In Anthony Trollope’s novel Can You Forgive Her? Lady Glencora invites her cousin Alice Vavasor to hide in her dressing room where she finds “the easiest of chairs; – the most costly of cabinets; – the quaintest of old china ornaments [ . . .] bright with the gayest colours, made pleasant to the eye with the binding of many books, having nymphs painted on the ceiling and little Cupids on the doors”.
The book was published in 1864-65 when a dressing room was common for wealthy women – probably their only private space. Dressing was only one of the activities that it was used for though. Here, letters were read and written, and guests were entertained, an activity satirised a century earlier by William Hogarth in his “Marriage à-la-Mode” series.
“The dressing room started as a private closet in Tudor times, became a more public space for the Georgians and returned to being private again during the Victorian period,” says Ellen Leslie, who researches historical buildings. After the second world war dressing rooms remained popular, she says, but in households where an extra bedroom or bathroom was needed they began to disappear. The en-suite bathroom became the private space of choice and some dressing rooms were converted into bathrooms.
“If there was space for a dressing room and it wasn’t needed for use as a bedroom then they were still popular among the upper-middle classes,” adds Leslie.
For everyone else, a choice had to be made and the dressing room gradually faded from prominence.
In recent years, however, it has made a comeback, even becoming “as important as a kitchen” for some, according to Mark Pollack, co-founder and director of Aston Chase, a high-end estate agency which covers central and northwest London. He says those who may once have regarded an en-suite bathroom as the pinnacle of sophistication are beginning to demand dressing areas as part of their principal suite.
Nor is it just the preserve of the super-rich. “We just launched a new development of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and even the smallest of those has a dressing area,” says Pollack. “People no longer judge a house by how many bedrooms it has, but by what amenities there are.”
This could mean that a 4,000 sq ft home with five bedrooms might be the right size but the wrong layout for some people; a buyer may require only three bedrooms but want space for dressing rooms too. “Some houses have the entire first floor given over to the principal suite with his and hers bathrooms, a steam room, his and hers dressing rooms and a living room,” adds Pollack.
Kate Erwich, of London-based interior design company Evitavonni, says the return of the dressing room is as much about practicality as indulgence.
“We have had far more requests for personalising dressing areas for a few years now – perhaps influenced by the need for tidiness, speed and clarity in our busy lives. Walk-in hanging areas, spacious and well-planned shelving with easy access to bedrooms and en suites are a modern life must,” she says.
“The ability to start and end the day within an organised personal space, where everything has its place, sets us up with the right frame of mind for the busy day ahead or gives us the peace of mind for a good night’s rest,” adds Erwich.
Just as Lady Glencora furnished her dressing room for her own enjoyment, so the modern version has become a place to indulge in extravagant design.
“In one particular space we added an oversized glistening Baccarat crystal chandelier over a central island piece,” says Erwich. “It was certainly a wonderful focal point as the mirrored cabinets showed it off in all its glory.”
Katharine Pooley, an interior designer who works with high-profile, high-end clients, says she is now asked to create a dressing room for every house she works on.
“Ten years ago it was a luxury, now it’s a necessity. This is partly because women have more clothes than they used to. After the war, a woman had one evening coat and two pairs of shoes. Now, with Jimmy Choo, many of my clients have 60 pairs – probably 100,” says Pooley. “When we plan a dressing room we make a complete list of how many shoes, how many long dresses, etc, and then we try to leave space for more because people don’t stop shopping.”
She says a dressing room should be beautiful as well as functional. “I had one client whose dressing room had glass walls and was completely dark until you approached, then sensors caused the lights to come on so you could see all the clothes backlit and displayed. She had a humidor for her fur coats and 200 pairs of jeans.”
“Some clients like to have wardrobe doors to keep it tidy, others like it open so they can see their clothes,” adds Pooley. “We tend to put in an island for sunglasses, jewellery, scarves on display and then a seat on one side so that you can sit down to put your shoes on.”
Joe Burns, of design studio Oliver Burns, based in St Albans, England, says wealthy clients are taking inspiration from the fashion houses when it comes to displaying their clothes and shoes. “Christian Louboutin stores show bags and shoes in individually lit alcoves and we are seeing an increase in bespoke cabinetry and shelving to show off clients’ most loved pieces. Some treat their shoes as works of art and might spend an average of £45,000 creating a dressing room,” he says.
When it comes to making the space for a dressing room, architect Thomas Griem says the minimum space should be 2.4 metres by 1.6 metres.
“Storage is a luxury and a walk-in wardrobe means more and better storage. Whether you buy from Ikea or Poliform or go bespoke, it’s about planning and categorising everything you have, from underwear to jackets and dresses, and providing space at the right height for ease of access.”
The revival of the dressing room has also led to the return of the dressing table, although ironically the lack of natural light often means that it is often placed in the bedroom.
Interior designer Joanna Wood recently installed three dressing tables in one house. “Now that minimalism is over and we are allowed to have more stuff, it’s great to be able to have lamps and display your jewellery and accessories,” she says. “Hollywood lighting is also very popular again. We do a mix of freestanding vintage dressing tables and modern ones.”
“It’s a hugely nostalgic piece: – some of my earliest memories are of watching my mother getting ready to go to a party and exploring everything on her dressing table, from jewellery to lipstick and especially a bottle of Chanel No 5,” adds Wood.