Eau de Toilette – A History of the Vintage Vanity


I was talking on the phone with a friend and he questioned why on earth we would call something we put on our skin to smell good after the place in our homes that smells the least pretty. I couldn’t answer the question so I ran off to Wikipedia to find the answer.

According to the writer, “The word “toilet” came to be used in English along with other French fashions. It originally referred to the toile, French for “cloth”, draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders whilst their hair was being dressed, and then (in both French and English) by extension to the various elements, and also the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table, also covered by a cloth, on which stood a mirror and various brushes and containers for powder and make-up: this ensemble was also a toilette, as also was the period spent at the table, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received.

The English poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1717) described the intricacies of a lady’s preparation:

And now, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.

These various senses are first recorded by the OED in rapid sequence in the later 17th century: the set of “articles required or used in dressing” 1662, the “action or process of dressing” 1681, the cloth on the table 1682, the cloth round the shoulders 1684, the table itself 1695, and the “reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet” 1703 (also known as a “toilet-call”), but in the sense of a special room the earliest use is 1819, and this does not seem to include a lavatory.

Through the 18th century, everywhere in the English-speaking world, these various uses centered around a lady’s draped dressing-table remained dominant.”

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  1. At a Victorian Elegance show in Texas there was a lecture about each item that was part of a classic dressing table collection, and the sequence of a toillet.

    Very beautiful and curious silver and crystal items were shown that we no longer know about.

  2. Feminist linguists will tell you that it’s to do with any word being associated with women quickly coming to mean something unpleasant.

    “Tart” was an expression of fondness directed usually to a little girl, because tarts are sweet. Then it began to be applied to women and thence it gained its less-pleasant meaning when it meant “woman of easy virtue”.

    I would imagine that once people had loos installed in their homes, they used “toilet” euphemistically. Like some people might say ‘derriere’ instead of behind/bottom etc.

    “I’m in the toilet, dear!”

    And from there on in, it went to pot. <- see what I did there?

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Welcome to the Bobby Pin Blog! I am Lauren Rennells and as a hairstylist, makeup artist, writer, and generally artistic over-achiever, the Bobby Pin Blog is my outlet for thoughts and research about vintage hair and makeup trends and how to recreate them today. Thank you for stopping by!

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