How a Fashionable Lady Showed Her Status in Society

If you walk through any major city across the world, you’ll most likely see women dressed in the latest fashions with the most expensive accessories. The well-trained eye can spot them a half a block away, carrying that rare designer handbag that costs as much as a car or sauntering along wearing a pair of red-lacquered sole shoes. Wearing fashionable accessories like these carries a certain cachet and silently informs the world that you’re financially successful.

While this sounds like a twenty first century concept, in reality, it isn’t. Women throughout history have been using fashion and beauty accessories to announce their status in society. Only back then, many of these items would have been kept at home, displayed on or near a dressing table where visiting guests would see them. I recently attended the “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and thought you might be interested in seeing some of the lovely accessories they had on display.

British Toilet Service 1683-84

During the Renaissance, containers in various sizes and shapes were used store an array of beauty items. These containers were either laid out on a table that was designed solely for the toilette or one that was multifunctional. This is how the cosmetic box slowly gave way to the dressing table. The British toilet service pictured above is ca.1683  and is made of gilt silver and glass. The various items are decorated with chinoiserie scenes, which were popular at the time. This set would have been displayed in an aristocratic lady’s bedroom or in a smaller connecting room.

Wig Cabinet

I thought this item was fun. It’s a wig cabinet, ca. 1685. After Louis XIII began to wear a wig in 1624, elaborate cabinets were made to store and protect these hairpieces. This cabinet is embellished with marquetry of pewter and mother-of-pearl on horn over paint, simulating tortoiseshell. It contains drawers for combs, brushes, perfumed powder, powder bag, and pins.

By the early eighteenth century, the European elite sought out luxury goods that would proclaim their social status. One such item, intended more for display than any utilitarian purpose, was the nécessaire. It is a small box made of precious materials, designed to hold miniature implements and personal grooming tools. Based on paintings of the period, it most likely was displayed on a dressing table along with other precious objects. Here are three that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had one display:

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725

German Necessaire ca. 1700-1725














This German nécessaire dates from 1700-1725 and is made of wood, tortoiseshell, gold, glass, and ivory.

British necessaire by John, Barbot ca. 1760.

This nécessaire is one of a pair made by the British craftsman John Barbot around1760. It is made of gold, agate, diamonds, rubies, wood with gold piqué ornaments; and gilt-brass mounts.

French necessaire 1775-1800

And finally, this French nécessaire dates from 1775-1800 and is made of shagreen on wood; gold, porcelain, glass, and steel fittings. This portable nécessaire holds numerous personal grooming items, from tweezers and an ear spoon to scent bottles.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)

The History of the Dressing Table

Madame du Pompadour at Her Toilette

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour by François Boucher 1750

I fully admit to being, what you might consider, a girly girl. I love lotions and potions. A venture into Sephora will never take me less than twenty minutes, even if I just need mascara. And I begin and end each day, seated at my antique dressing table.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, had an exhibition entitled  “Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table.” It showcased beautiful pieces and provided great information. I thought I’d share some of the highlights from the exhibition with you.

The history of the vanity begins with decorative wooden boxes used by the Egyptians to hold cosmetics and grooming implements. In Europe, the shift from these portable cases to the tabletop began with the evolution of the toilette. This term refers to the process of dressing and attending to personal grooming. The origins of the word toilette can be traced to the Middle Ages. People began spreading a toile (French for cloth, or toilettes, as they became known) onto a table when they were serving meals, addressing correspondence, and applying cosmetics. For the purposes of dressing, the table would typically be draped with a simple cloth that reached the floor, and a more refined cloth or even a piece of leather was placed on top.

The dressing table, as we know it today, was developed in Europe in the beginning of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, it became known as a mark of social standing as well as an object of fine design and craftsmanship. Two French women, in particular, helped to make the dressing table fashionable. The first was Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the highly influential mistress of King Louis XV. She popularized the once-private morning ritual of the toilette by sitting at her grand dressing table to receive guests. The other woman was Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), wife of King Louis XVI, who set the tone for matters of fashion, art and design.

Here are examples of some dressing tables from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

American Dressing Table. ca. 1710-30.

American Dressing Table 1710-1730

This dressing table was made in Connecticut and is characteristic of early American furniture. It is based on the Jacobean style prevalent in England during the reign of James II. It relies on the wood turning rather than elaborate carving for decorative effect.

Combination Table. ca. 1775.

This combination table was designed by Martin Carlin, a German-born cabinet-maker who lived in Paris and made luxury pieces. It was made specifically to accommodate the needs of an aristocratic woman who might receive visitors while seated at her dressing table. This table features a removable upper section that could serve as a bed table, an adjustable mirror that could be reversed to form a bookrest, and lidded compartments in the shallow front drawer for storing toilette items. The lower section is a full-size table, complete with shelves that pull out in front and back. It has drawers on both ends that can hold equipment for dressing, taking breakfast and/or writing.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe. ca. 1805-1815.

Work Table Attributed to Duncan Phyfe 1805-1815

During the early nineteenth century, worktables were made for ladies. This example takes the form of American Neoclassical furniture, derived from the English Sheraton and Hepplewhite styles. It could serve as a sewing table, a writing desk, or a dressing table. The hinged top opens to reveal an adjustable writing panel covered in baize. You can convert the writing desk to a dressing table by lifting a small leather tab behind the writing panel, and pulling up a framed looking-glass. There are also two removable half-round compartmentalized trays at each end of the table that might hold knitting or needlework. The front drawers and space underneath the inner surface were designed to hold toiletries.

Oval Dressing Table and Dressing Glass. ca. 1883.

Oval Dressing Table  George A. Schastey and Company ca. 1883

In 1881, Arabella Yarrington Worsham, mistress of the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington, hired George A. Schastey and Company to design and decorate her bedroom and dressing room in her New York City home. Schastey was one of several firms that created sumptuous custom-designed rooms and furnishings for wealthy American clientele. This oval dressing table was designed by Schastey for Arabella and features a removable mirror.

The attention to personal appearance has never been restricted to women and men had their own requirements as time went on. During the second half of the eighteenth century, men were shaving at home, aided by instructional manuals. Specialized dressing tables and shaving stands were developed to meet men’s needs.

Shaving Stand. English. ca. 1700-1730.

English Shaving Stand ca. 1700-1730

This shaving stand, or toilet mirror, would rest on a table. It’s made out of maple, oak, beech and spruce.

Men’s Dressing Table. English. ca. 1790-1795.

Seddon, Sons and Shackle London 1790-1795

This dressing table, was made by Seddon, Sons and Shackleton of London, one of the foremost furniture makers of their time. It is in the British Sheraton style, popular in the 1790s and early 1800s. Since men generally attended to their grooming while standing, this dressing table is higher than a ladies dressing table would be.

Seddon, Sons and Shackleton Dressing Table 1790-1795

It contains four fitted wood boxes for the storage of shaving supplies and other implements. Within a semicircular glazed compartment the maker’s proud name has been inlaid in wood. The design of the dressing table also provides space for a basin and water. The mirror is placed at a height appropriate for a man who is standing.

With pieces this beautiful, it’s hard not to want to primp. Next week I’ll show you what a lady kept on her dressing table.

Sources used include:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table Exhibition (2013-2014)

Adlin, Jane, Vanities Art of the Dressing Table (2013)


Museum Exhibitions to Explore This Spring

Spring is finally here and with it comes those rainy days. One way to beat those rainy day blues is a visit to a museum.  These are my picks for fun and interesting exhibits this spring:

Boston, Massachusetts

Exhibition:  Think Pink – Explore the Changing Meaning of Pink in Art and Fashion

Dates:  Now until May 26, 2014

Location:  The Museum of Fine Arts

Think Pink, MFA, Boston

Do you have a penchant for pink? The “Think Pink” exhibition explores the history of the color pink in fashion and visual culture from the 18th century to the present day. It showcases clothing, accessories, graphic illustrations, jewelry, and paintings to shed light on changes in style, the evolution of pink for girls, and advances in color technology. “Think Pink” includes a selection of dresses and accessories from the collection of the late Evelyn Lauder, who was instrumental in creating an awareness of breast cancer by choosing the color as a visual reference.

London, England

Exhibition: Chocolate Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace

Dates: Ongoing

Location: Hampton Court Palace


This is a fun exhibition for chocolate lovers. The curators of Hampton Court Palace recently uncovered the precise location of the building’s Chocolate Kitchens. They were remarkably well preserved with the original charcoal braziers and much of the equipment and furniture still intact. The 18th century Chocolate Kitchens were once the domain of Thomas Tosier, personal chocolatier to King George I. This exhibit shows the very rooms where Tosier and his staff prepared the special chocolate drink for George I’s most intimate dinners and entertainment. Throughout the year, the historic chefs will be in the Chocolate Kitchens hosting Georgian chocolate making sessions. Visitors can learn more about the elaborate and complex process used to create the King’s luxurious chocolate drink.

Exhibition: William Kent Designing Georgian Britain

Dates: Now until July 13, 2014

Location: Victoria and Albert Museum

William Kent Table

I recently viewed this exhibit when it was at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City and I really enjoyed it. It focuses on the vast talent of William Kent (1685-1748), who was one of the most prominent architects and designers in early Georgian Britain. He was skilled in painting and designing sculpture, architecture, interior decoration, furniture, metalwork, book illustration, theatrical design, costume and landscape design. His life coincided with a major turning point in British history—the accession of the new Hanoverian Royal Family in 1714. This exhibition reveals how William Kent came to play a leading role in establishing a new design aesthetic for this crucial period when Britain defined itself as a new nation. The exhibition brings together over 200 objects including architectural drawings, furniture and decorative items.

Los Angeles, California

Exhibition: A Royal Passion – Queen Victoria and Photography

Dates: Now until June 8, 2014

Location: The Getty Center


If you are into photography and/or have a soft spot for Queen Victoria, you might find this exhibition interesting. In 1839, just two years after Victoria became queen of Great Britain and Ireland, the medium of photography was announced to the world. This exhibition explores the relationship between the new art and the young queen, whose passion for collecting photographs began in the 1840s. With important loans from the Royal Collection shown alongside masterpieces from the Getty Museum, the exhibition displays rare daguerreotypes, private portraits of the Royal Family, and a selection of prints by early masters such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, and Julia Margaret Cameron.

New York, New York

Exhibition: Trend-ology

Dates: now until April 30, 2014

Location: Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Trendology Exhibit FIT

Do you have a passion for fashion? “Trend-ology” examines the vast array of sources from which fashion trends have developed over the past 250 years. Trends have emerged from high fashion runways and urban street style, but they have also derived from art, music, novels and socio-political movements. The exhibition features over 100 objects from the Museum’s costume, accessory, and textile collections. Themes highlighted include 18th century court dress, the rise of the couturier in 19th century Paris, hip-hop fashion, and more recent developments. It’s a fun exhibit to explore.

Exhibition: Metropolitan Vanities – The History of the Dressing Table

Dates: now until April 13, 2014

Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vanities - MET

This exhibit combines my love of antique furniture with my affinity to beauty products. “Metropolitan Vanities” focuses on the history of the dressing table, or vanity, exploring the historical background of the modern vanity—beginning with ancient Egyptian decorative boxes used the hold cosmetic ephemera and Asian cosmetic carriers. The dressing table as we know it today originated in Europe in the late 17th century, specifically in England and France where high society patrons began commissioning luxurious specialized furniture from craftsman and furniture makers. Few types of furniture have revealed more about changing social customs, leisure pursuits, and popular taste of the past several centuries than the dressing table.

Winterthur, Delaware

Exhibition: Costumes of Downton Abbey

Dates: Now until January 4, 2015

Location: Winterthur Museum


Are you a fan of Downton Abbey or costume dramas in general? “Costumes of Downton Abbey” is an original exhibition of exquisite designs from the award-winning television series. Forty historically inspired costumes from the television show are displayed and supplemented by photographs and vignettes inspired by the fictional program and by real life at Winterthur. Visitors have a chance to step into and experience the world of Downton Abbey and the contrasting world of Winterthur founder Henry Francis du Pont and his contemporaries in the first half of the 20th century.

These exhibitions are so good, you might not even want to wait for a rainy day to pay them a visit. To find out more information about any of these exhibitions or museums, click on the following links:

The Getty Center:

Hampton Court Palace:

Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology:

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Victoria and Albert Museum:

Winterthur Museum:

Fabulous Paintings at the 2014 Winter Antiques Show

So, this last post on the Winter Antiques Show concentrates on antique portraits. Here is a glimpse of some of the amazing portraits that were exhibited at this year’s show.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

The first painting that caught my eye was this one of the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was painted in 1840, when Hawthorne was 36 years old, by the American artist Charles Osgood. If I had known that Nathaniel Hawthorne was this good looking, I might have been more eager to read The Scarlet Letter when I was in high school. Since this painting was showcased in the Peabody Essex Museum’s stand, it was not for sale.

Memorial Painting

This memorial painting was exhibited at the Nathan Liverant and Son’s stand and was dated 1807. The inscription under the urn reads:

To the Memory of the Rev. Enoch Pond Who departed this life August 6, 1807, Aged 51 Years.

Portrait of Samuel Neave (1785-1841) Lewis

This oil portrait on mahogany board of Philadelphia merchant Samuel Neave Lewis (1785-1841) was offered by the charming antiques dealer, Christopher T. Rebollo. Christopher is someone who is so knowledgeable and passionate about antiques, that you want to spend an afternoon talking with him over coffee. This painting was done by the American portrait painter Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and is circa 1805-1808. Peale was born in Bucks County, PA in 1778 and is especially known for his painting of George Washington.

Portrait of Mr. Thomas Eakins

And finally, this smaller portrait of Mr. Thomas Eakins of Botetourt County, Virginia is attributed to the American artist Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), brother of Robert Peale. The painting is a watercolor on paper and is circa 1805. It is in the original frame and has the original glass panel.

Beautiful Furniture at the 2014 Winter Antiques Show

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m challenged with describing a world that no longer exists. One of the ways I transport my imagination into Regency England is by seeing items from that era. At this year’s Winter Antiques Show, held annually in NYC, there were many exhibitors that presented beautiful pieces of furniture.

The Hyde Park Antiques stand is a favorite stop of mine. Perhaps it’s because I am a writer, but I always find myself drawn to antique desks and books. The moment I walked in their stand, this George III inlaid Secretaire Bookcase c.1790, made in England, caught my eye.

George III Secretaire Bookcase

The allure of an antique dressing table is another siren call to me. This lovely beauty was found at Alfred Bullard. Each year, I look forward to stopping at their stand to see what treasures they have. They always have many beautiful pieces, and their staff is so knowledgeable and personable.

George III Mahogany Dressing Table

This George III mahogany dressing table, made in England c.1800, has satinwood inlaid borders on the rectangular double hinged lid. The lid hides a ratcheted, sliding hinged mirror and a fitted interior that has an arrangement of small covered boxes, open trays and wells. The table is supported on square tapered legs with brass castors that rise to shaped corner brackets.

Basin Drawer of George III Mahogany Dressing Table

One of best parts of this piece is the central deep basin drawer which was disguised as two drawers. That large round opening would have housed a wash basin and the smaller holes would have held small dishes for soap. It was interesting to see that a woman could execute her toilette using just this one piece of furniture.

The last item I wanted to feature might hold special interest for Regency enthusiasts. It is a small round table with the Coat of Arms of the Duke of Wellington and was made in England in 1830—the same year he resigned as Prime Minister.

Table with the Duke of Wellington's Coat of Arms

This polychrome painted, tilt top occasional table depicts the Duke of Wellington’s Coat of Arms and Honora from various campaigns. The arms and medals on the painted top are all honors bestowed on the Duke of Wellington. Below the motto “Virtutis Fortuna Comes” (fortune is the companion of valor) hang various medals, including the Golden Fleece and Austrian, Spanish and Indian honors. All are representative of victory titles granted to the Duke for his distinguished military service in the Peninsular War and at the Battle of Waterloo.

Antique Tilt Top Table With the Duke of Wellington's Crest

Next week, I’ll post my final highlights of the 2014 Winter Antique Show and give you a glimpse of some of the lovely portraits I discovered during my visit.

A Glimpse of History at the 2014 Winter Antiques Show

Winter Antique Show at the Park Avenue Armory

Each year, as the end of January rolls around, my heart kicks up speed knowing I’ll be attending the annual Winter Antiques Show held at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. For anyone interested in antiques, this is one of the premiere antique shows of the year. All profits from this event go directly to the East Side House Settlement, a charity that supports education in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States.

This year’s Winter Antiques Show ran from January 24th through February 2nd. Seventy-five antique dealers from across the country and abroad converged in this one space to showcase a sample of their collections. I thought I’d share some pictures to give you a glimpse of one of my favorite shows.

Since I collect portrait miniatures, one of my first and favorite stops is at Elle Shushan’s where her display of antique portrait miniatures always takes my breath away.

Elle Shushan

Another one of my favorite stops is at Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery. The gallery is in New York City and they carry historical letters and documents from the Renaissance to the present day in all fields. Their staff is always helpful and happy to answer questions. This year, I found a signature of King George III that caught my eye.

Signature of King George III

Probably one of the most extravagant items I spotted at this year’s Show, was a gold and diamond Cartier diaper pin at A La Vieille Russie. In all likelihood, it was originally used as an actual diaper pin. It amazes me what some people would put near poo.

Cartier Diaper Pin

My friends would tell you I have an addiction to coffee. I prefer to call it a love affair. When I saw this English fine double baluster coffee mill c.1760 from Robert Young Antiques, my palms started to itch.

English Fine Double Baluster Coffee Mill c. 1760

The Winter Antiques Show really is a wonderful place to spend the day if you have an interest in antiques. Next week, I’ll highlight some of the beautiful furniture I saw that I wish I had room for in my home.

How To Spy On A Suitor Without Looking Like You’re Trying

fatwomanspyImagine attending a performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and you discover the object of your affection is sitting in a box to your right. You have no desire to make a spectacle of yourself by leaning out of your box to see who they are with, so you take out what appears to be a straight-barrel spyglass and point it at the stage. While it looks as if you are focusing your attention on the performance, the ingenious spyglass you are holding is allowing you to watch the people in the box to your right. Now you can stare to your heart’s content and no one will be the wiser.

While researching a pair of antique opera glasses this past week, I stumbled across a fun accessory I’d never heard of known as the “jealousy glass.” It looks like a single barrel opera or field-glass, but it actually contains an oblique lens and side aperture that allows the user to discretely see what is happening to their left or right.


The jealousy glass, also known as a polemoscope, was invented by the German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1637. Hevelius believed his invention could have military uses, but the viewing angle was found to be too narrow. During the 18th century, the general population began using the polemoscope to spy on other people.

Jealousy Glass c.1750-1770

As time went on and the demand for jealousy glasses increased, innovations were made to Hevelius’s original design. The jealousy glass pictured above was made in France and dates from 1750-1770. It has a brass eyepiece and blue enamel casing with white decorative embellishments. A hinged “lens cover” conceals a storage compartment that was probably used for snuff or a pomade. The oval mirror with a surrounding green cord opens to the side and allows the user to view the reflected image.

 Jealousy Glass (English, c. 1760)

Jealousy glasses were also designed with specific genders in mind. This jealousy glass is from England and was made in 1760. It was specifically designed for a gentleman and holds a number of accoutrements. The brass body is covered in green stained snakeskin and there is a magnetic compass set into the brass cap. The core contains a gentleman’s manicure set and includes nail scissors, a hinged ivory note-slide, a pencil, folding knife, needle and tweezers with a file handle. It reminds me of an 18th century version of a Swiss Army Knife.

Jealousy Glass (French, early 19th century)

The ladies also had jealousy glasses created especially for them. This early 19th century jealousy glass was made in Paris by Bointaburet. It contains a pill case under the lid and a miniature scent bottle just 2cm wide that fits within the barrel. Should the behavior of a certain gentleman cause a lady to swoon, the bottle’s contents could help revive her.

Source used:

The College of Optometrists: