As a piece of furniture, the dressing table can range from unassuming to flamboyant. It can be a simple desk, stand, pedestal table or a desk-like form with an attached mirror and drawers to hold makeup. How time is spent there, however brief, is what makes it special.
Dressing tables -- or vanities, as they're also aptly named -- are very personal, although some might consider them frivolous and anachronistic.
But some women can't imagine living without one.
"It's one of those guilty pleasures," says Jill Waage, editor of Decorating, a Better Homes and Gardens special-interest publication. "My dressing table is a special spot -- my own space where kids know, 'It's Mom's, don't touch.'"
Call it nostalgia, a craving for sanctuary, self-indulgence or simply appreciation for a pretty piece of furniture: Dressing tables are back.
Hip designers such as New Yorker Mariette Himes Gomez and Los Angeles-based Barbara Barry have added them to their design repertoire.
"Time is the ultimate luxury," says Barry, who designs for Baker Furniture. "I find that if I take time for myself, I feel better and treat others better. The art of getting ready and doing makeup defines how women feel the rest of the day. The dressing table is the place that honors that. It makes it a ritual."
Writer Akiko Busch describes the dressing table as "a piece of furniture from a time when introspection and preparing oneself for the events of the day was a gay affair, and its design was often one of picturesque eccentricity."
Busch suggests, in the September issue of Traditional Home, that the kind of self-reflection associated with vanities "is not the serious matter we take it to be today, but a more light-hearted exercise."
Rituals such as 100 brush strokes for gorgeous hair were part of glamorous Hollywood movie images from the '30s and '40s that depicted the boudoir as an ultra-romantic retreat. The dressing table played a starring role.
But Hollywood hardly invented the dressing table. The earliest example is from the late 17th century in the form of a lowboy. The piece, which featured three drawers and a center kneehole that allowed a chair or stool to be pulled up to it, also doubled as a desk.
In the 18th century, dressing tables looked more like desks, and their distinctive feature was a built-in mirror. The pieces were crafted from cherry or mahogany, among other woods, and often were inlaid with delicate marquetry. Country versions may have been painted, sometimes embellished with floral designs.
Twentieth-century dressing tables were a fixture of bedroom suites, available in styles to match French Provincial, art deco and Mediterranean furniture, among others. But they all but disappeared from most furniture showrooms until recently.
Dressing tables take up real estate, and small bedrooms simply don't accommodate them. In the '80s, dressing tables resurfaced in the spacious new master bath.
Some vanities even were designed for men -- usually taller chests that combine dresser functions for essentials like underwear and hankies, cufflinks and jewelry as well as grooming supplies.
The pieces chosen for a dressing table are what make it so personal. On Jill Waage's Heywood-Wakefield-style vanity, which she inherited, there are vintage photos of grandparents tucked in the mirror, along with pictures of her sisters, parents and children.
Barbara Barry's take on dressing tables is tailored to her design philosophy of pared-down, unadorned simplicity.
"That's because nothing lives alone," she says. "Every [piece of furniture] is in context with something else. I love the world of the 1940s -- not because I'm trying to go backward, but because it connotes an elegance I think can still relate in our lives."
Flip through the Ballard Designs catalog and you'll find a Victorian-inspired piece finished in a creamy antique white. It has five drawers and hinged wing mirrors for a side-to-side view, and it rests on turned legs with reeded corner details. Without the mirror, it looks like a desk.
As for where to put it, you needn't confine placement of a dressing table to the bedroom. Walk-in closets, passageways between bedrooms and baths, dedicated dressing rooms and baths themselves are options.
There's nothing wrong with a little pampering now and then, and dressing tables remind us to take the time to do it.
* Aero Studios, 212-966-1500
* For Barbara Barry: Baker Furniture, 800-592-2537 or www.kohler interiors.com
* Ballard Designs, 800-367-2775 or www.ballard designs.com