Burlesque star Dita von Teese’s staunchly glamorous look evokes the film stars of yore. Remarkably, in a show business era when teams of makeup artists, hairdressers and other “glam squad” hangers on are ubiquitous, Von Teese (born Heather Renée Sweet) joyfully powders, paints, teases and sprays herself into a highly polished persona all on her own. The ritual unfolds at a dressing table, a piece of furniture that might seem like an artifact of boudoirs past if it wasn’t so perfectly aligned with today’s era of self-invention and self-care.
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”I have had many, many vanities in my adult years,” Von Teese says over the phone from her Tudor Revival home in Los Angeles. Growing up in the 1980s in Michigan, she would camp out on her bedroom floor with a Kaboodle – “basically, a fishing kit,” she says – to do her makeup while watching movies. It was through the Technicolor films that Von Teese developed her vanity fascination. “A 1940s movie with Betty Grable will always have a vanity scene because beauty and glamour and pin-up was such a big part of that era,” she says. “The one that I have now is an art deco 1930s vanity, a very rare one that’s pretty spectacular.”
Unlike the elaborate beauty regimes undertaken at them, the vanity itself is a rather simple idea, and one that can be traced back millennia. In essence, the vanity is a place to house and apply the paraphernalia of beautification, usually a case on four legs, together with a mirror and place to sit. Robert Little, the Mona Campbell curator of European decorative art at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto says the vanity plays an increasingly important role in the history of decorative arts. “I think people are really beginning to realize that these dressing tables and the accoutrements associated with them are an extension of a woman’s’ domain and her power and role in society,” he says.
In 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York unveiled Vanities: Art of the Dressing Table, an exhibition dedicated to the object through the ages. In the introduction to the accompanying catalogue, curator Jane Adlin writes that, “more than a work of exquisite craftsmanship and design, the dressing table is capable of making broad statements about class and culture, and as a symbol it is often wrapped up with notions of beauty, love and vanity itself.”
”A lot of energy was expended in their design and fabrication when they started to be made, primarily from the late 17th century,” Little says, referring to the sorts of consoles that were inlaid with precious materials and featured intricate compartments designed to hold the necessities of morning toilette rituals. According to Little, the democratization of the vanity happened throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century when they began to be sold as part of suites of bedroom furniture. But it was thanks in large part to popular culture and those Hollywood moments that vanities became household must-haves. Von Teese has an encyclopedic memory of many great examples. “Jean Harlow’s vanity in Dinner at Eight,” she says, “was all fringed with big feather plumes. I could go on.”
The vanity’s decline was spurred by the advent of modernism, says Little. In the eyes of designers such as French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, vanities and case pieces of furniture such as chests of drawers, were better built into the walls of a home. Today, when getting ready for the day can be reduced to navigating an overstuffed medicine cabinet and balancing brushes and bottles on the edge of the sink, they are a luxury that signals the owner has the time and room to make a ritual out of a morning routine.
Interior designer and artist Nike Onile remembers her mother perched at a polished mahogany vanity and has installed the built-in variety for clients. She says a renewed interest in dressing tables is rooted in an overall desire to rediscover more measured and thoughtful moments throughout your day. “We have lost this idea of the slow self-care moment,” she says. “When you have a designated area like a vanity that you can sit at every day, that’s the time that you spend with yourself, when you say the things to yourself that no one else hears.”
Onile says she has a friend who has written on her vanity mirror in lipstick, “I am enough.” “Even if she’s simply doing her makeup, she has a moment each day where she sees her face and that message,” she says. “I feel those things are important.”
Von Teese, who has integrated vanities into her burlesque routines on-stage, agrees, and notes that even after a year devoid of social outings, her vanity isn’t going anywhere. “I’ve always had a vanity in my house. I’ve always made the space,” she says. “If you think about it, it’s a pretty great space to have.”
Beautify your own dressing area with modern takes on vanity staples
Eden Rock desk with vinyl top, available at Roche Bobois.
Classicon Cypris Mirror by Nina Mair, available at Avenue Road.
Pleiade tissue box, available at Hermès.
Reflections Copenhagen Belleville crystal perfume flacon, available through matchesfashion.com.
Acrylic and shearling stool by Brett Beldock, available at CB2.
Montana Labelle Lupini catchall, available through montanalabelle.com.