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This Egyptian cosmetic box of the cupbearer Kemeni, circa 1814-1805 B.C., is made of cedar, ebony, ivory and silver. (Metropolitan Musem of Art)

The Art Of Vanity On Display In 'The History Of The Dressing Table'

by NPR Staff
Jan 25, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Ever since there have been puddles of water, human beings have gazed at their reflections.

Our need to primp and preen, whether we lived in the Bronze Age or the Space Age, can be seen in a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York called Metropolitan Vanities: The History of the Dressing Table.

Curator Jane Adlin offers a show that reminds us that while our vanity may ultimately be in vain, the instinct goes back a long way.

An Ancient Conceit

The exhibit begins with an inlaid cedar cosmetic box from Egypt's Middle Kingdom. The box, preserved in a Pharaoh's tomb, contained stone ointment jars, perfumes, face paints and other potions. A hand mirror was made not of glass but of polished metal, with a wooden handle decorated with gold.

Found in 1910 by Howard Carter — who would later discover Tutankhamun's tomb — the box is 3,000 years old. Depicted on the drawer is a servant carrying a vessel, "a cupbearer, which was a high title," Adlin says.

Carter found the box in another tomb. "The fact that it was buried in their tomb with them shows how important it was as a means of showing status and their ability to adorn themselves," Adlin says.

The Egyptians weren't alone. Through the ages, women have had their cosmetics and must-haves. The French called the ornate boxes that held them necessaires.

"You would find tiny little perfume flasks, combs, nail files, tiny scissors," Adlin says. "These are clearly meant for the luxury market and were pieces that could have been owned by Madame de Pompadour or royalty, and were carried by their maids and brought out when the madame would ask for a comb."

Beauty, Style And The Unmentionable

These cosmetic boxes were portable. It wasn't until the late 1700s that finally someone placed the box on a table and drew up a chair.

"By the mid-1800s, the dressing table has become this sort of extraordinary furniture piece," Adlin says. "It's the beginning of the era of the dressing table that we know of."

Madame de Pompadour, the Mistress of Louis XIV, was her era's style-setter. A painting shows her at her vanity table with her mirror, makeup brush and compact, wearing a low-cut gown. The preening went on for hours. She'd receive visitors as she put on her makeup.

"She had incredibly good taste, and hired only the most important, the most well-known furniture designers," Adlin says. "She was very cultured, and she created amazing furniture."

The exhibit includes exquisite combs, some decorated with precious gems, some made out of rubber, and some made out of ebony and ivory. But they were not all used for beauty alone.

"The interesting thing about the double-sided combs: the wide tooth is to comb hair, and the narrow end is to comb out the lice," Adlin explains.

The Vanities Of Men

What about men? After all, they groom, too, especially their beards. They need tables of their own.

The men's vanities in the exhibit aren't really tables. Men stood to shave, so theirs are narrow cabinets with stacks of drawers for their grooming supplies, topped by a mirror. One glossy modern piece by Raymond Loewy was inspired by Space Age aesthetics and injection-molded plastics.

"This is the men's shaving stand, and, as you see, there's no place to sit," Adlin says. "He combined the historical idea of men's dressing tables with new, contemporary materials, the molded plastic. He has no handles, but the grips on the drawers come out of the molded plastic."

The final piece in the exhibit is a table made by a Korean artist in 2013 out of stone and steel — materials that recall the beauty boxes of antiquity.

Where does this impulse come from, this need to look at ourselves, at least for a time, to begin the day?

"It is inexplicable; it's innate," Adlin says, laughing. "It's something in our gene pool — in our reflecting gene pool."

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