Powder & Primp Along with Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley

In these days of enormous master suites and walk-in closets with room enough for recamiers, a lady’s dressing table within the confines of the bedroom itself seems a bit outdated.

Growing up, I had such a dressing table–or, as we called it, a vanity. It was 1940s art deco with an enormous full-moon mirror. Something like the photo at right. My mom painted over the showy and somewhat thin veneer a couple times through the years, eventually splitting the piece apart to make over each flanking drawer stack into nightstands.

I didn’t appreciate it then. But now, I’d like to have something like it again, or at least something that functions like it but with a more grown-up look. Perhaps that’s why I can’t stop looking at photos of the dressing table in the bedroom of Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey.

‘Vanity Fair’ at the Abbey vs. our house

So much transpires in Mary’s bedroom while she sits at her dressing table, puts on her jewelry and waits patiently for Anna to do her hair. Mother and daughters often gather, and it honestly seems the only place where Mary and Edith do a decent job of tolerating each other.

My mother used to do my hair at my vanity until around sixth grade. I remember buns and French twists, barrettes and headbands, curlers winding and unwinding, and lots of squealing (from me) when she pulled too hard.

Now things are even less glamorous. While the master suite I share with hubby Chris is adequate–even generous by today’s condo standards–it’s thoroughly utilized. The master bath vanity is barely wide enough to accommodate the double sinks the first owners squeezed in, so it’s tough for me to do my hair while Chris shaves.

Instead of risking elbowing him while he holds a razor to his jugular, I sit on the toilet seat and gaze across into the mirror while I blow-dry. The cord blocks the doorway if he finishes firstr, since the only plug is by the sink, and I usually have to lurch to one side to be able to see what I’m doing.

Lady Mary would be chagrined. Cora too. Even Anna. I admit, so am I sometimes. 

I’m at that age where I know I’ll never have a bedroom the scale of what’s on Downton Abbey (or even Real Housewives), and that’s okay. But oh, how I long for a simple, elegant spot that’s mine alone to fix my hair, arrange a scarf, and decide which earrings best complement my outfit.

I’d like that spot to be IN the bedroom where the steam from the shower doesn’t frizz my ‘do and run my mascara. And I’d like my jewelry readily accessible–all of it–because I don’t have Anna to fetch it for me.

Is that asking too much?

Methinks Lady Mary would say no

Though she shivers at the thought of life without Anna–or any servants, for that matter.

Unlike some of the other furniture at the Abbey, the dressing table’s scale is about right for modern sensibilities. It takes up little room in Mary’s bedroom and remains in the same place it stood prior to the room’s redecoration in anticipation of marriage to Matthew.

The above shot, sans actors (but with blocking tape still in place) provides an excellent overview of a:

  • Delicately styled dressing table with elaborate inlays/veneers
  • Three-sided, hinged mirror
  • Flanking lamps sized down for the smaller space
  • Fringed stool upholstered in the same fabric as the draperies
And this closeup reveals the particulars:
  • Photo of Matthew in a silver frame
  • Ornate hand mirror
  • Decorative vanity tray
  • Decorative jars to hold trinkets, hairpins, and perhaps creams and/or perfume
  • Delicate lace dresser scarf
So how do I get what I need AND recapture some of the romance of the dressing table?

Let’s start by brainstorming available “looks.”

Enter the Downton version

Though sized about right, an historically accurate Downton dressing table with accessories is priced a bit on the high side–for me anyway.



All items found on One Kings Lane: 

      • 19th century French walnut vanity bench;

French dressing/game table, inlaid satinwood, original bronze/ormolu hardware; Huntington trifold mirror, beveled glass; English petit-point 10-piece boudoir set; International Sterling three-piece vanity set; French alabaster candlestick lamps; Sterling silver frame; cut crystal jars.

Some other looks to consider

1. Mirrored


Available in a variety of styles and at all price points, mirrored pieces maintain the romance of old world style but pump up the glamour factor.

Architectural Digest

The mirrored surfaces of any such piece behave just like a wall mirror to make a room feel brighter and larger. They do fingerprint easily though.

2. Thrift shop finds and repurposing

Some desks will work as dressing tables, as will some console tables.

Found on Decor4All
If you’re really clever and find the right components, you might be able to recombine elements into something wholly original. 
Found on Etsy

For instance, you could add a plain table top to two nightstands. They wouldn’t have to match as long as they were the same height. Unify by refinishing and changing out hardware to match.  

Found on Decor4All

No mirror? No worry. Hang a decorative wall mirror at eye level when you’re sitting and keep a pretty desktop mirror around for close work. And don’t forget to add a cute chair, stool or comfy bench from which to enjoy your new-found new solace, as well as a pair of sweet lamps to light up your view of you.

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