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Vol. XXXIII No. 22, March 1-15, 2024

An ode to the Dressing Table

-- by Sabita Radhakrishna

I grew up with the concept of a dressing table. A bedroom was not complete unless it had a dressing table with drawers and a long mirror. If the bedroom was too small to accommodate this invaluable piece of furniture, the dressing table occupied another room attached to the main bedroom which we called dressing room. It also had the old-fashioned coat stand where we hung the clothes we wore for the day, which were eventually sent to wash; this additional comfort was possible only if we had the luxury of space.

I attribute these indulgences to the colonial influence my father absorbed, as did other upper middle class families in his time. They looked up to anything British by way of décor or dressing with great admiration. My father dressed for the evening in a light coat, full sleeved-shirt, and a muffler. Shoes and socks were a must, and he wore a hat when he went out, and wielded a cane even though he did not need it, because it was fashionable and very ‘propah’ when he drove to his clinic to treat his patients or made house calls. He wore ties whenever occasion demanded it.

My mother, who ran the clinic alongside with my father, supervised the humungous list of diets and part of the admin. She had no time to indulge herself in gazing at a mirror, for she led a frenetic pace all day. She tried to talk father out of getting a dressing table but he would not listen to her. Dressing tables in our home consisted of an elongated horizontal mini cupboard which housed drawers on both sides. The top was flat, and my mother, artistic to the core bought “Duchess sets” from VTI which were embroidered, to place on the table top. These had one centre piece and two smaller pieces of delicate fabric, exquisite and oval in shape, to be placed on either side of the centre piece. My mother would often make them herself, embroider, and attach lace which she crocheted or edge them with tatting lace which she had worked.

On these embroidered pieces stood little jars of cream, combs, and hair brushes and each had to be pretty enough to be displayed. The drawers contained odds and ends, like the doilies which were used to replace the ones which were soiled. The drawers also housed boxes which held hairpins, hairclips, rubber bands and other paraphernalia. Whatever was placed on the dressing table was indeed well crafted, and we children never touched them. In the centre of the dresser rose a tall full length mirror fixed on to the back. The dressing table occupied pride of place in a corner usually opposite the bed and against a wall. Some of the fashionable women had three mirrors so that they could view themselves from all angles. And an upholstered dressing table stool completed the picture.

My father insisted on a full-length mirror as he believed that whatever we wore had to be carefully draped and the mirror would mock us if we did not. Sarees had to be pleated properly and the pallu thrown over the chest and the end tucked in as was the custom those days. The mirror also told you that you had gained pounds, and it was an incentive to get back into shape.

When we girls got married we were each presented a dressing table along with the other ‘necessities’ like cots, and of course the ubiquitous steel almirah, usually a Godrej to keep our silk clothes and jewellery. The word ‘dowry’ was taboo in our household, and any family with an eligible boy who raised this topic would be politely shown the door.

The furniture we acquired from our maternal home was made of teak or rosewood and our in-laws were either tickled pink or aghast that the dressing table was part of the furniture which accompanied us to our new home. Strange that we took the dressing table for granted till we visited other homes and found it missing.

It was only during the early part of the 20th century that the luxurious dressing tables came into vogue, and it was a modern concept of good living carrying the badge of glamour. Hollywood films of the early 1920s showed our much-loved star heroines sitting before the elegant dressing table, gently massaging cream on to their faces. They sat in comfort, while they took pains with their make up and brushing their hair. “See? When Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner could sit before a dresser and prettify themselves, why not you girls?”

Much later the designs grew simpler and most popular was the Chippendale style. It was during the 19th century that revivalist styles were embraced. With Elizabethan, Gothic, and colonial revivals straying into the late 19th century, the dressing table became part of the bedroom suite.

Tradition continues, and every one of the bedrooms in our home has a dressing table. I found it disconcerting when none of the guests who used the bedrooms used the dressing table as it was meant to be used. They instead kept an amazing collection of thingies on it, like half-read books, keys, TV and AC remotes etc. They preferred to dress up in the bathroom which had a cabinet to house their cosmetics and a mirror stuck in front so it served the purpose.

I pleaded with my guests to use the dressing table but it fell on deaf years. Over the years, when even my granddaughters stayed away from the dressing table, I wondered why I even bothered to place one in each room. I could have placed bookshelves instead! So, I decided to give away the one in my mother’s room, knowing full well that she would turn in her grave if she knew my intentions. The dressing table is, alas, a redundant piece of furniture.

At least I thought it was until a month ago when Catherine Zeta Jones visited my place along with her husband Michael Douglas and their children. After lunch I took them to the room where I had my ancient sari collection exhibited for the day, and where I could explain their origins with a power point presentation.

“Look,” said Catherine excitedly to her daughter, “she has a dressing table!” I looked at her in amazement, and she explained how fond of dressing tables she was, and that she made it a point to use them in her home and was delighted to find one in a Chennai home! She wondered why they had become obsolete now!

I found my resolution slowly crumbling. A voice said “Not now, not now!” The dressing table stays. Especially after Catherine cast her spell on it.

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