Whether you use it for its original purpose of putting on makeup and styling your hair or repurpose it as a desk or occasional table, antique dressing tables work beautifully in modern homes. These elegant pieces have been around for centuries, and they come in an amazing array of styles. Whether lavish or plain, wood or crystal, swathed in silk or sleek and modern, vanities make a gorgeous style statement.
History of the Dressing Table
As early as 4000 BCE, ancient Egyptians kept eye colors and perfumes in ivory or stone jars, but furniture expressly for storing makeup and applying it wasn't invented until centuries later. The vanity or dressing table evolved during the 17th century, likely from related furniture pieces like a poudreuse or small stand that held perfumes and makeup. Vanities changed over the years in their design and function:
- 18th century - A book from 1788 called The Cabinet-makers London Book of Prices describes a dressing table in great detail a "gentleman's dressing table," which had four drawers and a surface for using grooming supplies.
- 19th century - American designers like William Codman created showpieces like one covered in hammered silver. Dressing tables began to be a symbol of status and beauty.
- 20th century - People began to associate the dressing table with glamorous film stars, and women purchased Art Deco dressing tables that displayed the style's rounded fronts, amber and brass drawer pulls, elaborate veneered designs, and beveled mirrors.
Identifying an Antique Dressing Table
As with any vintage or antique furniture identification, dressing tables can offer some challenges to the buyer. When contemplating a purchase, remember the following:
- Dressing tables can be mistaken for small desks. If the table comes with a matching bench or low-back chair, it might be a dressing table, and not a desk. Look for ink marks in the drawers: desks have those, while dressing tables usually do not.
- Look for the name of the manufacturer. You can find antique furniture identification marks on the bottom or back of the vanity or sometimes on the underside of a drawer.
- Examine the hardware. Antique furniture hardware, like drawer pulls, handles, and hinges, can help date your vanity to a specific period.
Notable Antique Dressing Table Styles
Dressing tables came in a wide variety of styles over the years, and it helps to get familiar with these if you're trying to identify a vanity or are shopping for one. You'll see antique dressing tables in a variety of different woods, including mahogany, maple, walnut, and veneers.
- Victorian - Like most furniture made in the later part of the 19th century, Victorian dressing tables were ornate in design with carved decorative elements and turned legs. You'll see these in most furniture woods, and some also have veneer. Most antique dressing tables from this era include an attached mirror.
- Art Nouveau - The Art Nouveau era, which came at the end of the Victorian era and spanned about 1890 to 1920, introduced curving lines and figural motifs. Graceful curves decorate the front of most vanities from this period, and the mirrors are usually held up by carved wood supports.
- Art Deco - As the Art Nouveau era gave way to the Art Deco period (about 1920-1940), dressing tables became sleeker and more geometric. In tables from this time, you'll see repeating shapes, strong lines, and minimal carving. Many used veneers.
- Mid-Century - The mid-century era, from about 1940-1960, saw both sleek, modern designs and a resurgence of the ornate in the form of Hollywood Regency. You'll see vanities with veneers, paint, or even melamine.
Famous Designers of Antique Vanities
Furniture companies hired well-known designers to create dressing tables for the discriminating buyer. These examples are still sought after for their style, and as statement pieces for decorating. These are a few important examples:
- George Nelson designed for the Herman Miller Furniture Company during the 20th century, and a large piece like a dressing table can cost upwards of $3,500.
- Simmons Furniture sought out Norman Bel Geddes to create this beauty. While that is a museum-worthy example, comparable Bel Geddes designs come on the market for $1,000 - $2,000.
- Raymond Loewy, the "father of industrial design," thought dressing tables added to a home environment's style. His designs can command $2,000 - $4,000.
Finding the Value of Antique Vanities
While dressing tables by famous designers fetch thousands of dollars, most vanities sell for a more reasonable sum. The condition of the vanity is a huge factor in its value, with those in beautiful shape worth more. Similarly, the quality of the original construction is important too; well-made dressing tables are worth more than cheaper alternatives. Most sell in the range of $200 to $1500, depending on quality and condition.
You can get a sense for the value by looking at similar vanities that have recently sold. You should never compare to dressing tables that are currently for sale, since sellers can ask any price they want. The sales price is much more useful. Here are some examples:
- An antique mahogany dressing table with mirror sold on eBay for about $275 in mid-2021. It was in excellent condition and dated from the Art Deco period.
- A mahogany Queen Anne dressing table without a mirror sold for about $600. It was in good condition and dated to the mid-20th century.
- A marble-topped satinwood dressing table from the late Art Deco period sold for about $1,200 due to the quality of the original craftsmanship.
Using an Antique Dressing Table in Your Home
There are many ways to use an antique dressing table to add style and beauty to any room in your home. Try one of these decorating ideas to give your home a timeless feel:
- Use an antique vanity by your front door as an occasional table or place to keep keys and mail.
- Try an antique dressing table in the dining room as a sideboard or a place to display special dishes or a tea set.
- Convert an antique dressing table to a bathroom vanity by having a plumber add a sink to it.
- Use an antique vanity in a child's room to add style and functional storage.
- Substitute an antique dressing table as a desk in a home office.
Tips for Purchasing Dressing Tables
If you're thinking of buying an antique vanity, keep these tips in mind as you shop:
- Is the hardware original to the piece and do the pieces match each other and the style? You don't want reproduction 19th century metal on 1930s Art Deco.
- Is there a matching bench or chair? If not, will you be able to find a bench suitable to the table?
- Many dressing tables had mirrors, so see if there were mounting screws or other evidence that a mirror was removed. Check the condition of the mirror: if the glass is "smoky" looking, the silvering maybe wearing off and you might have to replace the mirror.
- If veneer is chipped, broken or loose, make certain you can repair the damage before you buy.
- Dressing tables sometimes had elaborately pleated, fringed, and ruffled skirts; while these look adorable they can be difficult to care for, so consider that when faced with yards of vintage satin or ribbon.
A Fashionable Antique Piece
The dressing table is a functional and fashionable addition that will add vintage style to a bedroom or any room in your home, a focus piece that acknowledges how ideals of beauty have changed over the centuries. Whether you embrace minimalism or Hollywood exuberance, there is a dressing table waiting to add its story to yours.