Reflection on the history of hairdressers and hairdressers
RR has a beautiful vanity mirror that she inherited from her great-grandmother, who says it belonged to her great-grandmother.
This would put around 1830, and the curled glass around the edges indicates a date at that time.
At the beginning of the 19th century, glassworks began to experiment with decorative designs such as glass flowers, and English glassmakers began to see, coming from Italy, these wonderful glass flowers wired into lighting, as on the Murano chandeliers, and around mirrors.
Because it was an English mirror, it would have been placed on a lowboy, the term for a dressing table, low enough to have a table top under which a chair could be pulled. The boy refers to the fact that it was used by men! (And by women, of course.)
RR’s is an English mirror, with the flavor of Italian style. In fact, Italian mirrors had been at the top of the market for years and installed in the best ballrooms, not the least of which was the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
The well-to-do in the 19th century bought mirrors with curly glass borders, finials and engravings to refract light. They were small, as the technique of rolling out a large piece of glass to be silvered for a mirror had not yet been “discovered”. .RR’s mirror was hand rolled from molten glass. (That’s why you see the ripples in the glass.)
Also the back has been hand silvered and on these vintage mirrors you will see the silver tarnish and flake off.
Many people love the look of old mirrors; In the town where I grew up, the rich lady’s house had a playroom with “aged” mirror tiles like all the wall covering in the 1970s.
These dressing mirrors were placed on a dedicated dressing table in a dressing room or bedroom. (If it was in the bedroom, the mirror and dressing table were called the “boudoir”.)
It was the center of the dressing ritual. Ladies and gentlemen are undressed. They had maids, servants, hairdressers, wig makers, seamstresses and beauticians to apply cosmetics. The association with the chief beautician, who was in charge of the application of powders for men and women, gave the name to the hairdresser in France: powdery.
Madame Pompadour felt her dressing ritual was intolerably long and took to writing letters during the ordeal. Other more sociable nobles took advantage of the ritual to chat. From the Court of Louis XIV, only the best people were invited to watch the king or queen dress.
The dressing room and dressing mirror were the focus of a flurry of flirtations, asking for favors, handing out compliments.
The mirror also reflected changes in the idea of beauty, because if you needed a mirror, you had to do something to accentuate your beauty in front of it.
Thus, the mirror emphasizes the growing popularity of applied beauty, and it was not the natural look. Cosmetic manufacturers and perfumers developed popular cosmetics from the 18th century.
Other cultures had cosmetic users from Egyptian times. (Egyptian women applied cosmetics housed in a wooden box with tiny compartments called a “commode”).
But the dedicated vanity mirror was an invention of the Romans, who wore a piece of polished bronze in their clothing.
Which brings me to the term “vanity mirror”. “Vanus” in Latin does not mean vain as we know it, but lethargic. It wasn’t until the word “vanity” began to be used as a reflection of self-image that we named the mirror used as a dressing tool the “vanity” mirror.
In the 18th century, all aristocratic mansions had dressing mirrors for men and women, placed on dressing tables. The mirror was portable, but it had a place on the table, and dressing tables and mirrors were not considered “feminine”. It was not until fashion changed in the early 19th century to a more natural look for men (who lost their wigs, powder, beauty marks and cosmetics) that the vanity mirror became associated to the feminine idea of glamour. We see the eventual top of the vanity mirror as “reflective” glamor in Hollywood starlets of the 1920s and later.
RR’s 1830 mirror is not “hot” on the market because few of us sit at a dressing table to get dressed. Value is $300, but should be more!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Monday in the News-Press.
Written after his father was diagnosed with COVID-19, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that culminate in personal triumphs over current constraints. It is available from Chaucer in Santa Barbara.