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Faire sa Toilette – Time for Dressing Up

The term ‘toilet’ holds in itself many temporalities, from the fast and rapid, to the long and elaborate. It indicates the process of dressing or grooming oneself, a morning ritual that is, and has been, both a private and public.

In origin, the word indicated, namely, a ‘little cloth’ that was placed over someone shoulders during the process of hairdressing to protect the dress from the eventual moistures and powders used for combing. During the seventeenth century its meaning changed to include, for metonymy, the process of grooming and dressing at the dressing table.

'Modethorheit: Les Dames vivent en Paris', caricature, Johann Martin Will, 1775-76. Courtesy Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

'Modethorheit: Les Dames vivent en Paris', caricature, Johann Martin Will, 1775-76. Courtesy Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

Only in the 18th century however an audience started to be involved in the ‘toilet’, which before was a rather intimate daily practice to be done ‘behind closed doors’. In fact, while its early stages, including grooming and sponge-bathing, were spent privately with a maid, the later stages, that involved hairdressing, picking clothes and writing letters, close friends and guest were invited to assist.

'Le bon genre, No. 39:  Les Titus et les Cache-folies', caricature, Pierre de la Mésangère, 1812. Courtesy Anna Russ, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

'Le bon genre, No. 39: Les Titus et les Cache-folies', caricature, Pierre de la Mésangère, 1812. Courtesy Anna Russ, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

These ‘toilet-calls’, as they were named, exposed the intricacies and magnificence of this ritual that was as fascinating as its participants were wealthy. It captured the imagination of writers and painters, who documented these ceremonies and described them in their extravagant details, as did the poet Alexander Pope in ‘The Rape of the Lock’. The toilet, however, was not an exclusive practice for women. Men, and in particular dandies and their precursors, the ‘macaroni’, spent many hours at the toilet for their dressing up; George Brummel, for instance, used to invite the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, at his morning ritual.

'Progress of the Toilet. Dress Completed', caricature, 1830. Courtesy Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

'Progress of the Toilet. Dress Completed', caricature, 1830. Courtesy Dietmar Katz, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, CC BY NC SA.

In the representation of the toilet, the objects, the gestures and time served as props to construct the grandiosity of these moments spent at dressing up, and of the women and men taking part in it. Time indeed, was what toilets were about. What the lengthy toilet really represented was, in fact, instead of one’s vanity, one’s possibility and the will to take time, and spend it, in the ‘fundamentally ephemeral’ act of dressing and grooming oneself.

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