Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Toilette articles

Watteau, Toilet articles chez Gersaint......(1720)

An 18th-century lady might a spent several hours a day in dressing, surrounded by servants and lackeys, or maybe even an audience of carefully chosen visitors.  Such a pivotal activity required its splendid accoutrements in fine materials - lace, porcelain lacquer silver and tortoiseshell - the pinnacle of feminine conspicuous consumption.

Tables and table cloths 

Lace toile, plus silver and crystal 
toilet set with ewer. 
Detail from a painting by
Francois de Troy
In the earlier part of the century, the toilet table itself was of little interest since it was the cloth which covered it, the petite toile, which was all important.  As the century progressed plain linen gave way to white taffeta and embroidered muslin, whilst the most extravagant cloths of all were trimmed entirely with lace.  Almost always, a short flounce would border the top of the table, with a longer flounce or flounces falling to the ground beneath.  In an age when lace was handmade, such a profusion was an unequivocal statement of wealth and luxury.  

Paintings and inventories also record all sorts of additional swathing in richly coloured velvet, taffeta or satin - the rich vibrant coloured textiles hung at the back of mirrors being known simply as la toilette. The table cloth itself, however, was almost invariably white.

 In the second half of the century the vogue for extravagant textile coverings was overtaken by the appearance of purpose-built tables de toilette, which concealed both the mirror and toilet articles behind a decorative façade of gliding and marquetry.  The paraphernalia of cosmetics and equipment, and often pens and writing materials, could now be handily accommodated in a plethora of hinged compartments and drawers. These coiffeuses, with their elaborate decoration and curvy legs, still turn up quite regularly at auction houses:

Vanity sets 

By  the 1760s, cosmetics were growing in popularity so much that vanity table sets began to be heavily advertised, and dressing rooms were built facing north for the best light.
A service de toilette could comprise more than two-dozen pieces, though the mirror was always the main item;  at the time of her death in 1748 Madame de Pompadour owned a vanity set consisting of “two quarrés; two powder boxes; two others for patches; another en peloton, another for roots, of rosewood; a mirror twenty inches high and eighteen wide, matching wood in its frame; two paste pots; two others for pomade; a little cup a saucer of Sèvres porcelain; a goblet and two little bottles of Bohemian glass; a bell of silvered brass" (!).

Although painted or varnished wood was the most common material, an elite owned heavy metal sets of gold, silver and vermeil.  French silver sets are rare - only five examples are known to survive intact; many, like that belonging to Madame de Pompadour, were patriotically melted down to help finance the Seven Years' War.  Lacquer and porcelain  came into vogue in the 1750s - the Wallace collection has a fine green Sèvres service which may have belonged to la Pompadour herself. Lacquered wood in a Japanese style was popularised by Guillaume and Etienne-Simon Martin ("vernis Martin"). 

Sèvres toilet set, Wallace Collection.

This splendid surviving nineteen-piece silver service from the Detroit Institute of Arts
 dates from the 1730s and includes a mirror weighing over twenty-four pounds.

Fine Chinese laquer toilet set - detail from an early 18th century
 portrait by Drouais

Items which might be included in a service de toilette

1.   Boxes for hair powder. Hair powder was bought scented and possibly coloured by the perfumer; small quantities could then be mixed with inexpensive, unscented starch.  Toilette sets usually included a pair of powder containers, suggesting the possibility of varying or mixing scents and shades.  White went out of fashion by the 1770s but coloured powders continued to be worn.  Boxes had airtight seals to keep the powder dry and free from mites. They had to be big enough to contain large quantities of powder required.

2.   Hair powder puffs. Hair powder was applied using a large powder puff (houppe); Puffs of swansdown began to appear in perfumers' inventories from the beginning of the century; by the second half of the century cheaper versions were also available, made of wool, yarn and cats hair.

Pewter hair powder box with puff
Detail from Boucher, Lady applying a beauty patch

3.  Small rectangular whisk (vergette) to dust excessive powder from clothing.

4.  Powder bellows (soufflet en poudre) replaced the puff in the second half of the century. These were more economical but less precise, necessitating the use of masks and cones to protect the face.

5. Ewers for water or toilet waters

6. Boxes for "mouches" 

Gold patch box with brush, c.1730. Images @ Etsy
Gold and enamel example from the 1780s
 which sold for £10,575 in 2002
7. Assorted boxes for soap, sponges, combs, pins, jewellery. These were often called quarrés or carrés de toilette, since they were characteristically square or rectangular.

Casket about 1680-90. Wood, veneered with rosewood, brass, pewter,  
mother-of-pearl and painted horn.
 J.Paul Getty Museum.

Detail of a similar box from Nattier's portrait 
of Madame Marsollier and her daughter, 1749

8. Root boxes (boîtes à racines) for aromatic roots and herbs used to freshen breath and clean the teeth.

6. Pin boxes and pin cushions 


This is mostly taken from:  Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, "Dressing to impress: the morning toilette and the fabrication of femininity"
in Paris: life & luxury in the 18th century by Charissa Bremer-David et al. Getty Museum 2011 (Extracts on Google books)

See also: "At the Vanity" - Madame Isis' Toilette blog

Exhibitions and collections 

"Paris, life & luxury" - Exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, April 26-August 7 2011  http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/paris_lifeluxury/

18th-century toilet articles from the collection of Lyons perfumer Léon Givaudan.  Shown to coincide with an exhibition on "Lyon au 18e" at the Musée Gadagne in 2013.

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