Often taken for granted as common pieces of bedroom furniture, the armoire and the dresser each possess an intriguing history. Though their primary functions have evolved a great deal over the centuries, there's no denying the elegance and convenience a fine antique armoire or dresser can add to a well-appointed bedroom. It is one of many storage options that can serve multiple purposes.
So, what is an armoire dresser exactly and how have they evolved throughout history? Who came up with a type of storage furniture that should have a drawer and hanging bar? Let's explore how these utilitarian pieces have changed to become the timeless furniture we know today.
Like most things, armoires were created out of necessity - in this case for extra storage. The first use for the wardrobe armoire can be directly linked to the term's etymology. Armoire comes from the Old French word armarie, a cabinet for storing armor and weapons.
Before being used for clothing and linens, people, particularly the nobility, would store their clothing in large chests, essentially stuffing often frilly and elaborate garments atop one another. It wouldn't be until the 14th century that the wardrobe armoire slowly but surely became less useful as storage space for arms and a more logical furnishing for keeping clothes neat and organized. This portable closet allowed for hanging clothing storage that would provide ample space in any bedroom.
These first true armoire furniture pieces appeared in 17th-century France and were large and wide, possessed two upper cabinet doors and often incorporated drawer space accessed either through the interior or just below the cabinet. The upper portion provided ample space for hanging clothes like suits and dresses, while the drawers provided storage for dressing accessories and linens. While commonly referenced as being an "armoire", the English term "wardrobe" is used interchangeably.
As the form transformed in its use, the craftsmanship employed in their creation also blossomed. Once simply painted or left plain, these massive cabinets proved to be the perfect medium for skilled cabinetmakers to showcase their talents. This antique furniture piece not only provided ample closet space and extra storage, but it also served as a decorative piece of artistry. Soon, their austere appearance gave way to elaborate carvings, marquetry, gilt bronze and nearly every decorative technique imaginable.
Although they looked much more like what we would call a sideboard, the earliest use of the word dresser dates to 16th-century England. Used in the kitchen and dining areas, these early incarnations provided extra space for serving and "dressing" meats headed to the dining table and were essentially side tables with a single row of drawers that rested atop tall legs.
By the 17th century, a tall backboard fitted with shallow shelves was added to display one’s finest dinnerware, with additional drawers for storing table linens and silver. Despite the enthusiasm of the 18th century onward for mahogany sideboards, the dresser continued in used in dining rooms and kitchens of more modest homes through to the Edwardian era.
Coming to America
While the armoire wardrobe was relegated to the kitchen across the Atlantic, the form took on an entirely different function in the United States.
Instead of dressing for one’s meal, the modern wardrobe we know today is essentially a version of the European lowboy and is short for “dressing table”, where one can store their dressing accessories, cosmetics, some folded clothing, and other beauty products. Before long, mirrors were included on to the backs of these dressers, giving rise to the alternative term for the dresser - the vanity.
As was true with the antique armoire, the form of the dresser opened the door of creativity for furniture makers. A myriad of decorative styles and techniques have been employed in their creation, with many of the most desired examples accompanied by a matching chair and mirror.
Now that you know more about the fascinating history behind these fantastic pieces of furniture, be sure to explore our current selection of armoires and dressers. You can also view our French antiques and German antiques to match the aesthetic.