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For centuries a sacred space for women has been la toilette — their dressing room, that purely feminine space where the process of transformation in the name of beauty takes place: the styling of the hair, the application of cosmetics, the putting on and (in some cases painful) tightening of the undergarments, and the arrangement of finery. It is here that a woman prepares to present herself to the world.
“Toilette” is a French word with sixteenth century French origins. The French word for towel is toile, and centuries ago it was an important part of the dressing ritual, used for covering the dressing table where clothes would be laid out.
The reality for many women nowadays is that their “toilette” takes place in a rearview mirror while their cars are stopped at a traffic light. These days toilet has a much less elegant connotation. Yet women still continue to use “toilet water,” harkening back to a time when beautifying one’s self was nothing less than a ritual. Well into the twentieth century, as can be seen in the British miniseries “Downton Abbey,” aristocratic women even had ladies in waiting to help them dress for dinner in their most elegant finery.
In Scarlett O’Hara’s day a woman’s toilette was a fully furnished room and included an impressive variety of bathroom furniture, including a privacy screen, a full-length mirror, a chaise lounge, and most importantly, a vanity. A vanity is a dressing table, but for women of a previous era, it was much more. It was a place for meditation, reflection, perhaps gossip with a lady in waiting. Being inside la toilette was her moment to dream.
Today’s women have countless options — from yoga classes to a girls’ night out — when they need a break from life’s hectic pace. For women of a previous age, it wasn’t so easy. La toilette was perhaps the only space that was truly her own, and, seated at the vanity, where she could have a little “me” time.
I recall my grandmother’s vanity and understand now why that was her special place. It’s something of a bygone era, but its purpose, to reflect on one’s life while getting ready to face the day, is timeless.