanity became an everyday mainstay in the home
A Young Beauty at Her Vanity by Raimundo Madrazo y Garreta. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau (Sold).
In 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched the exhibition Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table, which took patrons on a journey through the fascinating evolution of the vanity. The exhibition began in ancient Egypt with a riveting look at the highly technical portable makeup boxes that were used by ancient Egyptian men and women to apply their famously elaborate makeup. From there, museum-goers continued on their journey through time, exploring the various iterations of the dressing table from its 18th-century innovation as a stand-alone piece of furniture to the glamorous vanities of Hollywood's golden age. Along the way, the exhibition covered the mechanical structures and intimate potions, accessories and paints that were stored within the vanities.
Despite the changes in fashion and culture over time, the application of makeup has remained a sacred and worthy ceremony, deserving of an elegant setting. Whether it is a focal point of a powder room or a quiet corner of a bedroom, vanities have remained a beloved part of one’s self-care and beauty routine. Have you ever wondered how this mainstay came to be? Join us on this journey through time as we explore the rich and varied history of different types of vanity style furniture.
1. Early Vanities
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher. 1750. Source.
Though makeup was certainly not new in the 18th century, a stand-alone dressing table certainly was. The advent of international trade and the ability to afford master cabinetmakers brought an increased demand for personalized single-purpose furnishings, at least among the wealthy elite. Madame de Pompadour, the official mistress of King Louis XV of France, had full access to the grandest furnishings an 18th-century woman could buy, and she was the French arbiter of opulence and fashion. Her famous portrait painted by François Boucher in 1756 features one of her favorite pieces of furniture — her vanity.
Seated at her dressing table, surrounded by luxurious objects such as a porcelain vase, a mirror, a feather fan and a jewelry box, Madame de Pompadour’s mirror reflects her profile, allowing the viewer to see her delicate features and elegant hairstyle. The overall effect, as intended by the patron herself, is one of taste and refinement.
The artwork not only celebrates the bold sophistication of a famous female figure but also emphasizes the significance of fashion and luxury goods during the 18th century. It highlights the influential role of women in creating and promoting these trends. Unlike many women in earlier times, Madame de Pompadour embraced the process of getting ready and did not pretend to be a “natural” beauty. Instead, she proudly displays the luxury of having all her beautifying tools at her disposal, along with the time and counter space to apply them.
True to Madame de Pompadour’s influence, her “reign” marked an increased demand for vanities. Although only society’s most affluent could afford refined furniture like hers, it would only be a century later that freestanding vanities became a cornerstone in most middle-class homes.
Inspired by Madame de Pompadour and looking to add your own vanity to your space? Browse our collection of similar antique items featured in her portrait.
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher. 1750. Source.
Diamond Cameo Pendant, 4.50 Carats. 19th century. M.S. Rau.
Swiss Gold Musical Snuff Box. Circa 1820. M.S. Rau.
2. Mechanical Vanities
Egyptian Empire Bedroom Suite. Circa 1860. M.S. Rau.
The pursuit of furniture that can serve multiple functions has been a driving force behind some of the most remarkable pieces in history. The concept of mechanical furniture began to take shape in the 18th century, as cabinetmakers started designing desks and bureaus with hidden compartments, secret pulls and concealed pushes to maximize storage and floor space at the request of their patrons. Skilled craftsmen seized the opportunity to showcase their expertise through this art form, while discerning clients sought to own them as a display of their refined taste. From the 18th to the 20th century, renowned furniture makers such as Thomas Chippendale (English), Antoine Krieger (French) and François Linke (French) pioneered the practice of crafting mechanical furniture that allowed owners to conceal and reveal compartments as desired. Among their innovative creations were mechanical vanities, which provided men and women with a private space to prepare themselves while also hiding away their potentially disorganized beauty supplies.
This Egyptian Empire secrétaire by Krieger is a part of an elaborate bedroom suite fit for a royal patron. Though the set does not include a stand alone vanity, as they became more standard in later centuries, it does include an opulent dresser with a fold-down surface and mirror, perfect for dressing, applying makeup and storing containers.
Louis XVI Dressing Table by Paul Sormani. Circa 1905. M.S. Rau.
By the early 20th century, vanities became a mainstay of regal households. This creative vanity by Linke takes the form of a butterfly, distinguished by the top surface comprised of three separate panels. The left and right sides swing out like wings, revealing the inner compartment, while the center panel lifts to expose the beveled mirror on its underside. Beautifully embellished with Linke's distinctive rocaille and figural doré bronze mounts, the table also exhibits his profound mastery of the art of inlay, with intricate wood inlay in the top and sides and exquisite marquetry surrounded by a bronze gallery on the lower tier.
Wondering how to start decorating with antiques like this? Read on to hear all of our tried and true advice!
3. Dressing Table
Louis XVI Dressing Table by Paul Sormani. Circa 1870. M.S. Rau.
In the 19th century, many aristocratic women wanted their dressing chamber to resemble the opulence of Madame de Pompadour’s set up, as she was known for receiving visitors and entertaining from her own vanity. Dressing tables such as this magnificent table by Paul Sormani were precisely designed to match the high quality makeups and perfumes that would have graced its presence. Made as a faithful interpretation of Louis XVI’s taste, this beautiful 19th-century dressing table features a graceful oval-shaped vanity mirror. Not to be outdone by its own mirror, the ornamented ormolu framework of winged seraphim, delicate tendrils of ormolu-cast flora and cherubic characters adorn the clawfoot legs and drawers. Though this table was made to be a focal point of the room, the cabinetmaker made accommodations for items that needed the utmost discretion. Each of the table’s three console drawers are armed with locks, ensuring precious contents are kept safe and sound.
Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight. 1933. Heritage Auction.
During the furniture periods of the 1930s and 1940s, dressing tables became increasingly popular as Hollywood's golden era exposed the public to the world of glamour previously reserved for the elite. One of the most iconic dressing tables was illustrated by Jean Harlow, whose opulent setup featured luxurious lighting, refined drapery and fanciful feathering. Her image became a symbol of sophistication and the epitome of luxury. After World War II, many middle-class women purchased similarly lavish dressing tables for their homes, embodying the desire for elegance and refinement in everyday life.
4. Traveling Vanities
Victorian Nécessaire de Voyage. Circa 1865. M.S. Rau.
Though makeup boxes and toiletry cases have been in existence since ancient times, it was not until the 18th century that travel became a popular pastime for Europeans, making travel accessories a necessity. Nécessaires
, or traveling beauty cases, were at first oriented towards men at first due to the simple fact that they traveled more than women, but as it became more socially acceptable for women to travel, especially on the lengthy Grand Tour, ébénistes began making these kits with women in mind.
The contents of French nécessaires, or travel cases, could be incredibly elaborate, as evidenced by the stunning example below. This particular nécessaire contains a tea and coffee service, along with all necessary dining utensils. Beneath a tray of silver forks and spoons, one finds a variety of grooming tools, from brushes and scissors to a razor and candlestick holder. The vanity mirror, cleverly housed within the lid, can be removed to stand alone. The case even includes a side drawer that reveals a portable writing desk with two crystal inkwells! Astonishingly, all of these items fit neatly within a box measuring just 6 1/2" high x 17" wide x 11 3/4" deep. These nécessaires were both practical and luxurious, making them a coveted item for travelers of the time. Today, they remain popular in the form of vanity cases, carry-on bags and compacts, but none quite capture the elegance of these early traveling boxes.
French Nécessaire de Voyage. Circa 1815. M.S. Rau.
The history and evolution of vanity furniture reveals a fascinating glimpse into the ever-changing standards of beauty and luxury throughout the centuries. From the ornate dressing tables of the 18th century to the Hollywood glamour, vanity furniture has always embodied both practicality and indulgence. These pieces have not only provided a space for grooming and self-care but also served as a symbol of independence, sophistication and refinement. Today, the allure of these elegant and timeless treasures remains unchanged, a testament to their enduring appeal and cultural significance. And as designers continue to experiment with different materials and styles, vanities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and remain a key component of any bathroom design.
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