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Dressing table set at Whangārei Museum has tales to tell


Humble dressing table mirrors, boar bristle brushes and powder bowls now adorn the shelves of second hand shops or litter boxes at estate sales as memoirs of bygone times. Many of us will have warm memories of our mother's or gran's bedrooms where items like these were fundamentals of day-to-day life.


The pink enamel dressing table set at Whangārei Museum.


Female presentation was as big an affair as it is today, albeit with less variety of products available. Women were expected and instructed in daily routines of hair and beauty preparation.

Before World War I, women treasured beautiful sterling or plated silver and cut glass vanity items - manicure tools, hair brushes, perfume bottles, powder jars and even brushes for cleaning clothes.

Technological developments in the post-war period meant that cosmetic tools could be mass produced in a greater variety of materials, introducing new plastics and metal coatings like Bakelite, lucite and chrome.


This particular vanity set was donated to Whangārei Museum by D Wilschefski along with other dressing room items.


The traditional ladies' vanity set remained traditional in function but was transformed by the Art Deco design movement.

This particular vanity set was donated to Whangārei Museum by D Wilschefski along with other dressing room items as well as military discharge certificates for LW Waldron.

Sadly our set has only three items remaining of what originally could have consisted of around five to 12 pieces.

Both Victorian and mid-20th century vanity sets usually contained extra items for every need, like nail buffers, hair combs, shoe horns, and cosmetic jars.

Several of the antique sets in Whangārei Museum are contained in stunning wooden boxes for travel, while the later travelling sets are housed in neat zip-up bags, each item held in its place with an elastic panel.

This particular pink vanity set likely dates to circa 1930s. The coral pink enamel pieces have been engraved by machine using a technique called guilloche into a subtle sun ray design.

These decorative pieces were then inset into the bevelled, gold plated border creating gentle geometric shapes typical of the art deco movement.

Vanity sets of this period were often simple in design but still feminine, featuring pastel coloured enamel panels or moulded plastics and faux mother of pearl and tortoise shell effects.

Vanity sets of the 1950s were similar but fashions preferred creams and white, decorated with engravings, hand embroideries, printed silk panels or hand painted ceramics.

We don't know whether the donor herself or her mother used this vanity set. Face powder remains inside the glass container, hinting to a past personal moment of dusting powder across her face, ready for the day awaiting.

As described in last week's article, it could be quite a job to comb out an overnight curl set, shape the eye brows, and apply blush in just the right place.

Vintage makeup and vanity sets are coming back in fashion as people return to taking time to look after themselves. There is magic in the nostalgia and supposed glamour of sitting at dressing tables making oneself up.

It is nice to see the past coming back around today and iconic sets like this becoming popular with collectors.


Georgia Kerby

Exhibitions Curator

11 August 2020