Behind The Mirror — The 18th-Century Toilette

Behind The Mirror — The 18th-Century Toilette

The act of preparing oneself to transition from the private to the exterior world has changed shape and significance through generations. Some of the first found artifacts indicating the societal importance of enhancing one’s outward appearance were ornamental boxes crafted to hold cosmetics, perfumes and oils — along with the tools to apply them — used by Ancient Egyptians. These boxes were portable but also intended for display, and embellishments such as hand engravings and paintings, ebony and ivory veneer and inlay, faience and silver mounting helped indicate the owner’s wealth and rank.

The eventual shift from these portable accessories to the designation of interior spaces specifically furnished for the act of dressing, applying makeup, hair styling and other forms of personal grooming took place in the later Middle Ages, culminating in the ritualized “toilette.” Toilette derives its name from the French word “toile,” meaning “cloth,” referencing the fabric placed upon the dressing tables that began to gain prominence in the living quarters of European elites during the Renaissance.

In the late eighteenth century, the dressing table — and the concomitant ability to luxuriate for hours in the act of self-beautifying — became a key marker of one’s social standing. The increased emphasis on exquisitely crafted furniture and accoutrements coincided with the externalization of the once-private practice of readying oneself. King Louis XIV, known for favoring inflexible routine in his court, adopted the royal custom of the levee, a highly structured version of a practice first popularized by Charlemagne at the turn of the eighth century where the leader would invite visitors to discuss political matters and settle disputes while he dressed. Each morning, Louis XIV would be woken from his close-curtained state bed at eight o’clock by his head valet de chambre, as well as his chief physician, chief surgeon and Louis’ childhood nurse. What proceeded was a ceremony that consisted of washing, combing and shaving — which took place in private — followed by the grand dressing ceremony, which was viewed by an audience of around 100 spectators including members of the court and royal servants.

Madame de Pompadour, the influential chief mistress of King Louis XV, also received guests during the hours of her toilette, as did Marie Antoinette. The latter’s quarters at the Petit Trianon in Versailles housed a dressing table crafted by her favorite cabinetmaker, Jean-Henri Riesener, who implemented a mechanism that allowed the top of the table to be raised or lowered to be used in a standing or seated position. The women of the royal court were seated in chairs that featured low backs and swivel seats — extravagant yet practical antecedents to modern day barber and salon seating. Toilette service sets of the era included a mirror or “dressing glass,” cosmetics boxes, scissors, boxes for jewelry, pins and combs, scent bottles, a box for toothpaste and candlesticks, with men’s kits including grooming supplies such as razors, soaps and pomade boxes.

Whether conducted ritualistically in public or privately in a room of one’s own, the act of readying one’s self can variably present a time of solitude and introspection, an atmosphere of ease or the ability to more intimately connect with others. When we observe ourselves in the vanity mirror we experience a unique liminal state — a moment of pause that occupies the space between “not ready” and “ready.” To tend to ourselves for seconds, minutes or even hours is to create an experience that is inherently inward — a study of the self and a contemplation of the parts of our essence that we choose to conceal, alter or make known to others. Though the demands of contemporary living often relegate dressing and self-beautifying to a quick dash to the mirror, it offers an opportunity to ground one’s self — to view our physicality in its purest form before creating an outward expression that reflects the multitudes within us.